Sharing History With Staff from the Chinese American Museum

by Paul R. Spitzzeri

It was a pleasure today to welcome paid and volunteer staff members from the Chinese American Museum of Los Angeles to the Homestead.  The visit began with a presentation about artifacts in the museum’s collection related to Chinese and Chinese-Americans in greater Los Angeles.  It noted a couple of connections between our site’s history and that of the Chinese.  For example, in the 1860 census, the Workman household included a Chinese cook, though his name was given as “John Chinaman.”  A little over a decade later, in the aftermath of the horrific Chinese Massacre of October 1871, F.P.F. Temple was a jury foreman in a criminal trial involving participants in that deadly riot and lynching.

The talk focused on some examples of the couple hundred objects on the subject, mainly photographs and postcards, but including some ephemera, as well.  Many are blatantly racist depictions, utilizing crude stereotypes in attempts at humor, reflecting exotic notions about the Chinese and their community, and serving to reinforce ideas of white (Anglo) superiority.

Other artifacts, however, though fewer in number are more representative of the reality of life for the Chinese in the region.  These include studio portraits, photos of laborers, and the occasional piece that shows resilience and initiative in business and other aspects of daily life.

This leather postcard from the Homestead collection and issued in Los Angeles about 1905 attempts to find humor in a stereotyped caricature of a Chinese launderer for a Board of Trade’s “watered stock.”

My colleague, Isis Quan, discussed a very interesting project she’s been working on for a couple of months regarding a 1920s letter written in Chinese.  What was assumed to be a fairly straightforward business document has turned out to be more complex, and much more interesting, than initially thought.

Isis will talk more about this in a future post, but what she has discovered in consulting with family members and volunteers fluent in written classical Chinese and in research, along with another colleague, Gennie Truelock, is that there is an international dimension involving a match company, a short-lived stock exchange in Shanghai, and interested parties in Los Angeles, San Francisco, and China.

The juxtaposition of fantasy or unreality through stereotyping with everyday life is one that is of interest for the Homestead generally.  This could include such areas as media, including in film and music; economics, such as exaggerations or misrepresentation by, say, chambers of commerce as opposed to what workers had to deal with; and politics, where reform movements could be contrasted with “practical politics” and the strange alliances that often result with the latter.

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Also from the museum’s holdings, this postcard, published for the national convention of the Shriners fraternal order, held in Los Angeles in May 1912, utilizes “broken English” and a Chinese caricature.

Our site history has its share of contradiction, as well.  One paramount example is in La Casa Nueva, where the Temple family indulged in representations of ethnicity and race through celebrating their Latino heritage through the home’s architecture, yet developed Temple City, which had clear racial restrictions that “only white people reside here, white people of a desirable class.”  The Temples, however, were of their time in this regard, rather the rule than the exception, but it is a reality that we want to interpret for and with our visitors.

The staff from the Chinese-American Museum were intrigued to see, as well, the exhibit component in the house’s dining room, adjacent to the living room where the Temple City pamphlet is displayed, because of the decoration of the space to recreate a 1920s Mah Jong party.  Though racism against the Chinese was very much still in evidence, there was an exotic fascination with such elements as the tile game that appears to have been developed in Shanghai in the 1870s.

Coming to the United States in the 1920s and first sold by Abercrombie and Fitch, it became “all the rage,” to borrow a term of the time, played with great gusto and enthusiasm by Americans who often had “mah jong” parties with Chinese-themed decorations.  We don’t know whether the Temples played the game, but part of our purpose is to discuss historical context, so the display reflects that interest.

In a notable contrast to the above artifacts, this late 1880s cabinet card portrait by Frank G. Schumacher of Los Angeles shows two young Chinese men in traditional clothing holding books in their hands, showing that they were scholars, a sign of status among the Chinese.

The group was also very interested in the display in the La Casa Nueva kitchen that included a 1920s cookbook, published in Chicago, that professed to present authentic Chinese “chop suey” and other recipes.  As is often the case in the fantasy/reality question, chop suey is not a dish from China, but is often attributed to several “creation myths.”

One is that the dish was created in Gold Rush San Francisco, another is that a Chinese diplomat in New York in 1896 instructed his chef to create something that would appeal to American tastes.  Still another is that chop suey came from Chinese Americans who employed the term tsap seui or “miscellaneous leftovers” to create the new dish.

In the presentation before the tour, I’d mentioned that, when I arrived at the Homestead in 1988, much of our local area was undergoing a significant shift in demographics, especially in Hacienda Heights and Rowland Heights, the hillside communities to our south and east.  Asian migration was increasing rapidly and these bedroom communities were very desirable because of the housing stock, schools, and other amenities.

At the end of that year, the Hsi Lai Buddhist Temple opened directly south of the museum in Hacienda Heights and that project engendered many bitter feelings among some longtime residents who objected to the size of the temple, said to be the largest Buddhist temple in the Western Hemisphere, the concern about crowds and traffic, but expressed concerns about the “foreign” architecture and that the community was being changed into a Chinese one.

This 1913 clipping from William Randolph Hearst’s Los Angeles Examiner includes a feature article about Lung Yep, owner of the successful Sing Fat Company and the Oriental Cafe of Los Angeles, and an apartment building in Hollywood that apparently made him the first Chinese landlord in the area.

Three decades later, Hsi Lai has become a vital and engaged part of the community and many of the feelings expressed three decades ago have eased.  In fact, plans announced just in the last week for an expansion across Hacienda Boulevard have, apparently, generated some concern about the environmental effects, more traffic and the like, and not nearly as much about the ethnic or cultural dimension.

At the Homestead, we’ve seen a steady increase in visitation by Asians in recent years and we’re looking to improve our outreach in whatever ways we can, one being to have artifacts in our collection that present opportunities to interpret the history of Japanese-Americans, Chinese-Americans and other Asian groups in the context of the history of greater Los Angeles.

Given the fact that the Chinese American Museum is in the historic core of Los Angeles, where Chinese settlement dates back to the mid-Nineteenth century, but that so much migration has focused on the San Gabriel Valley for the last few decades, the Homestead can be a partner with the Chinese American Museum in presenting history that covers the purposes and missions of each.  Today was a way to open the door to more collaboration and we hope to pursue ideas for how to carry out a partnership for mutual benefit.


2 thoughts

  1. So easy to (try to) forget how commonplace these caricatures of Chinese and other minorities were in the 19th century and beyond.

  2. Hi Eleanor, thanks for the comment. A major reason for posts like this is to remind us of what the lessons of history can show us now and moving forward.

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