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Lost History of Chinese railroad workers of Transcontinental Railroad inspires artist

Zhi Lin

By Raymond Chong

Zhi Lin is recognized for the use of provocative & emotive contemporary art to emphasize & address the lost history of Chinese Railroad Workers. For that, he received the Art & Advocacy Award from Judge Michael Kwan, President, Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association, during a conference commemorating the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad.

Lin is a well-known Professor of Painting and Drawing with School of Art, Art History and Design at University of Washington in Seattle. He was born in Nanjing, China. In 2003, he began work on a watercolor studies project about the Chinese Railroad Workers entitled “Invisible & Unwelcomed People.”

A description of that exhibition reads:

“Names of the Unremembered: Transcontinental” (2009), focuses on 19th Century racism geared towards Chinese immigrant workers. Lin projects a movie of two trains coming together on a 6.5 x 10-foot painting of the Transcontinental Railroad. The viewer hears train whistles blowing and sees the flag near the train station shake in the wind. This incorporation of movement suggests that the movie projection of the two trains is a living embodiment of the Transcontinental.

Zhi Lin

Conversely, Lin’s backdrop in “Names of the Unremembered: Transcontinental” is a colorless painting of a rocky foreground, the Transcontinental Railroad tracks, and the desert background. On the hundreds of rocks that precede the tracks, Lin painted a Chinese immigrant worker’s name in red. Red, a symbol of blood, suggests that the lives of the workers were sacrificed in making the Transcontinental Railroad. The stones and the landscape are white, alluding to the desert scene as a white Chinese funeral. The somber painting is meant to offset the moving train projection and create a feeling of death and mourning.

Zhi Lin

Zhi Lin wrote:

The railroad ballast/video installation project is inspired by Thoreau’s view on the consequence of industry revolution in the mid-19th century, especially about the building of railroad. He pointed out that “Did you ever think what those sleepers are that underlie the railroad? Each one is a man…. The rails are laid on them, and they are covered with sand, and the cars run smoothly over them. They are sound sleepers, ….” When I walked on the Central Pacific Railroad grade in California and in Utah, I do not think what Thoreau said as merely symbolic nor is a metaphor, it is the facts on the ground and the reality has lasted over 150 years.

His current work exhibition venues includes:

  • Brigham City Museum of Art and History, Brigham City UT
  • March 23 – June 15, 2019

Zhi Lin: Tracing Chinese Workers’ Footsteps to Promontory Summit features paintings by an internationally acclaimed artist, Zhi Lin, who has spent more than a decade attempting to trace the history of Chinese workers in the western United States, with a special focus on railroad workers. Zhi’s breathtaking works of art for this exhibition include both representational and abstract pieces that explore the lost experience of those workers.

Zhi Lin with Judge Michael Kwan
Zhi Lin accepts an award from Michael Kwan, President of the Chinese Railroad Workers Descendants Association
  • Kimball Art Center, Park City UT
  • April 19 – June 2, 2019

Internationally acclaimed artist Zhi Lin confronts the lost history of the Chinese workers who built our nation’s transcontinental railroads. This exhibition is presented during the 150th anniversary of the Golden Spike, the ceremonial final spike to join the rails of the first transcontinental railroad.

  • Nevada Museum of Art, Reno NV
    • May 4 – November 10, 2019

To commemorate the 150th Anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad in 1869, the Nevada Museum of Art presents an exhibition featuring the art of Zhi Lin, who has spent much of his career making artworks that recall the sacrifices of Chinese migrant workers in the Sierra Nevada. The completion of the railroad—which linked the United States from east to west—is often celebrated as the grand achievement of America’s Manifest Destiny and the 19th-century rallying cry for westward expansion of the United States. Zhi Lin’s mixed-media canvases, video installation, and watercolor paintings honor the nearly 1,200 Chinese workers who lost their lives to accidents, avalanches, and explosions in treacherous Sierra terrain near Donner Summit. While names of most railroad workers have been lost to history, Zhi Lin is part of a growing group of artists and scholars working to weave their stories into America’s broader historical narrative.

Zhi Lin mused about the Chinese Railroad Workers of the Transcontinental Railroad:

Chinese Railroad Workers were faceless, nameless, voiceless and unwelcomed while they were building of the railroads. Since their deaths, their departure from the construction sites, they are graveless, traceless, unrecognized, forgotten and unremembered. However, because they built the five transcontinental railroads in the US, one in Canada, we have transformed this vast continental space into a place where we live. Their accomplishments and their remains along the transcontinental forever signify human presence which this piece of land becomes organized and recognized and has acquired meaning. It also reminds us, to pay a tribute to them is an attempt to understand ourselves and our own history. As Robert Harrison said, a building, a mound of earth, or even a fire –interposes within the eternal, timeless order of nature, a marker of human finitude of our mortal sojourn on the earth.  

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