Blue Star Museums Blog (Archive)

Telling Stories at the Chinese American Museum

The Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles. Photo courtesy of flickr user channone

The story of L.A.’s Chinese-American community is not a simple one to tell. To start from the beginning, you must reach back to the 1840s, and wade through ugly periods of discrimination and racism. Then there are the myriad internal sub-communities, each one with a voice to represent. And like most cultures, the Chinese-American population is constantly evolving, with new issues, trends, and achievements to navigate. But at the Chinese American Museum in Los Angeles, this long and fascinating story is beautifully told through contemporary artwork, historic artifacts, oral histories, and special events. We spoke with museum curator and native Angeleno Steve Wong, who discussed the incredible history of the museum’s building, the forced demolition and eventual reestablishment of the city’s Chinatown, and the stereotypes about Chinatown that he hopes to dispel in the museum’s upcoming exhibit, (de)Constructing Chinatown, which opens in July.

NEA: Can you tell me a bit about the history of the building that houses the museum?

STEVE WONG: The building was built by a French developer named Phillipe Garnier. He built it specifically for the Chinese-American community in Los Angeles, which is pretty unique. So he was a developer but a pretty interesting entrepreneur who saw an ability to make money off the Chinese-American community. At the time, it was very difficult for Chinese Americans, or Chinese immigrants.

It was built in 1890 and has always been occupied by Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans through living quarters, businesses, shops, and what’s really important, associations for Chinese Americans. These associations were really important for the Chinese community here because they offered a lot of governance and social services that were either denied to them by mainstream institutions or were inaccessible for Chinese living in Los Angeles.

NEA: I understand that it’s also the only existing building from the old Chinatown?

WONG: The community was displaced first by Union Station, which was literally built on top of the historic Chinatown. Then [Highway] 101 was later built. The 101 actually cut a third off the Garnier building; they actually used some of the old bricks and rebuilt a wall to kind of seal it up. So we’re only two-thirds of what used to be the Garnier Building.

NEA: Could you talk a little bit about the evolution from the historic Chinatown to New Chinatown?

WONG: With the impending demolition of old Chinatown, you had several Chinese-American leaders, business leaders, and community members who got together and wanted to make sure their kind of displacement never happened again. They wanted to own and control their future. So they negotiated with the Santa Fe Railroad Company to acquire a plot of land just a quarter mile from historic Chinatown, and they were then able to build what then they called New Chinatown.

They hired two architects, and really kind of structured it based on a tourist economy. The community was then able to open stores. A lot of the buildings were mixed-use, so you had retail down at the bottom and residential at the top. In 1939, they opened New Chinatown with much fanfare and it became quite a popular tourist destination in the late 1930s, early ‘40s, and on to the ‘50s.

The current Chinatown is still approximately 70 percent Asian, and within that, you have a diverse mix of people. While you still have a majority of Chinese and Chinese Americans living in Chinatown, you have a lot of Southeast Asians. There’s also a strong Latino population.

NEA: How did the community’s identity change during this transition to New Chinatown?

WONG: Because Chinatown was displaced, they were able to reinvent themselves in New Chinatown. The same thing happened in San Francisco. Because of the Great San Francisco Earthquake, they had to rebuild. Again, a lot of it was because of employment discrimination… and legislation preventing Chinese Americans from entering mainstream employment. They couldn’t just get a job being a doctor, an attorney, or even blue-collar work. They had to turn inwards and figure out to subsist on their own.

So the Chinese-American community was forced to rely on a tourist economy. New Chinatown was branded, and a lot of the identity and employment was focused on marketing Chinatown as a tourist destination. If you go there, you have a lot of tourist shops, and restaurants that are catering not only to their own internal community, but to “outsiders.” Along with the architecture of the buildings and the signage, Chinatown had been marketed [for tourists] from its inception. That continues today.

The Garnier Building in 1942. Now home to the Chinese American Museum, the building is the only surviving structure from L.A.'s historic Chinatown. Photo courtesy of the Chinese American Museum

NEA: For your upcoming exhibit, (de)Constructing Chinatown, new artwork will be created that "will break down common-held notions about L.A.’s Chinatown.” What are some of these notions or generalizations that you would like audiences to rethink?

WONG: The irony is that the early Chinese-American community was forced to play up those ideas of exoticism…in order to gain customers for their gift shops or their tours. There’s another area called China City that competed with New Chinatown, and they completely played into these exoticism stereotypes. They offered rickshaw rides. Early on, in historic Chinatown, there were fake opium dens that were set up for tourists. So the older, historical stereotypes were that this was a place for exotic intrigue, or a place for illicit happenings, like opium dens or prostitution.

Some of the more contemporary stereotypes are that you go to Chinatown for exotic food or you go to Chinatown for gift shops or trinkets or to buy these curios. Even Angelenos go to Chinatown for those things. So with the (de)constructing Chinatown show, we’re trying to move away from viewing Chinatown as a place where you can see a pagoda, or a Chinese silk dress. I lived in Chinatown for about seven years, and what used to infuriate me was seeing tourists come in and buy these rice paddy hats. We’re trying to look at Chinatown as a vibrant community. It’s a place where people live and work and go to school. It’s a place where families are trying to make a living; where immigrant families are trying to achieve the American dream. It’s really focusing on Chinatown as a community and not just a tourist destination.

Beyond just preserving our community’s history, we’ve always used art as a way to illustrate various issues for the Chinese-American community. What’s also important about this exhibition is that it was an open call, so we specifically looked for proposals that came from a diverse group of people. One of the stereotypes of Chinatown is that it’s just a place for Chinese people. Yes, Chinese are a majority in Chinatown, but it is a diverse place, and we want to reflect that with the artists that we brought in to do the show.  

NEA: You actually touched on my next thought. The museum seems to be a really great balance of historical exhibits and contemporary work. How do you maintain that balance, and how do you think it parallels L.A.’s Chinese-American community in general, in terms of preserving tradition and assimilating?

WONG: I think we live in a very open, multicultural society that allows the preservation of one’s cultural heritage. So the assimilation process is real, but in order to be assimilated, I don’t think you have to leave your cultural aspects behind, at least in our idealized society.

When talking about Chinese-American history, our history can go back to the 1500s and 1600s. But the emphasis on major immigration started in the 1840s because of the Gold Rush. Because of discriminatory legislation, Chinese were banned from entering the country for decades starting in the 1880s. But now, after 1965, you have a whole new and different wave of immigration. So we have the whole San Gabriel Valley, which is the new, suburban Chinese-American enclave that spreads out pretty far. And newer immigrants are often disconnected from older Chinese-American history… One of the struggles is trying to balance different stories at the museum, but by including more contemporary work, and addressing contemporary issues, we’re then hopefully able to bridge the older communities with the newer immigrant communities.

A lot of people view Chinese Americans or Chinese as a very homogenous ethnicity or culture. One thing that we try to do at the museum is show how diverse the Chinese-American community is, or even being Chinese. There are over 50 different ethnicities within China, so people who immigrate here have a diverse background ethnically, socio-economically, and politically. That’s one of our challenges at the museum: to tell a diverse group of stories.

So we’re struggling to bridge those internal communities, and the diversity within the community, but also how do we make those bridges with other communities? How do we take Chinese-American history and contemporary Chinese-American issues, and make them relevant to the African-American community, to the Latino community, to other immigrant communities, and also to the mainstream communities within Los Angeles? Our changing, contemporary exhibitions try to address issues that are relevant to both the Chinese-American community and the broader communities of Los Angeles.

NEA: Do you have any favorite pieces or artifacts in the collection?

WONG: I’m interested in how the Chinese-American community marketed these stereotypes as a means of livelihood, and was forced to play upon these ideas of hyper-ethnicity. So I like the marketing materials of Chinatown in the late ‘30s into the ‘40s. Often times they’re in the form of brochures or pamphlets, Chinese restaurant menus obviously marketing to a non-Chinese clientele, and also postcards. So those tend to be my favorite artifacts.

In the ‘40s and ‘50s, there was also this group called the Mei Wah Drum Corps. They started off as a sports club, but during the war, they became a drum corps. And so it was a group of young, Chinese-American women who performed and competed in drum corps competitions and parades. On loan, we have some of their dresses, some of their drums, and a lot of their trophies. It really illustrates the community’s participation in becoming super patriots in some ways to prove their assimilation in the ‘40s and ‘50s. So I find those artifacts quite interesting.

NEA: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

WONG: On a more personal note, I am a native Angeleno. When I was growing up, a lot of people were trying to leave Chinatown. Chinatown has always been seen as a stepping stone to the American dream, to move out to the suburbs and own a home with a white picket fence. So when I was growing up, you had this exodus of people finally achieving the means to move outside of Chinatown. Yet these people who were moving away from Chinatown would always come back, including my family who would use Chinatown as a kind of satellite community where there were grocery stores where you could still buy Chinese groceries, but also meet with relatives and family friends over dim sum. So my relationship with Chinatown, it’s not unique, it’s actually quite common for my generation to use Chinatown as that gathering place and community center.

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