Artwork commemorating the Chinese workers on the American railroads

A temporary exhibit of the American University Museum at the Katzen Arts Center  features “Hung Liu: Daughter of China, Resident Alien”. The third floor of the museum is now temporarily dedicated to her works, which are comprised mainly of paintings, but also a memorable 3-dimensional tribute to the Chinese workers on the railroad.  The museum brochure states:

A solo-exhibition of work by Hung Liu reflects upon refugees and heroines, themes that are politically topical and deeply woven into the artist’s experience as a Chinese émigré, as an American citizen, and as a woman.  Liu’s painting style is rooted in Socialist Realism which she learned in China in the 1970s prior to coming to America in the mid-80s, where she has since created a stripped down Socialist Realism, removing the propaganda and creating a catalog of her history.

When one enters the exhibition hall, one is confronted with a large collection of fortune cookies on the floor. One soon realizes that there are full-size railroad tracks on them that approach the center from four directions.  The center is a high mound of fortune cookies, several feet tall.  This is a very moving monument, particularly if one realizes the symbolism behind it.

San Francisco served as the principal point of entry for Chinese immigration from the times of the gold rush.  Its name in Chinese is  舊金山 in traditional characters (still used in Taiwan and Hong Kong) and 旧金山 in the current writing system of mainland China and Singapore.  In Mandarin it is pronounced Jiu4 Jin1 Shan1 and meaning Old Gold Mountain. The numbers indicate the tone in Mandarin for the syllable.

Thus, the pile of fortune cookies in the center represents San Francisco –  the Old Gold Mountain.  Fortune cookies were chosen as a symbol for the Chinese workers and their contributions to America.  Chinese immigrants were essential for the building of the transcontinental railroad eastward from California.  In the artwork, the railroad rests upon a foundation of fortune cookies, here meaning the work of the Chinese laborers.

 Jiu Jin Shan by Hung Liu Jiu Jin Shan by Hung Liu

This work was previously shown at several museums, and has been written about several times, including:

Stanford University

Mills College

Asian Contemporary Arts Consortium

Tying in with the ‘fortune cookie’ theme, one of the paintings of Hung Liu displayed next to the Jiu Jin Shan is a painting of a stylized ‘Green Card’ – the American identity card for ‘resident aliens.’  She playfully named the ‘holder’ of the card Fortune Cookie. Not only is this a reference to her famous Jiu Jin Shan piece, but it is also a way of highlighting the often awkward-sounding names (to native English speakers) that Chinese immigrants choose for themselves as their ‘English’ name.  The wrong choice of a name can have many unintended consequences.  She did not choose an ‘English’ name for herself, but by transliterating her name as she did, her name has a double-entendre that could be embarrassing if she were male.  She would have been very aware of these subtle references when she chose the name Fortune Cookie for the resident alien card – a quite clever selection on her part.

 Hung Liu painter herself here on a stylized version of her own resident alien card Hung Liu painter herself here on a stylized version of her own resident alien card  The museum plaque about the painting Resident Alien The museum plaque about the painting Resident Alien

Now for a bit of the history referenced by this art work, starting with fortune cookies (excerpted from Wikipedia):

David Jung, founder of the Hong Kong Noodle Company in Los Angeles, has made a competing claim that he invented the cookie in 1918. San Francisco’s Court of Historical Review attempted to settle the dispute in 1983. During the proceedings, a fortune cookie was introduced as a key piece of evidence with a message reading, “S.F. Judge who rules for L.A. Not Very Smart Cookie”. A federal judge of the Court of Historical Review determined that the cookie originated with Hagiwara and the court ruled in favor of San Francisco. Subsequently, the city of Los Angeles condemned the decision.

Seiichi Kito, the founder of Fugetsu-do of Little Tokyo in Los Angeles, also claims to have invented the cookie. Kito claims to have gotten the idea of putting a message in a cookie from Omikuji (fortune slip) which are sold at temples and shrines in Japan. According to his story, he sold his cookies to Chinese restaurants where they were greeted with much enthusiasm in both the Los Angeles and San Francisco areas. Thus Kito’s main claim is that he is responsible for the cookie being so strongly associated with Chinese restaurants.

But, of course, the most interesting thing for readers of this blog is the recognition in this piece of the central place of San Francisco and the railroad-building experience in the history of Chinese-Americans.

The push to build a Transcontinental Railroad culminated in actual work soon after the Civil War.  The eastern portion was built by the Union Pacific from Council Bluffs, Iowa.  That location was chosen by President Lincoln when he visited the location and decreed that a railroad should be built to join California to the east.

The western portion was built from Sacramento, California by the Central Pacific. It relied heavily upon Chinese immigrant labor.  Wikipedia states:

“The manual labor to build the Central Pacific’s roadbed, bridges and tunnels was done primarily by many thousands of emigrant workers from China under the direction of skilled non-Chinese supervisors. The Chinese were commonly referred to at the time as “Celestials” and China as the “Celestial Kingdom.” Labor-saving devices in those days consisted primarily of wheelbarrows, horse or mule pulled carts, and a few railroad pulled gondolas. The construction work involved an immense amount of manual labor. Initially, Central Pacific had a hard time hiring and keeping unskilled workers on its line, as many would leave for the prospect of far more lucrative gold or silver mining options elsewhere. Despite the concerns expressed by Charles Crocker, one of the “big four” and a general contractor, that the Chinese were too small in stature, standing at about 58 inches (1.5 m), weighing about 120 pounds (54 kg), and lacking previous experience with railroad work, they decided to try them anyway. After the first few days of trial with a few workers, with noticeably positive results, Crocker decided to hire as many as he could, looking primarily at the California labor force, where the majority of Chinese worked as independent gold miners or in the service industries (e.g.: laundries and kitchens). Most of these Chinese workers were represented by a Chinese “boss” who translated, collected salaries for his crew, kept discipline and relayed orders from an American general supervisor. Most Chinese workers spoke only rudimentary or no English, and the supervisors typically only learned rudimentary Chinese. Many more workers were imported from the Guangdong Province of China, which at the time, beside great poverty, suffered from the violence of the Taiping Rebellion. Most Chinese workers were planning on returning with their new found “wealth” when the work was completed. Most of the men received between one and three dollars per day, the same as unskilled white workers; but the workers imported directly from China sometimes received less. A diligent worker could save over $20.00/month after paying for food and lodging—a “fortune” by Chinese standards. A snapshot of workers in late 1865 showed about 3,000 Chinese and 1,700 white workers employed on the railroad. Nearly all of the white workers were in supervisory or skilled craft positions and made more money than the Chinese.”

The Chinese immigrants were subjected to extreme discrimination not only during the construction of the railroad but also during the following years.  The National Archives has documented some of this history.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 remained in effect until 1943. Only in 1965 was  the law changed and Chinese immigration was placed on the same level as immigration by Europeans.

If you are interested in seeing this provocative work of art, it will be at the Katzen Arts Center through October 23, 2016.

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