by Julia Tong, AsAmNews Contributor
When the de Young Museum in San Francisco announced its second triennial community-based art exhibition, the de Young Open, over 7,500 local artists submitted their works. Of those, only 884 pieces were selected to be part of the final display, which will be the largest in the Bay Area.
Among them was Chinese American social justice artist Evri Kwong. His painting, I John Chinamen Been Working On The Railroad All, caught curators’ attention for its provocative, confrontational depiction of the history of anti-Asian racism in the U.S.
“Evri Kwong’s works reveal the discrepancies between the high ideals and the harsh realities of life in the United States,” said the Fine Arts Museums’s Distinguished Senior Curator, Timothy Anglin Burgard, who originated the de Young Open.
“He excavates and exposes the deep–and often ignored or forgotten–roots of racism in American society, while offering a testament to Asian American resistance, perseverance, and triumph.”
The historical influence behind I John Chinamen Been Working On The Railroad All
Kwong is no stranger to the de Young Open. Two of his paintings had been selected for the first exhibition in 2021. Titled “This Land is Your Land, This Land is MY Land” and “America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave,” they juxtaposed contemporary issues such as immigration policy, COVID-19, and climate change, with classic American ideals.
Kwong’s submission in 2023, however, is more historically focused. “I John Chinamen Been Working On the Railroad All” depicts Chinese railway workers’ strike in 1867. As he researched the strike, he was inspired by the strength of the 3,000 immigrant workers, who peacefully protested the harsh working and living conditions they faced while building the First Continental Railroad.
Yet this resistance, Kwong observes, is often overlooked. For instance, while giving a lecture on the painting at San Rafael’s City Hall in San Rafael, he was struck by how “fixated” his audience was on the mistreatment of the Chinese workers– rather than their resilience.
“Yes, [the Chinese railway workers] were treated horribly. But what I was trying to highlight was.. that they were protesting way back then. And they still are, and they always will, and they always did,” says Kwong.
“I John Chinamen Been Working On the Railroad All” measures 65 by 79 inches, and consists of acrylic paint, sharpie marker, and micron pen on a window shade. The painting is structured on a collage-like grid. Multicolored tiles show shots of trains and scenery; faceless figures depict the violence Chinese immigrants faced during the strike, such as beatings, lynchings, and hard labor. Per Kwong, the lack of facial features forces viewers to focus on the physical acts occurring, rather than the subjects’ individual identities.
To inform his artistic vision, Kwong conducted extensive research, consulting academic experts and archival materials. Some panels, for instance, are directly inspired by real photos. Others are influenced by primary sources, such as newspaper articles. For instance, since no photograph of the actual strike exists, Kwong created his own interpretation of the strike for the painting’s centerpiece.
I John Chinamen Been Working On the Railroad All depicts many scenes of violence that Chinese workers historically faced. But Kwong, however, stresses that his goal is to fill in the gaps in historical records, which tends to overlook the tenacity of the railway workers
“If you read some of the articles that were written back then, they tell the story of the Chinese railroad workers as: ‘They were great,’” says Kwong. “But they don’t put it in the words of, ‘they’re strong’… [That’s] always put to the side, or put down.”
“We have to accept the fact of the true history of our country.”
Despite being a historically-focused work, I John Chinamen Been Working On the Railroad All has helped Kwong deepen his understanding of contemporary events– and his own history.
Kwong’s family has deep roots in the Bay Area. However, he found that his family did not discuss their past– often because of the trauma caused by anti-Asian racism.
“The reason why I actually feel really close to this piece is because it started making me think about my own family history. And if I asked my uncles and my parents about the past, they don’t really want to talk about it too much,” said Kwong. “[But] I have a 15-year-old daughter, and I just wanted to know the truth.”
After talking to his family members, Kwong learned that his grandfather had been a Chinese herb doctor in Palo Alto– where white neighbors passed around a petition to try to force him out, and stoned his house. His grandmother, meanwhile, was detained at the immigration station Angel Island for 6 months.
“It really wasn’t that long ago,” says Kwong.
This connection of past to present is what gives “John Chinaman” contemporary significance, Kwong says. Today, the same racism, polarization, hate crimes, and persecution that the Chinese railway workers faced are still present in society.
“[The painting is] contemporary in the sense that it’s trying to get people to think about where we are now as a nation, as a country and who do we really want to be,” he says. “And the only way that our country can move forward is that we have to accept the fact of the true history of our country.”
However, these changes go beyond simple acceptance. Kwong describes his work as unapologetically “confrontational.” On one level, the bold lighting and faceless figures he uses in his art force viewers to confront violence. On another, however, he stresses the need to resist and fight against injustice that occurs.
“Instead of saying, ‘[Asian Americans] were really frightened, they’re really shaken up.’ Give me a break,” says Kwong.
“I’m trying to get people to realize that they have to stand up, and if you don’t stand up, you’re gonna get run over.”
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