Jack Tchen: Curating Chinese-American history BIO
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.”
Jack Tchen came to New York by way of Wisconsin.