August 16, 2023

Drawing the Asian Pacific Islander American Experience on Route 66 with Sammy Yuen

“This is only one ripple in a much larger wave,” said artist Sammy Yuen when describing his work on Shared Lines, a series of line drawings that documented sites related to Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) heritage along Route 66. While Yuen’s journey as an artist began in the more traditional publishing industry, it was in the last few years that Yuen “felt a calling to help in any way I could,” starting with getting more involved in his community by connecting his martial arts teaching with a charity.

At the core of his service was making sure that more people understood the APIA story. Yuen said, “I don't want my kids dealing with the same [challenges]. They shouldn't have to deal with [ignorance] at all. That's when the art really took over.”

A drawing of Route 66 by artist Sammy Yuen.

photo by: Sammy Yuen

Drawing of a map of the cities and towns where sites featured in "Shared Lines" are located. Route 66 was opened on November 11, 1926, and decommissioned in 1985. It has been home to many different Asian American communities through its history.

In spring 2023—funded in part by the Preserve Route 66 initiative of the National Trust for Historic Preservation—Yuen traveled the Mother Road and drew 12 sites for a set of postcards that share just a few of the untold stories on the route. Explore Yuen’s incredible drawings, and hear from him directly about the project in this Q&A.

What was the inspiration for Shared Lines?

The inspiration for my Route 66 project Shared Lines was a drawing I did in December 2021 for the Yu and Me Bookstore. When I read that this bookstore was opening to promote [APIA] voices, I wanted to support it. The drawing was so popular [that] I thought I could do pieces for other locations in Manhattan's Chinatown. I reached out to local tour group Mott Street Girls to see if they would like to partner with me, and we created a show called Drawn Together at the Pearl River Mart in the fall of 2022. In total I created 25 drawings of businesses, buildings, and landmarks. We donated the proceeds back to the community. But our goal was to bring people back to the community, back together, and combat the effects of COVID-19 and the rise of anti-Asian hate.

The show ran for three months and in October of 2022, I met with the National Trust for Historic Preservation to see if that we could do drawings to help preserve Chinatowns nationwide through their America’s Chinatowns program. After a few weeks of discussion, we narrowed our focus to APIA communities on Route 66, because it is a microcosm of the United States. It’s amazing to see that a drawing of a bookstore became drawings of a neighborhood, and now drawings across Route 66.

How did you identify the sites you wanted to feature along Route 66?

I didn't really know much about Route 66 before I began this journey, or what the theme of the project would be. I approached the road trip as a blank canvas. As I traveled, I discovered so many amazing places and stories. I realized that despite the size or location of the community, all Chinatowns share the same narrative, they represent the American Dream.

What was the biggest challenge you found on your trip?

The biggest challenge in my Route 66 project was narrowing down the choices of the places I wanted to draw. There are so many amazing stories along Route 66 and I wanted to share them all. Originally, we were contracted to do only five drawings, but I just kept going and I couldn't stop. The stories were so amazing that I felt it was my responsibility to shine a light on them so we can learn from them.

As an artist, how do you create a sense of place within your work?

As an artist, my goal is to cultivate conversation. I do this by creating an atmosphere that will bring people into the piece. There are so many different aspects about Route 66 that I find interesting. There's a dichotomy of big city and small town, and there are deserts and snow-capped mountains. When I created these drawings, I wanted to make sure that you got a sense of both the place and the location.

A photograph of a lion statue on Route 66 with blue skies behind it and some offerings at the base from visitors.

photo by: Sammy Yuen

Photograph of the Amboy Lion on Route 66 in California.

A hand drawing of a lion statue on Route 66.

photo by: Sammy Yuen

Drawing of one of two Guardian Lion statues in Amboy, California, that mysteriously appeared with unknown origins in 2013. Made of marble and roughly six feet tall, these statues are known as Foo Dogs and are symbols of protection where visitors have attached their own interpretation and meaning to the statues.

There is stretch of highway in Amboy, California, that seems to be forgotten, then out of nowhere you see the pair of lions also known as Foo Dogs. No one really knows how they got there, but all the people who view it have adapted their own meaning to it. A lot of people see them as a kind of memorial or a sign of good luck, and have adorned the lions with personal trinkets.

When I created the drawing, I wanted people to get the sense of isolation, so I drew in the horizon line and the clouds in the distance. I also wanted to invite the people who might drive by the area to stop and take a closer look, so I included the graffiti on the base of statues.

A second example stems from the ubiquitous Neon signs on Route 66, which light up everything from the gate in LA Chinatown to the restaurants in Flagstaff Arizona. When I researched Albuquerque, one of my contacts told me to drive down Route 66 at night and see what it was like. You could see the health of Route 66 by observing which neon signs were on.

A white on black drawing of the International District sign on Route 66.

photo by: Sammy Yuen

Home to many Asian American businesses, the International District in Albuquerque, New Mexico, is visually disconnected from Route 66 due to a noticeable lack of iconic neon signage that is a distinctive and common feature of Route 66 elsewhere. Yuen felt that a new sign directing travelers to this Asian American neighborhood would help the businesses, and imagined what one could look like.

A view of a drain drawn in white on a black background. One of the windows is shaded white to show light coming through the window.

photo by: Sammy Yuen

The funding of the Interstate Highway System in 1956 led to Route 66 being decommissioned and the closure of Union Depot in Tulsa, pictured here. After the Civil War, Black Americans were hired to work as porters in the Pullman sleeping cars on passenger railroads. These men faced unfair treatment and discrimination by both employers and travelers. When they went on strike in 1925, Filipinos were hired to replace them as temporary laborers. However, the Filipino men quickly turned against their employers and joined the Pullman Porters, helping them unionize.

I realized that the International District in Albuquerque didn't have a presence. When you drove by, you had no idea if it was open at night. I thought that it needed a neon sign to help people realize it was there, and so I wanted to create something not only for the postcard set but something that could be built for the district itself. To create that sense of atmosphere, I chose to draw all the neon sign images with white on black. I emphasized the glow from the signs knowing the lights from the real signs drew people into those locations.

Was there anything that surprised you while traveling along Route 66 and conducting your research?

Before I started my trip on Route 66, I was a little nervous about logistics, and I was surprised at how smoothly things went. I just booked my flight into Los Angeles and my flight out of Albuquerque, and I didn't book any hotels because I didn't know where I would be, or what or where my research would take me. But I had a lot of great contacts who helped guide me.

One contact was at the Powerhouse Route 66 Museum in Kingman, Arizona. I met with her and a local historian, and they led me to the Mohave Museum, which was right next door. I spent four hours in the library of the Mohave Museum doing research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in Kingman. That was probably one of the highlights of my trip. I was really impressed with how everyone at the museum helped me, they brought me oral histories recorded on cassette tapes from the 1980s, an Airforce Base yearbook from 1942, and even put me in touch with a grandson from one of the most prominent APIA families in Kingman. I was very fortunate to have all those amazing resources.

A line drawing of the Kingman Water Tower on Route 66.

photo by: Sammy Yuen

Drawing of the Water Tower in Kingman, Arizona. The Asian Chinese American community first came to Kingman in 1880s to build the southern transcontinental railroad route to California. The water towers were originally built in 1910 to support railroad construction. In 1942, Kingman was home to an Air Force base that trained 33 Chinese American Cadets who fought in World War II.

Do you have a favorite site or piece in the collection?

Wow, that’s a hard question, I really love them all. They each tell a different but important part of the APIA experience on Route 66. I love the story behind Ping Tom Park in Chicago, I love that the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act (TEAACH) bill was voted into law at the Illinois capital building in Springfield. Asia Café represents a cautionary tale for other Chinatowns going though urbanization and gentrification.

From a pure aesthetic point of view, my favorite pieces are the ones with white lines on black background. I think they really stand out, and I really like how they kind of glow.

What are your hopes for the project going forward?

My hope is that when people see these pieces, it creates conversation, it creates community, and it creates a shared experience.

Before going on this Route 66 trip, I was only accustomed to Chinatowns in large cities like Los Angeles, Boston, and New York. It was amazing to see all the different APIA communities on Route 66. They have many shapes and sizes, and they are in different states of their evolution. Some are coming, some are going, and I think it's important to not only preserve them but amplify them, because they all have the same goal, as being a place where people want to better their lives and start their American Dream.

Drawing of a site in Ping Tom Park.

photo by: Sammy Yuen

Drawing of the pagoda pavilion at Ping Tom Memorial Park in Chicago, Illinois, where Route 66 begins before winding through the city about two miles north of Chicago’s growing Chinatown. Established in 1991, to commemorate this community, the park was named after community leader Mr. Ping Tom in 1998. It continues to be a place of recreation along the Chicago River for the local community.

A line drawing of the Illinois State Capitol where the TEACH bill was signed.

photo by: Sammy Yuen

Drawing of the Illinois State Capitol. In 2021, Illinois became the first state to mandate public schools to teach Asian American history with the passing of the Teaching Equitable Asian American History Act. The bill was introduced during a surge in violence against the Asian American community and will help promote cross-cultural education and move toward racial equity.

As I worked on the project, I realized a main ingredient of the Route 66 experience is immigration and why people come to the United States, and what they hoped for when they got here. That's something I hope to learn more about, so we have more empathy for what's going on around the world.

For more on Yuen's work follow him on Instagram @sammynycart.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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