Mu­seum fo­cuses on im­mi­grants

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By AMY HE in New York amyhe@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

A “coach­ing book” is used by many Chi­nese im­mi­grants who came to the United States dur­ing the 20th century, filled with po­ten­tial ques­tions that Amer­i­can in­ter­view­ers might ask them about their home­towns and an­ces­tors when they first ar­rived on US shores.

The ques­tions were of­ten ex­ceed­ingly de­tailed, and Chi­nese im­mi­grants would study the an­swers when they ar­rived and even af­ter the in­ter­ro­ga­tion, they would of­ten be held at im­mi­gra­tion sta­tions for months be­fore they were ac­cepted or re­jected by US of­fi­cials.

One of those coach­ing books from Amy Chin’s fam­ily will be fea­tured in an up­com­ing ex­hi­bi­tion on Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can im­mi­gra­tion at the New York-His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety, called Chi­nese Amer­i­can: Ex­clu­sion/In­clu­sion.

The ex­hi­bi­tion, set to open at the end of Septem­ber, will fea­ture more than 200 pieces of art­work, pho­to­graphs, and other his­tor­i­cal documents that trace the long his­tory of Chi­nese in­te­gra­tion into Amer­i­can so­ci­ety. It chron­i­cles their im­mi­gra­tion, the lives they made in the US and the fam­i­lies and com­mu­ni­ties they even­tu­ally built.

Chi­nese Amer­i­can fo­cuses on ex­clu­sion, re­fer­ring to the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act of 1882, when for­mer pres­i­dent Ch­ester Arthur signed a law that banned all im­mi­gra­tion of Chi­nese la­bor­ers, the only US law ever to pre­vent im­mi­gra­tion and nat­u­ral­iza­tion on the ba­sis of race.

Those who were al­ready in the coun­try prior to the law’s pass­ing were de­nied ci­ti­zen­ship; those who left had to ob­tain cer­ti­fi­ca­tion for reen­try.

Marci Reaven, vice-pres­i­dent for his­tor­i­cal ex­hi­bi­tions at the so­ci­ety, said that it wanted to spot­light how Chi­nese im­mi­grants’ ex­clu­sion re­lates to the de­vel­op­ment of US so­ci­ety, es­pe­cially as it per­tains to im­mi­gra­tion and ci­ti­zen­ship — and how it adds color to the con­cept of what it means to be an Amer­i­can.

“That’s one of the key ques­tions that get asked: in what way does the story help us know what has made an Amer­i­can and what makes an Amer­i­can?” she told China Daily.

But be­cause this dif­fi­cult pe­riod in Chi­nese-Amer­i­can his­tory had last­ing im­pact on fam­ily cre­ation and the in­te­gra­tion of Chi­nese into main­stream Amer­i­can so­ci­ety, it made gath­er­ing ar­ti­facts dif­fi­cult at times, she said.

“One of the ef­fects of the anti-Chi­nese move­ment that grew up so early in our coun­try’s his­tory is that the ob­jects and im­ages are in short sup­ply. It’s not a well-doc­u­mented his­tory,” Reaven said.

There were many white Amer­i­can-pro­duced items that de­picted anti-Chi­nese sen­ti­ment, in­clud­ing a snuff box from the late 1800s that shows vi­o­lence against a Chi­nese la­borer, and a num­ber of car­toons pub­lished in US news­pa­pers that por­tray stereo­types of Chi­nese la­bor­ers, all of which will be on dis­play at the ex­hibit.

But items from Chi­nese fam­i­lies were of­ten hard to find, Reaven said.

“News­pa­pers were cer­tainly writ­ing about [the Chi­nese], but there are fewer col­lec­tions of Chi­nese-Amer­i­can ephemera that went down through fam­i­lies, prob­a­bly be­cause fam­i­lies weren’t be­ing set up as much as other cul­tures. At first, it was be­cause of the cul­tural pref­er­ences about women not trav­el­ing, but then sec­ondly be­cause they were pre­vented to do so by law,” she said.

“I think it could of­ten be women who could be hold­ers of fam­ily lore and things like that, so if fam­i­lies aren’t be­ing set up, you’re prob­a­bly not go­ing to have the same kinds of col­lect­ing go­ing on if people are not able to set up more sta­ble house­holds. There’s maybe not an at­tic where this ma­te­rial is col­lected.”

As part of a marginal­ized class, Chi­nese la­bor­ers had less sta­ble lives, less time for recre­ational ac­tiv­i­ties like let­ter writ­ing, and those who did were less likely to have their works com­piled by pub­lish­ing houses, Reaven said.

So putting to­gether the ex­hibit, which took about two years, re­quired work­ing ex­ten­sively with dif­fer­ent his­tor­i­cal so­ci­ety or­ga­ni­za­tions like the Chi­nese His­tor­i­cal So­ci­ety of Amer­ica in San Fran­cisco, as well as mu­se­ums that had pre-ex­ist­ing art­works from the time, like the Met­ro­pol­i­tan Mu­seum of Art.

But Reaven said that an ex­hibit fea­tur­ing Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can his­tory is im­por­tant be­cause that part of Amer­i­can his­tory of­ten gets over­looked.

“In the text­books, you learn maybe about Chi­nese people work­ing on the rail­roads, the Gold Rush; you get a cou­ple of lines about Chi­nese ex­clu­sion... But there’s re­ally very lit­tle else that’s cov­ered as part of Amer­i­can his­tory, so this puts the Chi­nese-Amer­i­can story in the cen­ter of Amer­i­can his­tory. I think that’s why in­sti­tu­tion wanted to do it,” she said.

The ex­hibit will run un­til May 2015 be­fore mov­ing to other cities, in­clud­ing Port­land, Ore­gon and San Fran­cisco.

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