The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 in the United States was a reaction to the growing animosity after the initial wave of immigration of Chinese labourers in 1849 to work during the Californian gold rush and eventually the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad. After this first federal policy to prohibit incoming labour from a certain ethnic group, Chinese people had to shift from their employment in the mines and become self-employed through restaurants or laundrettes. What followed the act was a series of physical erasure and historical ignorance – two events of large-scale physical violence came after and the effort of these labourers were ultimately rendered peripheral to the narrative of the time.
Andong Zheng, raised in mainland China and now based in New York City, takes a forensic approach through photography to examine and reconstruct this history of Chinese people in American society, while also finding parallels to their status today. Recently graduating from the RISD photography MFA this past summer, Andong originally trained to be an automotive engineer. “Many people consider it a dramatic shift, but it actually happened naturally for me,” Andong tells It’s Nice That.
“Before arriving in the United States, my impressions of America were gathered through fragments from history textbooks and popular culture,” Andong says. After his move to America, he started to question his identity and new location, questions that any diasporic person will be familiar with. “While here, but not quite here, this open-ended condition allowed me to reflect: who am I really, what does being Chinese mean to me and what registers as a relationship between me and this new land called America?” he asks.
During this query, he started looking into the 19th Century Chinese immigration into the American west. “My initial archival research discovered that the Chinese labourers, who played an instrumental role in the construction of the First Transcontinental Railroad, were rendered peripheral to this narrative,” he says. “Among the archives and historical photographs, their faces often remain blurred, hidden in the shadows or simply unseen.” Reviewing photographs by Alfred Hart, the official photographer of the Central Pacific Railroad company that was chartered to complete the project, he realised the “limitation of the constructed view of historical photographs.”
Andong then set out into the western landscape to find his own evidence. Although resurfacing this hidden history was his initial goal, it eventually evolved into a project to understand “how this history impacted the origin of the concept of ‘unassimilable others’” of Chinese people in American history. For this ongoing project, titled A Chinese Question, he photographs relics of the railroad and mining industry, heading to former boomtowns that he found through bibliographic research. “I used flash to highlight these forgotten traces on the land: trestle bridges, railroad cuts and grades, abandoned mine shafts and so on,” he says.
“One of the things that surprised me a lot while making this work is how much evidence can still be found in the wilderness and how well-preserved they are due to the high desert climate,” he explains. However, the lingering elements of this labour and immigration structure don’t just end at this well-preserved physical evidence.
Whilst visiting Reno, Nevada, Andong stayed at the cheapest casino hotel he could find. He found that a large number of their staff are young Chinese students, tasked with housekeeping, pool management and waiting jobs. His initial thought was that these were students undergoing a training programme for a hotel management degree, but the reality turned out to be different. “Most of them are sophomores, majored in any possible major and they all paid a huge amount of money to an agency to come here,” he says. “They were all promised an ‘internship’ under the premise of ‘cultural experience and communication,’ perfect for improving their English skills.”
The truth is far from this promise. “The salary they earned is just about enough to pay back the agency and their living cost in the US, they don’t get much chance to ‘communicate’ with native English speakers since they have to do housekeeping from nine to five,” he explains. Andong understands this as a form of imported seasonal labour due to a labour shortage in the tourism industry.
“It surprised me how similar it operates to the early labour migrants that came over 150 years ago, even the problem and the struggles.” He took portraits of the students he met at the casino resort, and realised that this was the first evidence he found of the residual impact of history in a person. Still an ongoing project, Andong plans to complete this body of work in 2020, but the evidence he has found so far is already rich with history and backed by his impeccable research.
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