Annotation: David L. Eng’s “I’ve Been (Re)Working on the Railroad” (2001)

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I apologize for another ridiculously long Eng annotation but this article had a lot of interesting points and sadly I still don’t think I did them justice. Well, here goes anyways…

Eng, David L. “I’ve Been (Re)Working on the Railroad: Photography and National History in China Men and Donald Duk.” Racial Castration: Managing Masculinity in Asian America. Durham: Duke UP, 2001. 35-103. Print.

In this essay Eng discusses how Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men and Frank Chin’s Donald Duk calls attention to the erasure of Chinese American men from mainstream US historical narratives and attempt to rewrite them into the archive. While other scholars have noted how the novels critique the United State’s exclusion of Chinese American men from citizenship status even as the nation depends on their labor, Eng determines to examines how the authors “rework dominant history through an emphatic shifting of the visual image” (36). He asserts that Kingston and Chin both critique the “infamous 10 May 1869 photograph taken at Promontory Summit,” which celebrated the completion of the transcontinental railroad and failed to depict even one of the “ten thousand Chinese American male laborers” who contributed to its construction (36). Eng emphasizes that the authors ultimately attempt to teach readers new ways of seeing that will help recuperate this lost or rather, repressed history.

Eng begins his article with a helpful background on photography criticism. He notes that photography was initially perceived as an objective art form that encouraged spectators to accept the image captured as “real.” This realism was further accentuated by the acceptance of photographic evidence for the determination of court trials. Eng, however, calls attention to how photography is still a representation of reality that needs to be urgently interrogated. He asserts that spectators often forget the very human mediation of the mechanical camera eye, which “demands from the viewer a particular concession, a particular self-placement, and a particular geometral point of view” (41). Eng emphasizes further that through each photograph sepectators are not only compelled to assume a specific physical point of view, in terms of geographic angles and positions but also an ideological one.

He goes on to describe how Kingston and Chin’s novel challenges Lacan’s notion of the “given-to-be-seen,” which is defined as “that group of culturally sanctioned images against which subjects are typically held for their sense of identity” (43). Spectators are encouraged to identify with images that correspond with the prevailing sociopolitical beliefs of the time (can be likened to stereotypes), which dictate how individuals should see not only themselves but also “others.” Eng asserts, however, that the “given-to-be-seen” still relies on the acceptance and perpetuation of those images by the public, which opens up space for potential resistance.

In his discussion of China Men, Eng demonstrates how Kingston reveals the racist nature of the “given-to-be-seen” through disjointed photographic interpretations. While the Chinese man in the chapter, “The Wild Man of the Green Swamp” was so depicted by police and tabloid writers, the narrator notes that the photograph did not portray a wild man at all. Eng suggests that racialized “visual ordering,” where frozen stereotypical images of the Chinese American man as “yellow” peril” precipitates the compilation of arbitrary documents that sustains such racist conceptions, occluding individual’s ability to see the Chinese American man as he truly appears. Eng relates another scene where Alfredo’s brother examines photos of the Vietnam War, which at first horrifies and frightens him. As he continues, however, he eventually learns to see them as beautiful, awesome “Kodak moment[s]” (52). Eng emphasizes that the personal point of view that guided Alfredo’s brother in his initial perusal of the images is an “errancy of the human look” that offers great potential for resisting the dominant vision that society imposes on its members (52).

He asserts further that personal memory challenges the “given-to-be-seen” because they reveal the gaps in the historical archive, capable of bring us to a new place and understanding of the past. Eng accentuates that memory is different from a fixed photograph. Memory highlights different things in different orders and values, possessing a flexibility that can allow for the unfixing of stereotypes. He notes that “Kingston displays the potential uses of memory’s wanderings through a vertiginous doubling of titles, myths, legends, and laws that do not returnus to an original narrative or image but brings us to a place where we have never been before” (57). Yet she also demonstrates how “looking awry at the given-to-be-seen” can result in real devastating consequences (58). Ah Goong, who celebrates the Chinese railroad workers for their strength and endurance is, for example, regarded as a madman. Eng suggests further that his omission from the Promontory Summit photograph serves as a means of resolving the US national identity as white and democratic, disavowing the disenfranchisement and exploitation of Chinese American men through their deliberate visual erasure from history.

In his analysis of Donald Duk, Eng asserts that Chin takes on a similar project as Kingston in challenging and reworking the “given-to-be-seen.” Chin delves into his eponymous protagonist’s unconscious, using dreams “to provide [Donald]…with a new set of affirming images and meanings with which to identify” (74). The novel begins with Donald as a self-hating, anti-Chinese boy and the unconscious, Eng asserts, is the only way he can resist the predominantly white and racist images of American popular culture to develop a sense of self-love. Eng offers helpful background on the Freudian conception of the unconscious. He explains that the unconscious contains forbidden, socially taboo thoughts that through dreams are attached and disguised in signifiers, some of which emerge in an individual’s consciousness. Freud also describes “deferred action” as “a psychic process by means of which conscious views and meanings are revised at a later time to accommodate new experiences that emerge from unconscious thoughts and experiences” (79). Eng therefore emphasizes that dreams allows for “productive looking” (80). He writes: “By introducing the forbidden material of unconscious prohibitions into consciousness, individuals as well as the larger society around them can come to revise and accept on a conscious level what they would normally reject as incommensurate with society’s prevailing beliefs” (80).

Eng notes that in his dreams, Donald works with other Chinese male immigrants to build the transcontinental railroad, giving him a closer relation to history than his teacher Mr. Meanwright, who merely lectures from citations. While Donald initially rejects his dream visions he eventually begins to seize and piece them together to form a new understanding of history and ultimate, of himself. Eng emphasizes that “Donald’s unconscious dreams come to mark a conscious shifting of his entire waking life, demeanor, and attitude,” as he recovers his Chinese ethnic and cultural pride (84). The novel concludes with Donald confronting Mr. Meanwright about his failure to lecture about the Chinese laborers who helped construct the transcontinental railroad. In this scene, Donald not only learns to look at pictures awry but also teaches his class to do so as well. His shadow cast onto Mr. Meanwright’s projected slide transforms the static photograph and directly calls attention to the erasure of Chinese American laborers from the building of the U.S. nation-state.

Eng emphasizes that while both Kingston and Chin critique this gap in the archive and particularly Chinese American’s exclusion from visual history, they differ significantly in their treatment of sexuality. Eng claims that Chin’s novel emerges as homophobic and sexist as “Donald’s movement into racial self-acceptance comes only with his resolute pledge to heterosexual norms and ideals” (94). He asserts that Kingston conversely, recovers this repressed Chinese American history without rejecting women and those with “deviant” sexual identities, “imagining a type of masculinity that could be feminist and antihomophobic as well” (102).