In 2018, Utah Poet Laureate Paisley Rekdal was commissioned by the Spike 150 Committee to write a poem commemorating the 150th anniversary of the transcontinental railroad’s completion. The result is “West: A Translation:” a linked collection of poems that respond to a Chinese elegy carved into the walls of the Angel Island Immigration Station where Chinese migrants to the United States were detained. “West” translates this elegy character by character through the lens of Chinese and other transcontinental railroad workers’ histories, and through the railroad’s cultural impact on America.
“West” connects the completion of the transcontinental railroad with another significant American historical event: the Chinese Exclusion Act, which passed thirteen years after the first transcontinental’s completion.
Between 1864-1869, Chinese workers, largely from Guangdong Province, worked to successfully complete the joining of the Central Pacific and the Union Pacific Railroad lines. While exact numbers are not known, historians estimate that the Central Pacific Railroad, at the urging of its president Leland Stanford, hired between 10,000-15,000 Chinese.
The Chinese composed 90% of the Central Pacific’s workforce. Few of these workers’ correct names have been recorded, however. No letters or journal entries by a Chinese transcontinental worker have ever been found. No one knows how many Chinese workers died during the railroad’s construction.
While the transcontinental was being built, the Chinese, considered racially inferior but cheap labor, were eagerly recruited from China by the Central Pacific Railroad; after the railroad was completed, politicians and labor unions portrayed the Chinese as a threat. The Chinese Exclusion Act, signed by President Chester A. Arthur in 1882, stayed in effect until 1943. It was the first law that prevented all members of a specific ethnic or national group from entering the United States.
During the Exclusion Act, Chinese migrants were detained at Angel Island in San Francisco Bay and held for extensive interrogation, sometimes up to 22 months. Prevented from working or contacting friends and family members, many detainees fell into depression; a few, faced with deportation, committed suicide.
The Chinese poem that opens “West” was written by an anonymous detainee who elegizes one such suicide.
Visitors of “West” can enter this poem either in the order of the characters or at random, thus producing their own translation of the poem by choosing how to enter it and reassemble its meaning online.
While all the characters have been translated into written poems, not all the poems on this site are videos. “West” will also be published by Copper Canyon in May 2023 as a complete book that includes a series of lyric essays linked to the poems.