Jack Tchen: Cu­rat­ing Chi­nese-Amer­i­can his­tory BIO

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

Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai had a goal in 1980: piece to­gether the his­tory of New York’s Chi­na­town. And they had a prob­lem: there were no ar­chives, no manuscripts, no city or­ga­ni­za­tions that had de­voted time or re­sources col­lect­ing sto­ries from the Chi­nese com­mu­nity.

Tchen, who had come to New York by way of Wis­con­sin, grew up go­ing to mu­se­ums be­cause his fa­ther worked as a bib­li­og­ra­pher in the anthropology depart­ment at the Field Mu­seum in Chicago. So he was com­fort­able with cu­rat­ing and gath­er­ing sto­ries. But when he be­gan do­ing re­search on Chi­na­town’s his­tory, none of the city’s big­gest in­sti­tu­tions gave him any in­for­ma­tion.

“I be­gan to re­al­ize that the in­sti­tu­tions of the city only kept cer­tain sto­ries, cer­tain manuscripts, cer­tain ar­chives, cer­tain ob­jects, and didn’t re­ally care about the great majority of peo­ple,” said Tchen, who now is the di­rec­tor of the Asian/Pa­cific/ Amer­i­can In­sti­tute at New York Univer­sity.

“That was just at the time when so­cial his­tory was be­ing de­vel­oped as a field of study in academia. I re­al­ized that the his­tory of Chi­na­town has not ac­tu­ally been re­ally worked on. There were some peo­ple do­ing some work, but I was more in­ter­ested less in the pol­i­tics than the so­cial lives of every­day peo­ple,” he said.

Tchen and Lai de­cided to do it them­selves, and it be­came the New York Chi­na­town His­tory Project, ar­chiv­ing of the lives of Chi­nese laun­dry work­ers, who were an in­dis­pens­able part of the city and of Chi­ne­seAmer­i­can his­tory in the US.

Chi­nese mer­chants were al­lowed in the coun­try, ex­empt from the Chi­nese Ex­clu­sion Act of 1882, and they were able to cre­ate busi­nesses with laun­dry work­ers, and later on, Chi­nese restau­rant work­ers. Tchen and Lai be­gan talk­ing to Chi­nese laun­dry work­ers to doc­u­ment their ex­pe­ri­ences, and work­ers and their fam­i­lies be­gan to share their sto­ries and even­tu­ally do­nated items to the project.

One laun­dry was the Sam Wah Laun­dry in the South Bronx. The fa­ther of the fam­ily who owned the laun­dry had beenslain, and the fam­ily reached out to Tchen and Lai.

“We got a phone call say­ing, ‘We’re clos­ing up this laun­dry, do you want to just come and take ev­ery­thing?’ So we helped the fam­ily close up the laun­dry and we took all the things they wanted to get rid of, and that be­came the ba­sis of a col­lec­tion that we started,” Tchen said.

The then 29-year-old Tchen was in­ter­ested in doc­u­men­ta­tion work, not nec­es­sar­ily open­ing a mu­seum, but just hav­ing a col­lec­tion of ar­ti­facts and sto­ries from a com­mu­nity of peo­ple largely ig­nored by his­to­ri­ans and so­ci­ol­o­gists.

Chi­na­town was chang­ing rapidly in the 1980s due to shifts in im­mi­gra­tion poli­cies in the US: fam­i­lies were im­mi­grat­ing to the coun­try, the gar­ment in­dus­try saw a huge boom, the Chi­nese were build­ing new stores to re­place old ones that had closed down, and lower Man­hat­tan was see­ing rapid change in de­mo­graph­ics.

“It was a pe­riod of dra­matic change, and we re­al­ized that a lot of the new peo­ple com­ing had no idea what the ear­lier his­tory was about,” said Tchen. “The early his­tory was re­ally a tough his­tory. A lot of the old men who are still liv­ing in Chi­na­town are re­tired laun­dry work­ers and restau­rant work­ers, and no­body un­der­stood what their sto­ries were.”

Through the New York Chi­na­town His­tory Project, the duo’s goal was to help doc­u­ment im­mi­grant sto­ries un­told and to ed­u­cate new im­mi­grants ar­riv­ing in the city. Even­tu­ally, they had gath­ered enough ma­te­rial to do dif­fer­ent ex­hibits around Chi­na­town be­fore tak­ing it to the New York Pub­lic Li­brary.

“For me, this is learn­ing the process of how to do re­search in a way that hon­ors the com­mu­nity ex­pe­ri­ence but also builds trust with the peo­ple over time. Through that process, we be­gan re­think­ing how you can do pub­lic pro­grams and how you can work with peo­ple,” Tchen said.

Tchen, born in Wis­con­sin in 1951, is the son of im­mi­grant par­ents from Jiangxi prov­ince in China. He was raised in the sub­urbs of Chicago in the 1950s after the Korean War when new sub­urbs were be­ing built in the US. Tchen was an “an­chor baby”, a child born to nonci­t­i­zen par­ents who would even­tu­ally help the par­ents qual­ify for Amer­i­can cit­i­zen­ship, and his fam­ily was one of the few Asian fam­i­lies in a mostly-white neigh­bor­hood.

He grew up dur­ing the be­gin­ning of the Red Scare in the US, when Amer­i­can so­ci­ety was deeply para­noid about the rise and spread of com­mu­nism. There was not a lot of un­der­stand­ing,Tchen said, of the dif­fer­ences be­tween the East Asian eth­nic groups, some­thing that even­tu­ally mo­ti­vated Tchen to pur­sue the study of his­tory, and Asian-Amer­i­can his­tory and so­ci­ety.

His stud­ies took him east to New York, where he be­gan vol­un­teer­ing at the Base­ment Work­shop, an NYC com­mu­nity arts cen­ter es­tab­lished by and for the Asian-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity. Even­tu­ally, Tchen be­gan work on the New York Chi­na­town His­tory Project, and after mov­ing on to and com­plet­ing his grad­u­ate stud­ies, be­came a pro­fes­sor at Queens Col­lege and later at New York Univer­sity.

Tchen’s lat­est book,

doc­u­ments the per­va­sive­ness of Yel­low Peril in the his­tory of Amer­ica, and the way anti-Asian fear ex­isted at dif­fer­ent points in time but stayed sim­i­lar in all its man­i­fes­ta­tions.

“This is my big take­away: from the US point of view, the Chi­nese ques­tion — which is not just about China, but the peo­ple, and the peo­ple are seen as a race — has never been re­solved,” he said. “It’s al­ways been a ques­tion that’s been asked at dif­fer­ent times. In 1882 the Chi­nese ques­tion was about la­bor, when the Com­mu­nists won the Civil War it was the ‘Red Chi­nese’ ques­tion, and whether all the Chi­nese laun­dry­man spies, for ex­am­ple. There’s al­ways been a con­fu­sion about what hap­pens in China and what hap­pens to peo­ple who are here be­cause of im­mi­gra­tion.”

With China’s rise now, the Chi­nese ques­tion is once again be­ing asked, Tchen said. China’s econ­omy is set to eclipse the US’, cre­at­ing com­pe­ti­tion and mis­trust and yet another ver­sion of Yel­low Peril, he said, a mod­ern rein­car­na­tion.

“It’s not to­tal war any­more, it’s more like limited war. So Yel­low Peril is used in limited war oc­ca­sions, or limited po­lit­i­cal mo­ments to try to win over votes, or try to cre­ate move­ments,” he said.

The role of ed­u­ca­tors and his­to­ri­ans, Tchen said, is to help com­bat ig­no­rance and en­cour­age crit­i­cal think­ing from the gen­eral pub­lic.

“One key for Asian-Amer­i­can stud­ies and Asian stud­ies is to get Americans to un­der­stand that it’s im­por­tant to un­der­stand th­ese his­to­ries. It’s not about Chi­nese Americans. It’s not about China,” he said. “It’s re­ally about Amer­i­can his­tory that they have to un­der­stand. They have to un­der­stand Amer­i­can his­tory — not from some civics les­son per­spec­tive, or some un­crit­i­cal his­tory per­spec­tive — but to re­ally delve into Amer­i­can his­tory and to re­al­ize that con­tra­dic­tions that ex­ist.”

PRO­VIDED TO CHINA DAILY

Jack Tchen came to New York by way of Wis­con­sin.

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