Artist's Statement: The Gilded Spike

Claudia Liu

In this painting, I attempted to encapsulate the history of how Chinese migrant workers were exploited to build the first trans-continental railroad yet were barred from taking advantage of the benefits it offered. Branded as “perpetual foreigners” by widespread anti-Chinese sentiment, many of these migrant workers became victims of violent racism, riots, and massacres and were often forced to take refuge in the first American Chinatowns. As a result of xenophobic conditions, the Chinese Exclusion Act restricting all Chinese immigration to the United States passed in 1882, just a little over a decade after the planting of the golden spike in 1869.
Despite a lack of blood relation, these people were the ancestors of all Chinese-Americans. They paved the way for the general acceptance and, for better or worse, the cultural assimilation of the Chinese into American society. Therefore, in studying this history, something alarming became clear to me: many “successful” Chinese-Americans have forgotten where they come from. What do I mean by this? Migrant workers still form the backbone of this country. They are still exploited and paid less than fair wages, although they perform critical jobs. They are still looked down on, they are still scorned, they are still treated with suspect and hate, just as the first Chinese-Americans were. Yet, I have met many Chinese enjoying success in America today that, although they come from immigrant roots themselves, harbor these same unfair prejudices towards modern migrant workers. Not only migrant workers, but refugees and other immigrants, especially non-Chinese. It is baffling. We forget how our ancestors were treated when they first came here and project the same hatred on others. I know the scale of white supremacy cannot be compared, but our modern-day racial dynamics, too, are Chinese-American history: somehow, minority groups have been tricked into turning on each other.

In this painting, I also tried to include elements that demonstrate how the effects of exploitation and anti-immigrant discrimination from the mid-1800s are still felt today. In this way, when I say, “the fight is not yet over”, I do not mean for us to consider only our own struggles. I highlight the injustice of the past for us to consider injustice in the present. Like it or not, in the end, all people are the same. Immigration is a burning topic in America’s current socio-political climate. Before we hand down judgment on anyone, I beg you to remember and learn from our history. Xenophobia is an issue deeply rooted in racism, and just as it murdered our forefathers, it continues to strip opportunities from non-white immigrants today. However, it is an issue that we can and must fight together. I hope that this work prompts you, the viewer, to first reflect on the Chinese experience in the U.S., and then, most importantly, to think about the struggles of all immigrant communities in America, both past and present, and how we can support each other in the future.

2019 is the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad. To commemorate the contribution of the Chinese laborer to this monumental railroad, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) has designated its 2019 TCS NYC Marathon event as MOCA Spike 150 – Running Forward With Our Stories! We encourage everyone to participate through 1) our national relay and 2) a story a day which consists of 150 Chinese American personal stories. We hope you will continue to follow and support us. Go tell your story. Reflect on the past; root in the present and embrace the future. Let us add to the American history, making it fuller and richer.

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