115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Wild Wild East: Mapping an Imagined Chinatown

LuLing Osofsky, University of California, Santa Cruz

In the late 1880s, Chinese miners and railroad workers were integral in putting Laramie, Wyoming on the map. What if we re-map, with a new set of markers—historical, geographic, geopolitic and geo-botanic? Wild Wild East is a cartographic ethnography— a visual essay that reimagines the small Western town of Laramie, Wyoming as an unsuspecting Chinatown. 

Proposal: 

Wild Wild East is a cartographic ethnography— a visual essay that posits Laramie, Wyoming, a small western town, and its surrounding barren mesa plains, as a distinctly Asian place, an unsuspecting Chinatown. If we understand “place” as an amalgam of physical landscape, the history and activity that exists within that landscape, and the ties, personal and collective, which bind us to it, then despite its staunch mythologizing as the “Wild West,” I contend that Laramie, Wyoming, can be read as Chinese terrain. Wild Wild East is a performative reading, paired with visual texts, emulating the tandem of sowing and homing that personify the diasporic experience.

 

In the late 1880s, Chinese miners and railroad workers were integral in putting Laramie on the map. What if we re-map, with a new lens and set of markers—historical, geographic, geopolitic and geo-botanic? Wyoming’s pine forests are being decimated by an invasive species from Asia, whose arrival coincided with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. Nearly every pair cowboy boots sold in Laramie is made in China. The poetics of Asian American history are laden with exploitation, commodification, rejection, ambivalence and longing. How is this visually inscribed in the landscape and culture of America’s beloved “Wild West”?

 

In her Infinite City atlas series, Rebecca Solnit evokes the multitudinous, polyphonic ways to interpret place. The poet Boey Kim Cheng writes of “scour[ing] the Chinatowns of the mind…” which I interpret as a relentless search for home. As a Chinese-American transplanted from Hong Kong and California, trying to make Wyoming home, I draw on the literary methods employed by Solnit and Cheng as potential paradigms for re-envisioning place. Through interviews, archival footage, maps, meditations, portraits of objects, and invented monuments, this visual essay scours the embodied terrain of Wyoming, revealing a surprising and melancholic Chinatown that exists both inside and outside of one’s mind.