- Emily Pan
"Gandy Dancers" Iron Road Pioneers Statue
Updated: Jan 3, 2021
"Gandy Dancers" Iron Road Pioneers Statue (Photo Courtesy of Emily Pan)
The "Gandy Dancers" statue, located at the entrance to the San Luis Obispo Historic railraod District, depicts two Chinese laborers laying railraod tracks, symbolizing the important yet often unnoticed role the Chinese played in building California. To learn more about railroad building in California, click here. Below is the story of the creation of the "Gandy Dancers" statue.
"Young and Stella Louis had dreamed of such a statue following the installation of the historical marker at the Ah Louis Store in 1968. Following Young’s death in 1989, Howard Louis got behind the project.
The centennial celebration of the arrival of the SP (Southern Pacific) on May 5, 1994 coalesced interest in the role of its construction. All due attention returned to the Railroad Square project when in the mid-1990’s a group of so called 'Minor Historians' led by Edison Strobridge began a process of publicly trivializing the role of Chinese labor in bringing the Southern Pacific to San Luis Obispo. They used the misstatement on the plaque at the Ah Louis Store regarding the Chinese drilling the Cuesta tunnels to prove their point. [Later,] riots [broke out] in SLO [and] gave Benjamin Brooks, the Editor of Tribune the opportunity to boast that “No Chinese Worked on the Tunnels or the Railroad,” when the first train came down the Grade in 1894. [But] by 1900, SP was using Chinese, Mexican and even some Sikh labor from its Southern Division in the Imperial Valley to connect the Coast Route via the trestle across the Santa Ynez Valley at Surf.
Sculptor Elizabeth McQueen, who had done some significant pieces of public art for the city of San Luis Obispo ('The Cat and the Fiddle' and Shakespeare’s 'Puck') had already proposed such a statue to the city which was cool toward the idea. The Railroad Historical Society had a divided membership regarding the project. Meanwhile, the city of SLO tried to withdraw from its promise to create a Chinese themed mural on the Palm Street parking structure. The arts community didn’t like what they regarded as 'Socialist realism.' They proposed an innocuous image of three cut from copper palm trees instead.
That was the point at which John and the newly formed Central Coast Chinese Association came on board. Alongside the wonderful Rizzo family who were constructing their restaurant building on the square, [General] John [Gong] cemented the various parts and secured financing. John had just been promoted to the rank of Brigadier General in the California Army National Guard and was one of the highest ranking Chinese Americans in public service. When he confronted the city officials with the apparent racism, they quickly retreated and began advocating for the project amongst themselves. John was a brilliant strategist. At the dedication, he had an inspirational Black man from Los Angeles sing “God Bless America!” Without his confronting the city, the “Gandy Dancers” would still be a moquette among Elizabeth McQueen’s never realized projects" (Krieger)
Reference: Dr. Daniel Krieger, Professor Emeritus, Cal Poly SLO