Coming to America

In trying to find an exhibit that detailed Asian immigration to the United States, I came across the Chinese Historical Society of America’s online initiative called “Civil Rights Suite.” As we had previously talked about African American civil rights, the women’s liberation movement, Latino rights, and the Red Power movement, I thought highlighting a site about Chinese-American activism would be a nice bookend to our semester-long discussion.

The Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) was founded in 1963 and claims to be the “oldest and largest organization in the country dedicated to the documentation, study, and presentation of Chinese American history.” [1] Located in San Francisco, CHSA has a 10,000 square foot gallery space, a Learning Center, and a performance/reception space.  Their mission statement promises to preserve this history “through exhibitions, publications, and educational, public programming.”  Through these efforts, “CHSA promotes the contributions and legacy of Chinese America.”[2] Their educational programs and exhibits reflect their dedication to preserving Chinese heritage. Children can take classes in traditional Chinese storytelling while adults can talk about contemporary Chinese literature in group book clubs. CHSA has a gallery space within their building that displays exhibits on topics such as the architecture of San Francisco’s Chinatown and the immigration of Chinese to America.

Their only online exhibit, “Civil Rights Suite: Exploring the History of the Chinese American Fight for Equality,” explores the history, struggles, and victories of Chinese Americans fighting for their civil rights. The gallery is broken up into three acts—“The Chinese of California,” “Remembering 1882,” and “Our American Citizenship.” The last segment focuses on the Chinese American Citizens Alliance’s (CACA) origins and its efforts to secure civil liberties. The exhibit chronicles important moments in Chinese-American struggles to secure civil rights, picking up after the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and continuing to the 1960s. Similar to the author Ha Jin in his collection of short stories, A Good Fall, the site does not shy away from the complexities of getting by in America. While the site tends to highlight success stories like Jin’s Rusheng in “An English Professor,” there are certainly glimpses of the inter-generational issues found within “Children as Enemies,” a story that describes…[3]

Within “Our American Citizenship,” the issue of Chinese immigration and naturalization is broken down into semi-chronological thematic units. In fact, the main purpose of this part of the site is to address “current debates surrounding civil liberties, immigration, and changing demographics” within not only the country, but also within Chinese communities.[4] From “The Savage Exclusion” to “The Next Generation,” issues of Chinese-American discrimination are coupled with acts of resistance. To enrich the visitor’s experience, the site uses images of newspaper articles, political cartoons, immigration certificates, photographs, and even material culture. In the interest of transparency, there is even a “works consulted” section where you can see were CHSA has pulled their information.

Although a useful site, it is not without its problems. First, it is important to realize that as a site with an activist angle, it does not offer an entirely balanced perspective. Secondly, although the site is called the Chinese Historical Society of America, it only deals with issues surrounding California’s Chinese Americans. Third, the site makes some broad and inconclusive claims regarding African-American activism. For instance, there is a section titled “Same Struggles, Same Paths” that introduces the idea that minority groups shared similar hardships.  It does so by making the assertion that the African American struggle and the Chinese-American struggle were one in the same.

Overall, however, I do think the site offers a good introduction to the issue of Chinese immigration and Chinese Americans’ fights for equality.

[1] “About,” Chinese Historical Society of America,

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ha Jin, A Good Fall: Stories (Pantheon, 2009).

[4] “MICROSITE: To Enjoy and Defend Our American Citizenship, Civil Rights Suite, Our American Citizenship,” Chinese Historical Society of America,

Categories: aw

2 thoughts on “Coming to America

  1. I looked into the Japanese American National Museum for my presentation last week and I think they have a similar mission, but without as much emphasis on activism. They also appear to embrace diversity nationally and globally with emphasis on mixed racial identity and various geographical traditions within their culture. I wonder if this slightly more open position taken by the JANM, which is also located in California (Los, Angeles), is more positive or negative and I wonder who the two organizations are received in their different communities. The JANM focuses quite a bit on children and seems to strive to create better awareness for later generations who are possibly less and less connected to their origins. I wonder how this differs from the CHSA.

  2. We talk a lot about making institutions relevant to different audiences and an organization like the CHSA would clearly be relevant to anyone with Chinese heritage. For organizations with a cultural or ethnic focus, how does that become relevant to people not actively seeking some understanding of that culture? Does embracing diversity do enough, or do organizations have to emphasize themes that are timely and relevant across cultures?

    The CHSA has a great opportunity to deepen understanding about its own people’s cultural struggle and to take a stance on a very current, very serious issue. I remember a reading during my interview weekend for one of Cindy’s material culture classes about ID cards and/or passports for Chinese immigrants in the American west around the turn of the century. These pieces of paper were extremely important for Chinese immigrants looking to work and stay in the U.S. It seems to be a great parallel to the current immigration laws in Arizona. The CHSA could tell its own story and relate it to a very pressing issue today.

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