Chinese WhispersSM comprises a suite of multi-platform art and storytelling projects that bring to light the overlooked history and experiences of the Chinese who helped to build the American West, through their work on the railroads and in the mines, agriculture, fisheries, industries, and various enterprises. Founded by artist Rene Yung in 2006, the organization emphasizes an interdisciplinary approach that integrates research with artistic production and place-based public programming, to bring this history to broad audiences in fresh, engaging ways.
Storytelling productions unfold along the route of the Transcontinental Railroad from San Francisco, California to Ogden, Utah, where the railroad’s western and eastern segments met. A 2009 pilot, Chinese Whispers: Sierra StoriesSM took place in Roseville, California, featuring stories from the Sierra Nevada foothills. Chinese Whispers: Golden GateSM, our flagship production about the San Francisco Bay Area, premieres in 2016 in a multimedia theater work written and directed by Yung, with an original soundscape by Jeremiah Moore.
Each production is developed from an in-depth research process that includes oral history interviews with local participants from a broad range of cultures in addition to the Chinese American community, and workshopped in site-specific readings that activate local memories of place. Interwoven fragmentary stories in these productions connect forgotten individual lives with the larger historical context, to illuminate social and cultural issues today.
Our ground-breaking project, Chinese Whispers: Bay ChroniclesSM, retraces the overlooked history of Chinese shrimp fishing in San Francisco Bay through a series of research voyages on a replica 19th century Chinese shrimp junk, and a multimedia art installation by Yung that features sound and video captured on the voyages. Place-based convenings at former Chinese shrimping sites connected knowledge experts from diverse fields with the local shrimp fishing story.
Participants from each production site, including both the original interviewees and proxy storytellers, come together for a public multimedia community storytelling event. The community storytelling format helps to make history come to life through authentic personal voices, and the gathering re-enacts the cumulative communal process that is at the heart of historical memory.
We are excited about our latest project, Chinese Whispers: Bay ChroniclesSM, which will retrace the overlooked history of Chinese shrimp fishing in San Francisco Bay. In collaboration with the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park, we will sail on the Park’s replica 19th century Chinese shrimp junk to former Chinese shrimp fishing sites, and chronicle the journeys with an interdisciplinary team including artists, a maritime archaeologist, and historical ecologist. The project will result in a transdisciplinary art installation at the Maritime Park.
We are also developing an online mapping project, Chinese Whispers: Mapping the TracesSM. It will combine research data, locative media, and Chinese WhispersSM stories in an interactive website, to reframe the contributions of the early Chinese immigrants to the building of the West in a visually accessible way, and connect local histories to the national narrative.
Chinese WhispersSM connects contemporary viewpoints to historical memory, to foster greater stewardship of fast-fading local history, and to transform absence and ambiguity into positive community experiences that bridge time, place, and people.