Railroad photo shows Asian-Americans

Updated: 2014-06-13 07:47

By ADELINA ZHANG in New York (China Daily USA)

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Railroad photo shows Asian-Americans

A dancer performs during a new show called Gen for the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (CAPA). Provided to China Daily

Asian American photographer Corky Lee's recreation of the original photograph showing the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad to include all Asian Americans was part of the 35th Annual Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Festival.

A contemporary dance theater performance inspired by Lee's work also was celebrated at the festival. Director Wan Zhao created the new show for the Coalition of Asian Pacific Americans (CAPA), called Gen, started Thursday and will run until Sdunday at the 440 Studios in New York. Zhao and actress Vanessa Rappa performed excerpts from the show at the festival on June 5 to celebrate Asian roots.

Zhao said the photograph made her wonder what Asian wives were doing when their husbands were in America building the railway and the show is based on that. The performance focused on the history of Asian ancestors from the 1840s to the present day.

"I want people to ask themselves 'Who are you? What's in your blood? Where are you going?' That is very important," said Zhao.

The photograph of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, with two steam locomotives facing each other and dozens of men crowded around them, is part of American history. The original photo - East and West Shaking Hands at the Laying of the Last Rail - was taken by Andrew Russell in 1869.

The photo does not show one Asian or Asian-American worker from among the 12,000-man workforce that really did most of the heavy lifting for the project.

With the help of the Utah Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans, Lee organized a group of Asian Americans to recreate the photograph as a way setting history straight through art, he said. The new photo, which was taken at the same spot as the original, now features about 250 Asian Americans.

"I was reclaiming an aspect of American history that was denied,” Lee said at a news conference in New York. “It was an act of photographic justice. I can't argue for Asians to be included in the photograph, so I did the next best thing and organized a new photo."

For the past 34 years the Annual Asian American and Pacifica Islander Heritage festival, which usually takes place in May, has featured outdoor events and performances for all Asian Americans.

"It is important to know our roots and where our families are from," said Diana Lee, co-founder and president of AsianInNY.com, a sponsor for the event. "We need to celebrate our traditions in the United States and know the importance of family values."

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