‘We built the tracks we travel on’ is an homage to the 12,000 Chinese immigrants who built the western section of the transcontinental railroad between 1863-1869, beginning in Sacramento. It depicts a railroad worker wearing a traditional douli, a sun hat, and carries the final `golden spike’ driven in to symbolize the completion of the railroad. I wanted to honor the Chinese laborers who took on this grueling task which was one of the most remarkable engineering feats of the 19th century, connecting the country, facilitating commerce, and massive economic expansion. Before its completion, cross-country travel took six months. The railroad reduced it to a single week. The Chinese Railroad Workers have been followed by generations of AAPI immigrants and their descendants who play an integral role in the American labor force.
I also wanted to raise awareness of the challenges these laborers faced in conjunction with this awe-inspiring feat— the Chinese population was also faced with sinophobia, anti-Chinese sentiment, and then finally exclusionary legislation from westerners for their cheap labor and demands for equal pay. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the first significant law restricting immigration into the United States and set the precedent for anti-immigration laws that still plague the country today. Congress passed the exclusion act to placate worker demands and assuage prevalent concerns about maintaining white “racial purity.” the truth is that America has a long history of discriminatory behavior towards Asian Americans, yet we continue to contribute a rich wealth of diversity, culture, power, and memory to the fabric of the American infrastructure.
Sacramento and all of the Western US runs deep with the blood of immigrants, and yet it is also rich with the integrity of the immigrant life force, and the power that is the search for home. As the grandchild of immigrants and someone who travels often, I have to think that this way of life is built by the hands of so many of my forebears and that it is by their trials and perseverance that we all continue to make our own ways outward and back home. I hope this piece pays homage to all the Asian-Americans who labored to build this country, persevered through such pointed discrimination, and who continue to fight for underrepresented folk by lifting each other up and bearing their culture with pride alike.