In the famous photo of the last spike of the Transcontinental Railroad being driven into the ground in 1869 at Promontory Point, Utah, not a single Chinese worker can be seen. No matter that Chinese workers made up the majority of the workers who laid down the tracks.
A new photo exhibition,” Silent Spikes: Following in the Footprints of Chinese Railroad Workers,” at the main branch of the San Francisco Public Library, seeks to remedy that absence.
“It was hard manual labor,” said Lotus Yee Fong, the San Francisco community volunteer who first brought the exhibit to the library’s attention. “But political cartoons made fun of China and the Chinese. Like: They eat snakes, they eat dogs, they’re filthy, they’re diseased, they have no morals, they use prostitutes. So the image of the Chinese went from positive, good, clean, efficient workers swung over to: They will never assimilate. They cannot become citizens.”
The exhibition, which opened for a four-month run on Wednesday, features the work of Li Ju, a Beijiing-based photographer who has visited the Transcontinental Railroad nine times since 2012, tracing the path of Chinese workers who labored there in the 1860s.
In vivid color photographs, Ju chronicles the struggles of over 12,000 contract laborers who crossed the pacific and docked in San Francisco. They became an “overwhelming majority” in the railroad workforce, according to Iris Chang, author of ‘The Chinese in America.’ She wrote that the experience left them “breathing granite dust, sweating and panting by the dim flickering glow of candlelight, until even the strongest of them fainted from exhaustion.”
Nancy Yu Law, curator of the exhibition, agreed that the exhibit is the chance to remember those that have largely been left out of the railway’s history. “I feel like there aren’t enough books or documents about this, and that’s why it’s my calling to do something,” she said, acknowledging her own apathy on first hearing the stories in her early 20s.
As Yu Law showed visitors around the exhibit, she pointed to photographs taken at former construction sites, which reproduce the precise location and angle of historic photographs. At Weber River Canyon in Utah, the original photo contains train tracks, workers and their ramshackle living quarters; today, only the tracks remain.
More than 1,200 Chinese immigrant workers died in the construction of the railroad, and those who survived were not offered transportation back to California, leaving them homeless, jobless, and left to scatter in towns along the railway, according to Fong.
“When I first came to SF State, I had no idea about my own history,” said Steven Lee, a visitor of Chinese descent who was visiting the exhibit on Wednesday. “All I know is I remember one time taking a date on our railroad ride to Sacramento. So when we can see that the Chinese actually built this side of the mountain, we could connect.”
Richard Ow, a 91-year-old immigrant who has spent 81 years in the U.S. and now lives in Chinatown, felt an especially personal connection to the exhibition. “I feel it’s time to learn more about this now,” he said.
Fong, who arrived at the opening wearing a grey T-shirt featuring an old photo of the railway workers and brought along related books, DVDs and souvenirs, agreed. “I feel like we’ve been here for a long time, but our history isn’t a part of the mainstream. Even in our Chinese community, like new immigrants, they don’t know enough,” she said.
Yu Law, the curator, said that this exhibit is only the beginning. “Ideally, I’m just hoping we will have a big exhibition and bring different organizations together, besides the descendants,” she said. “That’s my plan.”
The exhibit runs, for free, from Jan. 19 to May 22 at the Skylight Gallery on the 6th floor of the San Francisco Main Library. On March 12 at 11 a.m., the library will host a film screening of “Canton Army in the High Sierra” by filmmaker Loni Ding, followed by a panel discussion on Chinese workers and the railroad. For more information, check here.