Public art vandalism can’t continue the chain of trauma
By Irene Kai
It is a big deal for a city of Ashland’s size to have a robust Public Arts Commission to install numerous pieces of public art around the city. That says a lot about this community that we collectively care and are willing to spend time to reflect on our state of being.
This is especially true with the sculpture called Golden Connections that was just dedicated at a ceremony on April 23 at the Railroad Park. It is deeply personal to me; it symbolizes the final connection for Southern Pacific’s complete rail circuit around the nation in Ashland on Dec. 17, 1887, and honors the Chinese workers who built the railroad. These men left their families and villages in Southern China in search of opportunities and better pay to send money back to their families. They often took on the most dangerous jobs, like carrying explosives to blast through the Siskiyou Mountains. They made up nearly 80% of railroad workers yet they remained nameless and faceless, and faced discrimination and poor treatment.
My family is from Toishan, the same village where the railroad workers were from. My great-grandfather immigrated around the same time with friends and relatives to San Francisco and most of them came to work for the railroad.
I am the great-granddaughter of friends and relatives of these men who walked on the same ground as I stood on in front of the sculpture. I was overcome with emotion as I expressed my gratitude to the city of Ashland and the Public Arts Commission for the recognition and belated expression of gratitude to my family’s friends and relatives.
After the ceremony, my friend Meiwen came over to me and showed me a photo she took of the sculpture a few days before at night. The inscriptions on the sculpture illuminated a beautiful white glow, exuding a gentle triumphant acknowledgment that it takes us all to create great accomplishment like the railroad that connects our country. Then she showed me the plexiglass under the cutout of the steel where the light shines through the inscriptions at night. A thick purple paint covered the entire inscription, and the same paint was sprayed on the surrounding area. Someone had already cleaned off the paint on the steel before the ceremony, but the paint on the plexiglass and the surrounding area was not yet removed.
I was stunned, feeling as if a thousand daggers stabbed into my heart. I was standing on the same ground, over a hundred years later, the same discrimination strikes again. I went back to visit the sculpture at night to see if any light would shine through the paint. The inscription now had the eerie glow of reddish purple, as if blood was oozing from the words.
The next two days were a blur. I couldn’t breathe; I felt as if I were suffocating in deep trauma. When I experienced the same discrimination as my ancestors, the pain hit me with such force because I am carrying the pain from the generations before me. The men who worked on the railroad walked away in silence over a hundred years ago. They had no choice. I need to break the chain; I will not turn away in silence.
I have a voice, to proclaim to this community that I choose to keep the Golden Connection with you, and with every living being on this planet. We must choose to keep our Golden Connections with each other. Our lives depend on it.
Irene Kai serves as a board officer on the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission Board of Directors. This piece originally appeared in the Ashland Culture of Peace Commission newsletter for April 26, 2022. View the three-minute video of Kai’s remarks at the dedication at this link: youtu.be/iclqedDaU1Y.
Editor’s note: Ashland.news reached out the Ashland Police Department, asking if they knew more about when this incident occurred. They first learned of it Monday, April 25, after the dedication on April 23. An officer who checked into it reported finding “faint purple paint on one side of the monument and some additional purple writing on the sidewalk next to it. I could not make out what it was supposed to say.” Anyone with more information about the incident can contact the police department at 541-482-5211, or call the anonymous tip line at 541-552-2333 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.