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.
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.
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. Oct. 31, 2010.