Recording History Before It Is Lost

roslyn bernstein
Nov 1 · 5 min read

It’s the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad in the United States, completed in 1869 by over 12,000 Chinese laborers who, under the harshest of conditions, laid the track from west to east, meeting up at Promontory Summit, Utah, with Irish laborers who had worked from east to west.

According to Nancy Yao Maasbach, President of Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), it is an anniversary that has not gotten the attention it deserves. Speaking at the opening of two new exhibits at MOCA, Maasbach lamented the fact that “after 200 years of being part of America, there are no Asian heroes in American text books because of the legacy of discrimination and racism. We are urgently presenting these stories,” she said, adding that “we cannot do our work fast enough.”

It is a race, so to speak, to record history before it is lost.

Fittingly, during the past year, MOCA launched the MOCA Spike 150–Running Forward with Our Stories campaign, one that will culminate on Sunday, November 3rd, at the New York City Marathon, where a team of 21 MOCA competitors will run the course. To date, 1500+ MOCA runners across the country — both recent immigrants and earlier immigrants, immigrants with education and immigrants without, “have run collectively over 150,000+ miles, telling 150+ stories and organizing 15+ special events, in a fundraising effort to preserve and present the stories of Chinese in America.

At the museum, two exhibits illuminate this history: Gathering: Collecting and Documenting Chinese American History, an exhibit of historical artifacts from 28 Chinese American museums, historical societies and institutions across the U.S. and The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad — The Railroad Helped Build America, a photo exhibit tracing the route Chinese workers took building the railroad. Beginning in 2012, Beijing photographer Li Ju followed their journey, using historical images for reference. In the MOCA exhibit, Li’s contemporary images are juxtaposed to the historical photographs, with the wall text providing historical perspective on the images. Although small and in black-and-white, the historical photos are revelatory. One is especially poignant: it is an image of tents pitched near the railroad cars. The wall text tells us that the Chinese workers slept in the tents and the Irish laborers slept in the heated train cars, a vivid example of the discrimination that Chinese workers faced on the job.

The Gathering exhibit opens with a map that reveals where all of the Chinese history venues are located in the United States. It comes as no surprise that the biggest concentration can be found in California, with other institutions in Hawaii, the South, the East, and a few in the Northwest. In a sense, the map speaks to the purpose of the exhibit which is to encourage collaboration and to learn the whole history of Chinese in America. “It’s time that we knew that we were not the only one doing this work,” said Douglas Hsia from the Locke Foundation which is located in the California delta, an area that was created by the Chinese who built levies and created agricultural land. Hsia speaks about the artifact that Locke contributed to the exhibit, a unique horseshoe designed by Chinese workers so that horses could stay afloat on top of the muck. “It was a Chinese modification,” he said, “not an invention.”

Across the gallery, a sculpture originally called, “The Man” and later the “Face of Jesus” represents the Mississippi Delta Chinese Heritage Museum, in Cleveland, Mississippi, which was founded in 2012. It was made by a Chinese butcher who was a self-taught artist, out of a fallen tree in a neighbor’s house, near a Chinese grocery store. “Faith and church were a huge way for the Chinese to integrate in Mississippi,” Emily Jones said. “The Chinese settled there in 1870 and the church was the way they negotiated between White and African American society.”

Most surprising of all of the artifacts was an antique iron from the Belleville Historical Society, in Belleville, New Jersey, located only eight miles west of New York City. Michael A. Perrone, president of the society spoke about his community which was home to the largest commercial laundry in the United States. “New York City,” he said, “did not have a Chinese community before Belleville.” In September, 1870, Belleville established a Chinese community. The town had a progressive history. It was a stronghold during the American Revolution and it was also a center of the anti-slavery movement. It was home to the Reverend Thomas De Witt Talmage, who was one of the biggest advocates for Chinese immigrants in the nineteenth century.

In Belleville, the Chinese laundry workers were nicknamed “the iron men.” According to records, Perrone said, they ironed 1,000 shirts per day or 6,000 every week. “The iron on display was found in a cemetery, possibly a message from the grave.”

Gathering: Collecting and Documenting Chinese American History

The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad — The Railroad Helped Build America

Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)

October 17, 2019 — March 22, 2020

East Meets West: Transcontinental Railroad 1869
Horseshoe modified so that horses could walk on top of the muck
Horse collar over 100 years old from Fremont, California
Iron from laundry in Belleville, N.J.

All photos by Shael Shapiro

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    An arts and culture journalist for Guernica, Huff Post, Tablet, etc, she is the co-author of Illegal Living: 80 Wooster Street and the Evolution of SoHo.

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