Tacoma reckons with its racist past
Tacoma has many great works of public art, but there’s one unimposing sculpture that’s symbolic of what’s going on in that city today. Called Shipment to China, it features 100 small bronze boxes sitting on a life-size but truncated antique train car. The boxes represent some of the hundreds of Chinese railroad workers who died during the construction of our country’s railroads in the 19th century.
The sculptor, Haiying Wu, says the piece “shows the bitterness of the Chinese experience in America during that time, for the railroad built by their efforts was the same transportation used to carry them out of Tacoma.”
Wu’s sculpture is one of several Tacoma public art pieces that have been inspired by a dark period in the city’s history. In the early 1880s, an estimated 700 Chinese immigrants were living in Tacoma, part of a much larger group of Chinese who came to this country to help construct railroads, work in mines and support the needs of growing cities as merchants, laborers and service providers.
During the same time a vicious anti-Chinese movement developed in California, fueled by false claims that Chinese were taking away the jobs of white Americans and generally contributing to a “moral decline” in cities.
In 1885 these sentiments turned into savage actions, as an organized movement led by politicians and labor unions initiated riots and forced expulsions of Chinese throughout the West. In late September of that year all of the Chinese residents in Tacoma were told by city officials to leave town by Nov. 1 or “face the consequences.” Many Chinese, fearful for their lives, left as quickly as they could, but slightly more than 200 remained in the city by the deadline date.
On Nov. 3, a mob led by Tacoma’s mayor, the fire chief and other city leaders rounded up nearly all of the remaining Chinese residents and drove them out of town with only a few hours’ notice. Most left with only what they could carry on their backs. The businesses and homes of the Chinese were ransacked and looted by the mob, and two days after the Chinese were expelled all of their homes were burnt to the ground.
The legacy of this infamous event has weighed on the social and cultural soul of Tacoma ever since, so much so that to this day Tacoma remains the only major West Coast port city without a district called Chinatown.
There is, however, a strong and active Chinese-American community in Tacoma, and over the past two decades they’ve slowly been reclaiming their history and place in the city.
Now, a new collaborative effort between the Chinese-American community and the Tacoma Art Museum is helping the city heal from its ugly past. The citizen-led process has been forged around a candid examination of that terrible event in the city’s early days, fused with a new wave of civic and cultural engagement.
These efforts are accentuated by artist Zhi Lin’s bold and compelling exhibition now at the Tacoma Art Museum. Lin, who graduated from the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, China, is currently the Floyd and Delores Jones Endowed Professor in the Arts at the University of Washington. His work focuses on the unwritten histories of Chinese immigrants in the U.S.
His one-person show focuses on Chinese immigrants’ key roles in building our nation’s railroads and especially on the 1885 expulsion event in Tacoma. He uses a variety of media to get his message across, including a giant video installation, abstract impressions, delicate ink washes, and a remarkable 35-foot-long scroll reminiscent of classical Chinese art.
“I don’t have a style;” Lin says, “I have a method. That’s because what I do is engage with history by telling stories. Each story is different and needs to be told in the way that best expresses itself.”
Lin’s scroll bisects the museum’s large exhibition room with a decisive presence. Wanting to honor the past and the present, Lin created intricate ink drawings that depict a long line of 19th-century Chinese men and women being driven from Tacoma. Each figure is headless, representing how little is known about the actual individuals who suffered during that time. Lin has placed them in the streetscape of today’s Tacoma, prominently featuring the Tacoma Art Museum as a reference point. Seeing the faceless figures in a contemporary setting is a jolting reminder that we’re never completely removed from our past.
Theresa Pan Hosley, President of Tacoma’s Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation (CRPF), says Lin’s art has helped to educate and inspire the Tacoma community.
“Zhi’s exhibit is very important to us in Tacoma,” she said, “partly because he did so much research in preparation for it. He found things in archives that no one knew about, and that knowledge adds to our ability to heal from what happened in our past.”
Among the things Lin uncovered as he prepared for his exhibit were several important original documents from the Tacoma expulsion that had not been seen since the event. While not part of the exhibit, these documents helped Lin form a vision for his work.
“I’m obsessive about the historical basis for my art,” Lin says. “For me, it’s essential that I arrange an accurate reality from the past to tell a story that contemporary audiences will understand.”
Lin’s story fits directly into the purpose of the CRPF, a local nonprofit organization that’s been a driving force in advancing the Chinese-American community’s place in Tacoma. The centerpiece of their efforts is the Chinese Reconciliation Park, a 4-acre site established by the city in 1993 but not developed on the ground until 2007. The park features large educational plaques about the tragic events of 1885 and a beautiful ting, or open Chinese pavilion, donated by Tacoma’s sister city of Fuzhou, China.
On Nov. 4, one day after the 132nd anniversary of Tacoma’s expulsion event, about 50 CRPF members and other local citizens marched 2.5 miles from the park along Commencement Bay to the Tacoma Art Museum. The march was timed to coordinate with a panel discussion at the museum about Zhi Lin’s exhibit.
One of the leaders of the march was Lotus Perry, a CRFP board member and instructor of Chinese language and culture at the University of Puget Sound.
“It’s important that we walk some of the same route that people were forced to use in 1885 to remind us of our past,” she said. “But the diversity of people who are marching here today ― Chinese, Japanese, African-American, white, mixed races ― shows us how far we’ve come as part of our reconciliation.”
At the museum, the dominating piece in Lin’s exhibit is a near-life-size video that shows the annual re-enactment in Utah of the driving of the last spike that connected the continental railroad in 1889. It shows two old locomotive engines slowing meeting up to the cheers of a large crowd. Lin chose to film the re-enactment from the opposite side of the tracks so that all the viewer sees are the backs of the white people celebrating the event. This viewpoint reflects the original event from a Chinese perspective: No Chinese workers are seen in the official photos despite that an estimated 14,000 Chinese helped build the railroad.
As part of Lin’s exhibit, he had thousands of small rocks brought in to form a three-dimensional base for his projected railroad scene. He found the original payroll records for many of the Chinese railroad workers during his research, and then museum and CRFP volunteers spent days writing many recorded names of the Chinese workers on those rocks in blood-red ink.
It’s this past-and-present reciprocity that makes Lin’s exhibit so powerful. His wall-sized video projection of forced exclusion is balanced against the seeming blood of individual worker’s names on the rocks. The jagged edges of the rocks remind us of the harsh conditions the workers faced and of the long forced march along the railroad out of Tacoma.
These reminders will continue beyond the walls of the exhibit. When the show ends in February 2018, the rocks with the railroad workers’ names on them will be moved to the Chinese Reconciliation Park. There they’ll become part of the park’s permanent displays that tell people about the events of 1885.
Asked if this transition of his art from the museum exhibition to a public park could be seen as a political message given today’s heated discussions about immigration, Lin said “In art, the personal is political. What happened in Tacoma was an ethnic cleansing. While it happened a long time ago, the reasons why it happened are just as relevant today.”
The Tacoma exhibit and related events in the city focus on only one of many anti-Chinese incidents throughout the West in the late 19th century. While a few cities have placed small plaques or markers to recognize what took place in their communities, Tacoma has integrated the knowledge gained from this part of their past into new and engaging public spirit.
More than in any other city with a history of anti-Chinese bigotry, Tacoma’s leaders are shining a light on the mistakes of their past. That light is giving them a brighter path toward the future. It’s rare to find a civic activism that truly embraces art, but in Tacoma they know how to walk the talk.