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Stanford Humanities Center Q&A: Literary scholar Pin-Chia Feng

railroad_sepia_news.jpg

Railroad with workers
Photo Credit: 
Library of Congress via Wikipedia

Pin-Chia Feng is the 2014-15 FSI-Humanities Center International Visitor at the Stanford Humanities Center. The literary scholar's work centers on issues of gender, race, and representation in films as well as in Asian American, African American and Afro-Caribbean literatures.

Feng’s current work offers a transnational perspective to the story of how Chinese American pioneers helped build North America by constructing its railroads, especially in the traces of their experiences archived both in the US and their home regions in China.

The visiting scholar is Chair Professor of the Department of Foreign Languages and Literatures at National Chiao Tung University in Taiwan and Research Fellow of the Institute of European and American Studies, Academia Sinica. She is also on her second term as President of the Association of English and American Literature.

Feng’s book Diasporic Representations: Reading Chinese American Women’s Fiction (2010) was awarded Academia Sinica’s Scholarly Monograph Award in the Humanities and Social Sciences in 2012. She has also been a participating scholar in Stanford’s Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project.

Here, Feng tells us more about her current work and findings:

What is the focus of your current research? 
I am working on two research projects sponsored by Taiwan’s Ministry of Science and Technology: “Extended Railroads: Literary and Visual Representations of Chinese Railroad Workers in North America” and “East Asian Alliance/ Global Vision: Asian American Studies in Asia.” The latter, on which I serve as the project lead, is a joint project aiming to promote Asian American studies in Taiwan and to foster international cooperative connections. The former is a project in which I investigate literary and cultural representations of nineteenth-century Chinese railroad workers from the perspectives of diaspora studies, Asian American studies, and visual studies. The following answers will be based on this railroad project.

What drew you to this topic? 
I was inspired by the first Chinese Railroad Workers workshop at Stanford in September 2012, at which I had gained valuable information about the marginalized, even silenced, history of these Chinese American pioneers. Despite the fact that I have been engaging with Asian American studies since the beginning of my academic career, I knew very little about these workers until I attended the workshop and started to research on the topic.

In your view, why is it valuable to study this topic? 
The literary and visual materials that I am working on may be familiar to many researchers interested in the history of the Chinese railroad workers. My bilingual background is useful to access materials written in traditional Chinese characters and cinematic texts coming out of the Chinese-speaking world. I have also expanded my research from the US context to include Canada, and will be able to offer comparative studies of the two separate and yet closely linked histories of Chinese in North America.

How are you conducting your research?
As a literary scholar, initially I conducted my preliminary research by collecting bibliographical data and texts from various sources. Yet I began to realize the importance of engaging in on-site research after a field trip to Wuyi (Five Counties) in southern China, from where most of the Chinese workers came. The rich archives and material artifacts are invaluable sources for all kinds of research. Since then I have visited some of the railroad museums in China and the US and would like to continue conducting fieldwork.

What would people be surprised to learn about the topic you are working on? 
Thanks to the efforts of the Chinese American community and the Stanford team, many people are now aware of the history and contributions of the Chinese railroad workers. Still, this episode in American history needs to be retold to ensure that more people are aware of it. Many people will still be surprised to know how much Chinese workers contributed to the building of North America in general, and the American West in particular.