Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Unforgettable Exhibition—Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion
by Winny Lin
Co-chair of South Bay Chapter, USCPFA

     It was almost by accident that I learned of the exciting and informative exhibition now at the Chinese Historical Society of America’s museum on Clay Street in San Francisco Chinatown.  Two friends had casually mentioned it on Facebook and I knew at once that it was a “must see”. The exhibition is called “Chinese American:Exclusion/Inclusion”. 

The museum describes the exhibition as “a gift from the New York Historical Society which traces the Chinese American experience since the beginning of trade between the United States and China in 1784 through the turbulent struggle for equal rights and opportunities in this country.”   However  the SF Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) also has added elements which bring a West Coast perspective to it. 

I have long been very interested in the Chinese experience in America.  I am getting more familiar with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, have recently visited Angel Island, the entry point for many Chinese immigrants, and read many memories by Chinese American authors.  So, this exhibition was immediately and powerfully attractive. I was also eager to learn more about the CHSA and its programs. When my friends and I visited the museum on November 16, we we treated to a wonderful experience which no one should miss or no Chinese-Americans should miss.  Three aspects of the exhibition stand out to me:

1.  United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898)

First there is an examination of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and its dreadful impact on Chinese immigrants.  But then I learned about the 1898 Supreme Court case of U.S. vs Wong Kim Ark.  Using a small section of the Exclusion Act as its rational, a California court refused to readmit Wong back into America after his visit to China. Wong was born in the US of parents here legally and held that the 14th amendment to the Constitution guaranteed his citizenship.  The Supreme Court ruled in his favor and that ruling continues to grant citizenship those born here. This is the first time I have heard of this story. I am very proud that one of our own had the courage to carry the struggle all the way to the Supreme Court. 

2. Jake Lee, the artist and his paintings

The second is the paintings of Jake Lee (1915-1991), a well-known watercolor artist in the San Francisco area.  The paintings themselves caught my eye because of the historical relevance, but Lee’s story is also very interesting.  In 1959 the owner of Kan’s restaurant in Chinatown commissioned Lee to make 12 paintings with themes that celebrated the Chinese experience in the United States especially in SF.  Kan hung them all in his restaurant, but they somehow disappeared upon Kan’s death. Fortunately, CHSA has found eight of them at auction and they are a superb addition to the exhibition.  The paintings shown below one depicts the festival scene with a lion dance and the other tells the story of brave Chinese workers building the transcontinental railroad. 

3. Frank Wong’s Miniture Chinatown

The third standout was partially hidden away in a backroom.  My friend, Carol Louie, pointed out  those miniature models to me and I instantly fell in love with all the intricate and detailed designs, including furniture and household items.  Taken together they show the life lived in San Francisco’s Chinatown from 1940’s to the present day.  The pieces are the work of a self-taught, 81-yr-old artist named Frank Wong.  Here is a photo that I took of the kitchen. It is crammed with old-fashioned wall paper, linoleum floor, but the most interesting part to me is what is inside those cabinets.

In conclusion, I just want to say how thankful I am that there is a group like CHSA dedicated to keeping the history of us Chinese-Americans alive and well.  The museum gathers and promotes the social, cultural and political history of the Chinese in America and their ongoing contributions to American life. 
I wonder if they would some time in the future do an exhibition of the contemporary Chinese-American achievers like Elaine Chao ( appointed by Donald Trump as the next Secretary of Transportation ), I. M. Pei (architect), Vera Wang (fashion design), Bruce Lee (martial arts and film industry ), Jeremy Lin (Sports), Gary Locke (former ambassador to China) and more. There is so much we should be proud of and need to be reminded of. 
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