An Rong Xu’s “The Chinese Americans”

Photo: An Rong Xu, The Chinese Americans

Photographer An Rong Xu’s series “The Chinese Americans” connects the experiences of immigrant Americans by threading together the narratives of Asian Americans across several cities in the United States. In the essay that accompanies this New York Times feature, the artist writes that these pieces are reflections on identity. Her childhood in Queens was shaped in part by anti-Asian racism. Xu revisits the journey of her great-grandfather, documenting the physical and psychic spaces of contemporary Asian immigrant communities in New York City, Seattle and San Francisco.

Xu’s visual art responds to her painful formative experiences by mining familial and community histories that are contextualized by their immigration to America and their roles in American history. To this end, she locates relatives who have worked on the Transcontinental Railroad. This project stretches through the territory of the Cheyenne, the Arapaho and the Ogdala Sioux, land gained through treaties with some Native American Plains tribes. Historian Donald Fixico, Thomas Bowlus Distinguished Professor of American Indian History, contends that this railroad “affected [the Plains Indians’] whole scheme of life”.

Xu’s series indirectly speaks this history and the developing roles of race construction and policy in the United States. The  workforce that built the Transcontinental Railroad was reported to be Irish and Chinese, although Asian workers came to constitute most of these numbers. At points, both groups were used to undermine each other’s interests. The Chinese workers unsuccessfully struck for better working conditions and wages. “The Chinese Americans” finishes with the passing of The Chinese Exclusion Act. Xu’s work also questions contemporary tropes that are used to construct workers in the global south.