Canada 2017·Updated

This retiree is painting the story of the Chinese workers who died building Canada's railways

'I should admit that I was shocked… and I was much moved.'

'I should admit that I was shocked… and I was much moved.

Linglei Lu in his Toronto studio (Linglei Lu)

Like many amateur painters, Linglei Lu is more accustomed to family portraits than historical epics. But when the retired computer engineer started delving into the history of the Chinese immigrants who came to Canada before him, he discovered a dark part of Canada's past. He is now bringing those stories to life in his latest paintings.

It was earlier this year when Lu started noticing CBC (and others) talking about the upcoming 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation.

"I kept thinking, as Chinese immigrants, we should also be actively involved and make our own contribution," Lu says. "So I got this idea: use oil painting to capture this great historical moment, to cherish the memory of our ancestors and to celebrate the 150th anniversary of Confederation at same time."

"From Sea to Sea: Great Iron Road," oil on canvas by Linglei Lu shows Canada's railway track being laid in the Rocky Mountains (Linglei Lu)

When Lu immigrated to Canada five years ago, he began to dig into the history of his new country. He was staggered to discover the number of Chinese workers who had died working on the Canadian Pacific Railway through B.C.'s mountains, where thousands laboured for less pay than white workers and were often tasked with the most dangerous work.

It is estimated that three Chinese workers died for every mile of track they laid. I should admit that I was shocked… and I was much moved.- Linglei Lu

The story is a dark and, for many, oft-forgotten part of our country's history. "It is estimated that three Chinese workers died for every mile of track they laid. I should admit that I was shocked… and I was much moved." Estimates on the death toll in fact vary, and some historians place the number even higher.

Chinese immigrants not welcome after railway completed

25 years ago
Duration 5:49
The Chinese were instrumental in building Canada's railway, but were no longer welcome after it was done.

As he learned more of the story, images started to appear in Lu's mind — "the founding fathers were talking, fighting, planning for Canada today." These images were the seeds of his new paintings, and when we asked Canada, "What's your story?" he shared his paintings with us.

Lu retired from computer engineering in China in 2010 after a 27-year career. Before that, during the time of the Cultural Revolution, he worked as a miner. He took up painting as he approached retirement, and taught himself using online how-to videos. Until this project, he had only painted portraits of his family, especially his three young grandkids.

"So first time to draw such a major history painting, it's difficult as can be imagined. I begin to collect the information, pictures, video online. After six months of hard work, I finally completed the two paintings."

"From Sea to Sea: Great Dream," oil on canvas by Linglei Lu depicts Canada's founding fathers. (Linglei Lu)

The months of hard worked paid off — Lu shared the two paintings with his local MP and now Great Iron Road is on display in the Toronto office of MP Ali Ehsassi and Great Dream is on its way to Ottawa as a gift to Prime Minister Trudeau. Lu has plans to continue to tell the story of the Chinese workers who helped build Canada's railway in what will become a series of five or six paintings titled From Sea to Sea.

The detailed depictions take time, and right now he and his wife are pretty busy as grandparents, helping their daughter with her four-year-old twins and seven-month-old baby. But what are the future plans for the paintings?

"I may need more than one year to complete other works — any time for me, take care of three children is first, my oil painting is second — [but] through this work, I hope my retirement life will be meaningful."

Update May 17, 2017:

Lu has continued to work on these paintings, fuelled by his personal goal to complete the series in time for Canada Day, and he shared the final works with us. 

Following the first two paintings that depicted the founding father's "great dream" of a Trans-Canada highway and workers from various country laying the "great iron road," the final four in the series illustrate the work of the Chinese labourers specifically, as they toiled to lay 500 kilometres of track between Port Moody and Eagle Pass, B.C.

"I hope my works can help people to remember that great time, not only the founding fathers but also the contribution of common labourers, [especially] the Chinese workers," says Lu. "They are all Canadian heroes."

"From Sea to Sea: Cut Mountain Blasting," oil on canvas. (Linglei Lu)
"From Sea to Sea: Holed Tunnel," oil on canvas. (Linglei Lu)
"From Sea to Sea: Wild Living and Dining," oil on canvas. (Linglei Lu)
"From Sea to Sea: Memory Forever," oil on canvas. (Linglei Lu)

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