Wed, Aug 12, 2009 - Page 15 News List

ART JOURNAL: Chinese laborers hidden in plain sight

Shen-chih Cheng’s evocative photographs give a voice to the Chinese immigrants who labored on the First Transcontinental Railroad more than a century ago

By Catherine Shu  /  STAFF REPORTER


In 1869 the First Transcontinental Railroad was finished, connecting the east and west coasts of the US by rail for the first time. The final spike was driven into the juncture of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines at a ceremony in Promontory Summit, Utah. A famous photo taken that day captures railroad executives surrounded by a host of workers. But there is a notable absence. The faces of the Chinese laborers who constituted the majority of the workforce of the Central Pacific Railroad’s line that snaked east from California are missing.

The contribution of Chinese immigrants to the creation of the First Transcontinental Railroad is still overlooked, even by the Chinese-American community, says Taiwanese-American photographer Shen-chih Cheng (鄭森池).

“Just about a couple weeks ago, California state officially issued an apology to all Chinese about the anti-Chinese movement,” wrote Cheng in an e-mail from Los Angeles, referring to discriminatory laws in place from the 1870s to the 1940s. “But there were few reactions in the Chinese community here. I really don’t know why that happened.”

Cheng’s exhibition, Walking the Grade (覓金山鴻爪), is on display at the Kuandu Museum of Fine Arts (關渡美術館) until Sept. 20. It captures historic sites connected to the Chinese immigrants who worked on the Central Pacific Railroad. The laborers themselves may be long gone, but Cheng’s lush, highly evocative black-and-white prints give life to their campsites and the original 19th-century railroad grades they painstakingly worked on.

The eight photographs in Walking the Grade are all silver gelatin prints, a photographic process that was invented in the late 1800s and lends Cheng’s work an eerie, timeless quality. Highlights include a photo of an old tent frame from a Chinese railroad workers’ campsite in the Nevada desert; another is of ghost town Lucin, Utah, taken from the distance with clouds hovering in the sky.


WHAT: Walking the Grade (覓金山鴻爪)

WHERE: Taipei National University of Arts — Kuandu Museum of Arts

(台北藝術大學關渡美術館), 1 Xueyuan Rd, Beitou Dist, Taipei City (台北市北投區學園路1號). Tel: (02) 2896-1000

WHEN: Until Sept. 20. Open Tuesdays to Sundays from 10am to 5pm


Cheng conducted an immense amount of research during the three years he spent tracing the footsteps of Chinese laborers, which included locating sites along the First Transcontinental Railroad with railroad historian G.J. “Chris” Graves. As many as 12,000 Chinese laborers, most from southern China, worked on the Central Pacific Railroad. Many had been lured to California by the gold rush but racist laws and regulations prevented them from mining once they arrived.

Railroad executives were originally dubious about hiring the immigrants, who they deemed physically too small to perform arduous manual labor, but Charles Crocker, one of the presidents of Central Pacific, dismissed their concerns. “The Chinese made the Great Wall, didn’t they?” he said.

Researching the railroad gave Cheng a chance to trace not just the footsteps of the Chinese laborers, but also those of the photographers who preceded him in capturing the First Transcontinental Railroad. His favorite photo in the exhibit is Cape Horn Looking East, which was taken in the Sierra Nevada mountain range. While the railroad was being built, photographer Alfred A. Hart climbed on top of a steam engine to take a photo of the train as it made its way along Cape Horn and the American River gorge.

“There is a legendary story behind [the photo] and I finally made it to the place. The scenery was pretty after heavy rain. Finally, I stood in the same spot as official Central Pacific Railroad photographer Alfred Hart did some 140 years ago,” says Cheng.

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