About Chinese Whispers

Chinese Whispers is a multi-phase, site-specific community-storytelling project by artist Rene Yung about contemporary folk memories of the Chinese who helped build the Transcontinental Railroad and settlements of the American frontier. Taking place along the route of the Transcontinental Railroad from San Francisco, California to Ogden, Utah, where the railroad’s western and eastern segments met, the project unfolds in a progressive series of storytelling events at selected sites where each community recounts stories passed down about the early Chinese settlers and sojourners in their area.

A 2009 pilot, Chinese Whispers: Sierra Stories was produced in Roseville, California, featuring stories from the Sierra Nevada foothills. A California Story Fund project of the California Humanities Council, the production resulted in a multimedia community storytelling event which is documented on a DVD by the same title.

A new production, Chinese Whispers: Golden Gate, is in progress in the San Francisco Bay Area. It will focus on San Francisco as the portal and transit point for the early Chinese pioneers on their way to the mines, railroads and frontier settlements, and will include a collaboration between Artistic and Project Director Rene Yung and sound artist Jeremiah Moore.

Each production is specific to the site, and is developed from an in-depth research process including interviews with local participants from a broad range of cultures in addition to the Chinese community. These interviews are interwoven into a script that connects the fragmentary stories of forgotten individuals with the larger historical context that they lived in, and casts light on parallel social issues in America today.

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 also developing an online mapping project, Chinese Whispers: Mapping the Traces. It will combine research data, locative media, and Chinese Whispers 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 Whispers 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.

About the Project Name:
Chinese Whispers takes its name from the game also known as “Telephone,” where a sentence is whispered from one player to the next, becoming garbled in successive retelling. The title refers ironically to the stereotyping that equates unintelligibility with the Chinese, and comments on how cultural attitudes shaped social memories of the early Chinese immigrants in America.
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