Landmark Exhibit Tells the Essential Story of Chinese America

Diorama of the passing of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. (Courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America)

On Sept. 2, 1885 in Rock Springs, Wyoming, a mob of 150 white miners rioted against Chinese immigrants, who they perceived as taking away their work. Armed and violent, they demanded the Chinese leave town. By the end of what became known as the Rock Springs Massacre, 28 Chinese lives were taken, hundreds fled to the hills, and every Chinese home and business fell to fire.

This is one of myriad forgotten or overlooked stories of the Chinese American experience -- from the tragic and unjust to the resilient and remarkable -- brought to light with the opening of the new exhibit, Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion at San Francisco's Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA).

Diorama of the Rock Springs Massacre in 1885.
Diorama of the Rock Springs Massacre in 1885. (Courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America)

The presentation, on view indefinitely, is a gleaming collection of art, set pieces, films and interactive storytelling chronicling the history of Chinese in America, which is in many ways a history of the nation itself.

“We want everyone to know that Chinese have been part of U.S. society as long as the country has been established,” says the historical society's deputy director, Pam Wong. “We want people to know that Chinese people should not be seen as foreigners or those that do not belong, but we are very much a part of American society.”

Installation view of 'Exclusion/Inclusion.'
Installation view of 'Exclusion/Inclusion.' (Courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America)

First installed at the New York Historical Society in 2014 with curatorial help from Wong and the CHSA, the exhibit toured to Portland, Oregon. The New York Historical Society then gifted the show to San Francisco, where it is welcome representation of one of the city’s most enduring communities and cultural presences.

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The exhibition itself is not vast, but the stories encompassed make the show a comprehensive and imaginative education of what makes Chinese Americans, well, American -- a fact that Wong says still needs to be reinforced.

“Our visitors could be from the Midwest or the South where the [Chinese] population isn’t as big,” Wong says. “They’re surprised when they come and talk to me, and they say, ‘Oh, you speak very good English.’” American-born, Wong is never sure how to handle these awkward exchanges, but she's certain a lot of work needs to be done to dispel such assumptions, and that Exclusion/Inclusion is a vital push in the right direction.

The exhibition weaves through a timeline of the birth and growth of Chinese America -- from trade relations in the early 19th century to a tide of simmering prejudice: racist propaganda, violence and lynchings, and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

One element of 'Exclusion/Inclusion.'
One element of 'Exclusion/Inclusion.' (Courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America)

In a constructed set of men’s barracks, Chinese characters are inscribed into wooden planks; detained immigrants etched their sorrows along isolated walls. A long row of placards hover overhead, representing the identification cards that Chinese Americans had to carry to prove their legal belonging.

But the landmark exhibit, like the very fabric of the immigrant experience, is not simply a record of discrimination, but of vitality and community in spite of hardship. Chinese immigrants became journalists, civil rights activists, and soldiers in service. The exhibition includes a rare collection of watercolors by 20th-century painter Jake Lee, a California native who devoted much of his practice to capturing scenes of daily Chinese American life -- from shoemakers in Massachusetts to vineyard workers in Sonoma County.

Jake Lee paintings in 'Exclusion/Inclusion.'
Jake Lee paintings in 'Exclusion/Inclusion.' (Courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of America)

Wong acknowledges that not every modern Chinese American will necessarily relate. “But for them to understand that pioneers have paved the way for society now, that is important in itself,” Wong says.

As for everyone else, the exhibit will hopefully expand awareness of America’s multifaceted history. “There’s not one face to being an American,” Wong says. “It could be someone whose family has been here for five generations or it could be someone who just arrived. But regardless of their story, America is known to be the land of the immigrants -- to be inclusive rather than exclusive.”

Q.Logo.Break

Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion is on view at the Chinese American Historical Society in San Francisco. Visit chsa.org for more information.

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