Two exhibits at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology in Albuquerque
TWO SHOWS AT THE MAXWELL MUSEUM OF ANTHROPOLOGY
thomas Nast published his political cartoon “Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose” nearly a century and a half ago, in 1870. On the summit of a huge partition, labeled “The ‘Chinese Wall’ Around the United States of America,” angry citizens of European extraction gather to topple a ladder reaching up to them, leaving a handful of pigtailed Chinese people stranded perhaps 20 feet below. A copy of the drawing hangs near the beginning of the exhibition Chinese Americans in New Mexico at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, a show that offers historical and sociological insight into a minority population that rarely figures in conversations about our multicultural state. “The attitudes displayed in this cartoon,” reads an accompanying panel, “foreshadow passage of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.” Right. Yet the image seems so strangely contemporary. As George Santayana famously put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”
Various laws were passed in the late 19th century to prevent Asian immigrants from taking American jobs and ostensibly depressing wages for other workers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the most far-reaching. Signed by President Chester A. Arthur (who may have been born in Canada), that law was supposed to last only 10 years, but it kept getting extended or incorporated into succeeding legislation, and it remained essentially in force until it was finally repealed in 1943. By the time it went into effect, Chinese workers were already part of the New Mexico scene. Many worked as laborers constructing the Southern Pacific railroad.
After that transcontinental line was fully established in 1881, some of the Chinese workers found employment as miners. Others set up businesses such as laundries and ethnic restaurants that didn’t compete with existing Anglo establishments or shops specializing in imported Asian merchandise. Sometimes they met with hostility, as was the case with some Chinese immigrants who hoped to make a real-estate purchase in Deming, according to a story reported by the Deming Headlight. “In 1888, for example,” an exhibition panel explains of the incident, “an Anglo beat two Chinese men with a club for trying to obtain a city lot — and the local newspaper approved of his actions.”
Nonetheless, the Chinese presence persisted. The Maxwell’s team, headed by Devorah Romanek, its curator of exhibits, has brought together a modest but fascinating assemblage of newspaper clippings, photographs (portraits and town views), and legal documents that testify to the increasingly visible niche the community occupied. A photograph from 1890-95 looks down East San Francisco Street in Santa Fe. The view culminates at the familiar façade of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, but sharp eyes can make out a shingle marking the Sang Kee laundry, one of the first Chinese establishments in the capital city and a testament to the truism that cleanliness is next to godliness. Other photos document the Chinese presence in other parts of the state, including Kingston and Hillsboro (where mining booms offered good job prospects), Socorro, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Deming. A 1902 map of Silver City, produced by the Sanborn Map Company, identifies by profession the businesses in two of the city’s blocks: cobbler, jeweler, gunsmith, and so on — with several other lots labeled just “Chinese.”
“Sanborn made these maps for insurance purposes,” Romanek explained to Pasatiempo, “and, as I understand it, the implication was that if the block caught fire, the firefighters wouldn’t need to worry about the places marked ‘Chinese.’ ”
Some of the immigrants flourished. We see an identity document for Sam Kee, wearing traditional Chinese garb in his photo. In 1903, an article in the Albuquerque Citizen said he had arrived in the U.S. about 30 years earlier. He was apparently prospering at his shop on South Second Street in Albuquerque, where he dealt in Chinese and Japanese foods and goods. An adjoining document bears the likeness of his young son, Sam Ho Kee, and guarantees his re-entry to the United States following a period he spent going to school in China, because “the said Sam Ho Kee is a citizen of the United States, having been born in the City of Albuquerque, County of Bernalillo, and Territory of New Mexico.” We catch up with Sam Ho Kee again in 1906; at the age of sixteen, he is graduating from Albuquerque High School as valedictorian of his class of 10 students — an achievement considered so remarkable that it earned national press coverage. From there, he would go on to attend the University of Michigan.
The exhibition gives a nod to modern times by displaying a number of teapots and cups lent by Albuquerque families. “Throughout my childhood,” said Dr. Siu Wong of the heirlooms she provided for the display, “these tea cups were never used; they were too fragile for everyday life. Instead they were a reminder of my family’s affluent lifestyle prior to the Japanese occupation of China in the late 1930s and early 1940s.” Although these pieces boast neither great antiquity nor exceptional monetary value, they are cherished as testaments to a family heritage that led from a past in distant China to a future in the American Southwest.
Above, sancai lidded tripod jar, CE 618-907; right, top to bottom, Thomas Nast: Throwing Down the Ladder by Which
They Rose, 1870, courtesy Art & Picture Collection, New York Public Library; interior of Fremont’s, with restaurateur Jimmy Jeung at far right, Albuquerque, 1947-58, gelatin silver print, courtesy Ed Jeung; Tom Ying Restaurant and
Store, Hillsboro,1895-1902, glass negative, photo possibly by George T. Miller Opposite page, top, W.E. Hook: East San Francisco Street, Santa Fe, 1890-1895 (detail), albumen print cabinet card, courtesy Palace of the Governors Photo Archives, Neg. No. 015325; center, Sam Ho Kee (top left) and graduating class, Albuquerque High School, 1906, courtesy Center for Southwest Research, UNM, and Anna Naruta-Moya; bottom, identity document for Sam Ho Kee, early 20th century, courtesy National Archives and Anna Naruta-Moya