Tuesday, January 26, 2010
Coolie / Yellow Peril
My piece Coolie / Yellow Peril represents a personal memory as well as American history. For one year, my last year of high school, my family moved to California. My boyfriend that year was a fellow student and young Chinese man. That year was also the 100th anniversary of the completion of the trans-continental railroad, and California was getting ready to celebrate. To my surprise, at any mention of the event, my boyfriend became furious. He explained to me the history of the Chinese immigrants, treated like slave-labor by the railroad companies who connected America’s coasts together. These men, who were so critical to the building of the railroad, were not even allowed at the ceremony in Utah that marked the joining of the East and West coasts.
In the 19th century, when the country was expanding west, Chinese immigrants, mostly young men, came in great numbers to help as farm workers. In 1882, the United States passed the Chinese Exclusion Act which was in place until 1943. This law prohibited Chinese immigrants, however, the timber, mining, and railroad industries - and others - needed these workers. So smugglers brought immigrants from southern China and Hong Kong to British Columbia, where they crossed over into the United States at night. Does this sound familiar?
My vision of the trans-continental railroad had been simplistic; to me it represented just a technical advance for transportation and commerce. But my boyfriend understood the price his immigrant ancestors paid for America’s advancement.
A small toy railroad track runs around the outer circumference of my woven coolie hat shaped piece, a reminder of both the difficulties faced by early Chinese immigrants, and of my own education on this topic. The railroad track, in its toy form, also references the way in which Chinese immigrants were depicted as unsophisticated and child-like in the media and cartoons of the day.
This piece reminds the viewer that our own ethnic reference points can limit our view of history, just as they did mine. Progress for one group may represent hardship for another. Unless we can consider history from multiple points of view we will not understand the entire story. But can we ever understand all points of view? I doubt it. I hope to remind all of us that our personal view is limited and that all immigrants play a part in building our country.
Posted by S E at 9:55 PM