Outdoor Art Work as a Thread of National History Across Canada: Monuments to Chinese-Canadian Railway Workers

In Toronto, Vancouver and Calgary, where I have visited and lived, there is outdoor public art which commemorates the historic work by the Chinese Canadian railway workers on Canada’s transcontinental railroad.

Railway worker pulling. Chinese-Canadian Railway Workers Memorial Toronto
Railway worker pulling at suspended railway tie. “Memorial Commemorating Work of the Chinese-Canadian Railway Workers (1999). Toronto, Ont. South of Front St. near Spadina Rd. Sept. 2010. Photo by HJEH Becker

The Chinese labourers helped build the national Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) from 1858 – 1885.  Each of the profiled city monuments were independently conceived, designed and installed by different artists and  local Chinese community groups at different points in time.  Although there was no national coordination of this art, local community and city efforts coincidentally produced a suite of different artistic interpretations across Canada on this same historic achievement and rail line that is still with us today.

Sculptural plaque depicting hard working conditions of Chinese railway workers mounted by an entrance at the Chinese Cultural Centre, Vancouver BC (1977). Photo by J. Chong 2010.

CPR recruited a total of 17,000 Chinese male labourers from China and the U.S., for half of the wages for Caucasian railway workers, which was $1.00 day. Work included dangerous working conditions that required dynamite blasting. There was always the threat of landslides and frigid cold winters in the mountain ranges in order to build rail tunnels and rail bridges across river canyons.  The construction of the 600 km. rail section between Eagle Pass and Port Moody, B.C. was achieved at the loss of 1,500 Chinese men or lives of 2 men per kilometre.


Second railway worker reaching up. Part of “Memorial Commemorating Work of the Chinese Railway Workers in Canada”. Toronto, ON. Photo by HJEH Becker 2010.

All three Canadian city art installations, are located in or near each Chinatown.  At different times during the 1960’s-1970’s, each Chinatown in Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver, was threatened  with development plans for a freeway. Each city with the local Chinese community, fought back and stopped such development.  It would have meant not just cutting into and cutting out a heart of community and history, but also destroying adjacent long-standing neighbourhoods in each city core.

Each railway monument is also located right beside a designated bike route in each city.  (Strangely, from each monument one can see each home city’s stadium—an unrelated fact.)

Toronto’s Monument: Largest Yet Furthest Away from Most Dangerous Railway Construction
When you ride north from the Toronto’s Waterfront Trail from either the eastern, Scarborough side or from the western Humber Valley-Etobicoke bike route sections,  you can encounter Canada’s biggest railway monument by the SkyDome (now Rogers Dome) near the Union Station railway yards by the foot of Spadina Rd. The 30-ft. high artwork integrates large sculptures of  two Chinese men working with suspended rail ties on a rail bridge trestle.

The Toronto artwork was installed in 1989.  It truly does evoke achievement on a monumental scale.  It is simply named, “Memorial to Commemorate Chinese Railway Workers in Canada. When I came across it by bike a few years later, I was abit surprised.  Although the most of the

Sidewalk mosaic, “Gold Mountain” (2001). Vancouver, BC. Photo by J. Chong

dangerous rail work was undertaken thousands of kilometres away in western Canada, Toronto had the largest monument.

Vancouver’s Chinatown has the oldest Canadian Chinese railway workers’ monument. The coal-dark, sculptural plaque was created 1977 with joint support by the Chinese Benevolent Association of Vancouver and the Chinese Cultural Centre of Vancouver.  Directly opposite from the plaque is a memorial plaque dedicated to Canadian military men

Memorial dedicated to Chinese-Canadians who served in World War II. Secondary theme of the Chinese railway workers efforts is depicted by right hand sculptured figure with a shovel. Vancouver, BC. Photo by J. Chong 2010.

and women of Chinese descent who served for Canada during World War II.  It is their efforts and patriotism which greatly assisted in Parliament allowing Chinese-Canadians to vote as of 1947.

Dual themes of nation-building and dedication by railway workers and veterans for Canadian war effort by some Chinese Canadians, are depicted nearby in a large statute memorial across from the Sun-Yet San Gardens.

Not far from the railway workers’ plaque, there is also a 2001 sidewalk mosaic, “Gold Mountain” at Pender and Columbia Streets near several 2010 recent murals depicting life in Chinatown in 19th and early 20th centuries. 

Mountain sculpture at Sien Lok Park, Calgary AB 2010. Photo by J. Chong
“In Search of Gold Mountain” (1999) sculpture at Sien Lok Park, Calgary AB 2010. Imagery of Chinese railway workers, gold rush miners and carpenters. Photo by J. Chong

Calgary’s 1999 conical mountain sculpture, “In Search of Gold Mountain”, is right by the bike path along the Bow River in Sien Lok Park.  The relief figures are perhaps less representational and require the viewer to understand the historical events in order to interpret the sculpture’s imagery.  The figures and railway iconography is reminiscent of a Canadian cuneiform on labour and celebration of spirit where the latter is evoked by a dragon dance snaking around  the top of the sculpture’s peak.

"Wall of Names" sculpture is located across from the conical mountain in Sien Lok Park. Calgary, AB 2010. Photo by J. Chong
“Wall of Names” sculpture (2001). Located across from the conical mountain in Sien Lok Park. Calgary, AB 2010. Photo by J. Chong

These historic railway worker monuments were created independently, several thousand kilometres apart from one another across Canada.

However these art installations are united in common expression and in strong ownership by each local Chinese-Canadian community for an important chapter in Canadian history.  Except for the Canadian National Railway, to this day, Canada has never seen further development of other national railway lines across its vast, daunting terrain.

Interesting Reading:
City of Toronto Art Walk: Toronto’s Outdoor Art Gallery. Nov. 2003.  See art work  #15.

City of Vancouver.  Chinatown Historic District:  Vibrant Centre of an Evolving and Enduring Culture.  Feb. 2009.

Foundation to Commemorate the Chinese Canadian Railroad Workers in  Canada.  Ties that Bind website.  Provides historic timeline and more details.

Harndon Sylvia.  Calgary’s Chinatown Centennial. Jul. 2010.

Wong, Paul.  History of Chinatown in Calgary. 2008.

9 Comments Add yours

  1. yes, it does look like you get around. I really like the sculpture. you took nice photos of it


  2. Jean says:

    Yes, there’s some variety for this type of art work.


  3. timethief says:

    This is such a well researched and well written post so nicely enhanced with images that it caught my attention. It was an excellent read as all your posts are, and as I’m a Canadian the content resonates with me.


  4. Sid Tan says:

    .. and appreciated…

    The issue of Chinese Canadian history includes an inclusive just and honourable redress. This is one of organising and asserting power and control over our stories, history and future. It is nation-building in its finest form.

    However, very few understand completing an inclusive redress is exactly this. The remnants of our racist colonial white supremacist past still haunt us. It and sympathizers are no doubt pleased that the heritage of Canada’s Chinese forbearers is displayed but justice for affected survivors from pioneer families is not forthcoming.

    As long as Chinese Canadians or more specifically lo wah kiu (old overseas Chinese) descendants are willing to settle for apologies, monuments, plaques in place of an inclusive just and honourable redress, then our history fortells a future of being treated unfairly. Understandable the ignorance of most new Chinese immigrants and perhaps even our sons and daughters.

    We must look to the future for our history. That includes redress. Can you say the Harper government’s unilaterally imposed settlement is pleasing to the mind, much less heart and soul?

    The struggle still continues. Peace, love and hope”


  5. HapaMama says:

    Great post and photos. It is sad that the contributions of early Chinese immigrants in America (and Canada) have been so easily forgotten– as well as the injustices against them. Even though my own ancestry doesn’t date back to these times, everyone– newer immigrants, and people of all ethnicities– should know about this history. This is a step in the right direction.

    Also, there is a plaque with carvings similar to the one you photographed in the Locke Chinatown near Sacramento, California. I wonder if they are by the same artist?


    1. Jean says:

      Hard to know since what I saw looked abit different in style. There wasn’t a close-in photo to see details. It’s ongoing public education, since there are new waves of immigrants from all groups settling in North America.


  6. Sartenada says:

    Wonderful post.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Really interesting and important post on a subject that many Canadians (me included) don’t know much about. Thank you! I will remember this next time I’m in Vancouver’s Chinatown.


    1. Jean says:

      There is a special exhibit right now at the Vancouver Museum.. https://museumofvancouver.ca/a-seat-at-the-table It specific to the history of Chinese-Canadians in Vancouver. There were segregation laws in Vancouver..Canadians of Chinese descent could not use the same public swimming pools in Vancouver until 1950’s, etc. There were land convenants not to have Chinese-CAnadians own land/homes in certain VAncouver neighbourhoods. Couldn’t vote in municipal elections, could not be voted into municipal council, etc.

      Stuff I didn’t know when living in Vancouver. It took the local historians and archivists to dig this up.


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