Imagine the American Wild West in the 1800s: a grand landscape of mountains, ocean, desert, and valleys; ragged miners and cowboys; fortunes and opportunities from undiscovered gold that awaits throughout the land.
However, not many may know the unique history in which hundreds of thousands of Chinese men traveled on U.S. mail ships from the late Qing Dynasty China’s Pearl River Delta region to “the Gold Mountain,” a term referring to California’s Gold Rush, to try to cash in on “fortunes” not yet discovered. Despite the expensive, yet terrible cross-ocean journey for months, it was an opportunity to fulfill their lifetime dream to provide a better life for their families. With the sheer numbers of Chinese people arriving in the U.S., tens of thousands of these people were employed to build the Transcontinental Railroad, one of the most revolutionary milestones for the United States’ bicoastal and international trade development.
Battling inhospitable outdoor weather conditions, altitude sickness, and gravely dangerous working conditions to create tunnels, which made the railroad possible, these individuals went from being perceived as physically weak outsiders to becoming irreplaceable and respected workers who captivated railroad companies and Washington D.C. with their resilience and agility. Their communities sent support, from West Coast Chinatowns, by shipping them tea, food, living supplies, and favorite hometown delicacies. Their communities also guaranteed the return of their remains as burial alongside their family was essential.
Although the laborers’ remarkable contribution led to a change in perception with those they directly engaged with, society’s xenophobia and prejudices against them continued to remain present. Their plights had been long forgotten and left out of history books for many years due to the lack of detailed records and official recognition from the U.S. government. But their unique memories and stories lived on through oral history passed down by generations, and it was not until the incredible research done by historians such as Gordon H. Chang at Stanford University, that the epic stories were brought to light in the 21 century.
For their Fall-Winter 2021 collection, PRIVATE POLICY brings awareness to this important historical achievement and acknowledges the xenophobic feelings of that era, while battling similar issues today with the worldwide global COVID-19 pandemic being perceived as an Asian virus. No longer avoiding the issue, people are speaking up about ongoing racism and prejudices against Asian immigrants. Younger generations will not allow these microaggressions to continue across communities. PRIVATE POLICY has chosen to retell the story of the Chinese railroad workers to acknowledge the phenomenal attributions older generations have contributed to, not only within their own communities, but also to the nation. We look to them to inspire, and to stand with pride, for the historical contributions their relatives, friends, families and neighbors have made to American culture, and we welcome others to learn about our culture.
Combining western workwear with 19th Century Chinese garment details, we are inspired by the railroad workers’ layering style and the mix of eastern and western clothing based on functionality as seen in historical photographs. The PRIVATE POLICY FW21 collection aims to capture the essence of each worker’s unique and utilitarian aesthetic. The collection also takes on a modern approach to traditional elements by reimagining stylistic motifs such as incorporating
the mandarin collar and knot buttons, with Private Policy NY 90’s New York youth culture. The Private Policy signature soft harness has been reimagined as has the diner checker PXL pattern. These elements seamlessly showcase the mesmerizing attitude and characteristics of the surprisingly swaggy railroad workers.
Symbols and graphics for the collection were carefully selected and redesigned. Private Policy uses a crane, for example, an animal that represents longevity, elegance, auspiciousness, and loyalty in the Chinese culture and modernizes it in their own way. Throughout the collection, the crane is illustrated flying, (and reaching for a flag), mimicking the familiar imagery of the iconic American bald eagle and flag.
Additionally, the “Not Now” graphic, inspired by a quote from the famous indie art film CHAN IS MISSING (1982) is used throughout. The quote, ”We don’t have wonton soup, we have wonton spelled backward, not now!” is a very humorous line from a Chinese immigrant cook’s frustration with his lack of understanding of Chinese cuisine. This quote teases, and gives a nod, to the theme of the fall-winter 21 collection, mirroring other culture’s general lack of understanding and appreciation of Asian American culture.
Private Policy has also collaborated with the Museum of Chinese in America, who has provided extensive research materials vital to the collection’s inspiration. A special t-shirt design will launch, along with other initiatives, to bring awareness to the NYC-based museum. The collection’s lookbook was shot at the museum, featuring a cast of diverse Chinese descendents who each share their unique story as it relates to their cultural roots.
This collection aims to become an educational introduction to spark more discovery and interest; and to hopefully bring to light this unique cultural history. Even though individual stories may now be covered in snow, blown away by sand, or lost in time, we will look harder to uncover and remember the Chinese railroad workers and their epic tales.