Reenacting the Golden Spike

Saturday, January 4, 2020: 11:30 AM
Gramercy East (New York Hilton)
Julia H. Lee, University of California, Irvine
This paper examines Chinese American re-imaginings of the "Golden Spike," the ceremonial moment at Promontory Point, Utah on May 10, 1869 that marked the joining of the Central Pacific and Union Pacific lines into the Transcontinental Railroad. The famous photograph of the celebration depicts railroad executives, local officials, and working men crowding around two train engines; just as famously, the photograph does not include any of the approximately 12,000 Chinese men who were employed in building the railroad. In this paper, I analyze historical and cultural reenactments of the Golden Spike celebration, first on the part of the descendants of the Chinese railroad workers, who have been photographed recreating the iconic image, and then in the multimedia works of U.S.-based Chinese artist Zhi Lin, whose "Names of the Unremembered: Transcontinental" and "'Chinaman’s Chance' on Promontory Summit: Golden Spike Celebration, 12:30 pm, 10th May 1869," re-stage the moment of the Transcontinental’s completion. I argue that these reenactments do not simply attempt to recover the lives of the Chinese workers who have been erased from history and memory, but rather seek to reclaim the very ground that was denied to those workers. These reenactments transform the railroad from a symbol of nationalist pride into a different kind of sign, one that marks the physical violence and discursive erasure that Chinese laborers and Chinese Americans have endured for centuries.
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