Exhibition Honors Chinese Workers' Contribution to U.S. Transcontinental Railroad

March 17, 2019  Editor: Sandy Zhu

An oil painting depicting three Chinese workers clad in Qing Dynasty (1644-1911) clothing and hairstyle and working on a rocky cliff attracted Martha Davis's attention at an exhibition.

Davis, who lives in the San Francisco Bay Area, and her friend lingered in front of the painting. "It's amazing it (the painting) brings out the spirit of those workers," said Davis on Saturday. "It's nice we celebrate it now."

The exhibition, with the theme of "The Backbone of the Sleeper," was organized by Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, a non-profit organization committed to promote, educate and preserve Chinese American history and culture in Santa Clara County in the U.S. state of California.

The exhibition assembles 25 oil and traditional Chinese paintings created by Chinese and local artists. It runs open to the public through the end of this month at a library in Milpitas, California.

Some of the paintings show the splendor of the landscape along the Transcontinental Railroad, and others depict the working scenes of the Chinese railroad workers, such as cutting stones while hanging out on cliffs, or dragging equipment in caves.

The Transcontinental Railroad was completed on May 10, 1869, linking the West and the East for the first time in American history. The construction, which took six years and stretched for nearly 2,000 miles (about 3,200 km), was one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the 19th century.

Chinese laborers made up a majority of the workforce of the Central Pacific Railroad Co. that built out the railroad. However, their role remained neglected for many years.

The mission of the exhibition is to record the efforts and contribution the Chinese workers made to the first U.S. transcontinental railroad and the country's economy 150 years ago through today's artists' brushes, said Huang Wei, president of the American Contemporary Chinese Painting Research Association.

Last year, the association organized a trip for Chinese and U.S. artists to create artworks by revisiting the railroad, including the toughest terrains, to experience the past life of the Chinese workers.

This exhibition is this year's first show of their works. It will travel to San Francisco, Los Angeles and some places in Utah State in the coming months, according to the association.

To celebrate the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 2019, the California assembly passed a resolution in 2017 to recognize and honor the Chinese railroad workers by designating May 10, 2017, and each May 10 thereafter, as California Chinese Railroad Workers Memorial Day.

Nearly 1,200 Chinese railroad workers died from work accidents, avalanches, and explosions while working in the Sierra Nevada Mountains, according to the resolution.

Despite the dangerous conditions and prejudice, the Chinese workers, through their fight against discrimination, "set an example for the millions of Asian Americans who came to the United States after them," says the 2017 resolution.

At the Milpitas Library, an ongoing photo exhibition, also organized by the Chinese Historical and Cultural Project, tells the history of early Chinese immigrants, the Chinese community's development, as well as their achievement in various areas.

Following these photo and painting exhibitions, the organization will exhibit the works showing the achievement in aviation and cultural exchanges between China and the United States, according to David Yick, co-president of Chinese Historical and Cultural Project.

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