I had the most amazing day yesterday. I went to the New York Historical Society with a bunch of Princetonians to see the special exhibit on the history of Chinese Americans.It is the first major exhibit of Chinese American history at a mainstream museum, according to Princeton Professor Beth Lew-Williams, who had brought students from her Asian American history class for a look. Alumni, organized by the amazing Mo Chen ’80, joined them. I write about Chinese American families, so I knew I would find inspiration and details here for my work.
The exhibit opens with artifacts from the first American ship, Empress of China, that sailed to Canton in search of a new trading partner, in 1784, when our country was brand-new: Did you know that George Washington ordered his china from China?
Chinese began coming to the U.S. in the 1840s to join the gold rush in California, followed by work on building the transcontinental railroad. The Chinese were barred from becoming U.S. citizens, but in Thomas Nast’s cartoon in Harper’s Weekly, 1869, a Chinese family is included at the national thanksgiving table:Here are some Chinese pioneers from the bad old days:Here’s the dude who may have been the first to use “Chinese American” as an assertion of identity, in his newspaper published in New York in 1883, a year after the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed. He meant it as a challenge.His name was Wong Chin Foo (1847-1898). He spoke fluent English, had a sharp tongue, a sense of humor, and no fear of bullies. He challenged an anti-Chinese activist to duel to the death, using his choice of weapon: “chopsticks, Irish potatoes or Krupp Guns.”
Did you know that the U.S. passed a LOT of anti-Chinese laws? Here are the walls enumerating them:The centerpiece of the exhibit is a re-creation of the barracks at Angel Island, the immigration station where Chinese immigrants were detained and interrogated before entry into the U.S. or deportation, from 1910-1940:Detainees left many sad poems on the walls at Angel Island, here is one:I’ve been to Angel Island. While this exhibit conveys some of the scariness of the interrogation room, and the hardships endured, it conveys none of the discomfort of the surroundings. The exhibit feels cozy and womb-like, while the actual building was barren, filthy, drafty and very likely unheated. Actually, the re-created rooms are quite beautiful, like cabins at an expensive sleep-away camp, not the ugly holding pen that it was.
The exhibits ends with portraits of prominent Chinese American New Yorkers, among them, my friend-that-I’ve-never-met-except-in-cyberspace, the Wall Street Journal dude, Jeff Yang: Hey Jeff! Congrats to your son for being the star of the new TV series, Fresh Off the Boat!!!! What a hard-working and adorable kid!!! Woohoo!!!!
Sadly, I don’t have any photos of our feast because I was too busy eating. One thing I learned at Princeton: When you eat with Tigers, SNARF as fast as you can, or starve. I kid you not.
The other thing I learned at Princeton: After you eat, take something for the road.
So after our banquet, we headed straight over to Fai Da, my favorite bakery: Marissa, Nick and George were just getting started. You should have seen all the goodies they got! Tigers need a lot of tiger food for the long, hungry ride back to campus.
And it was.
Thank you, Mo, for organizing the trip, and thank you,Tigers, for being utterly inspiring! You guys ROCK!!!