|Web Magazine Online|
|By Shanelle Eng|
For the Sake of Our Future: Youth and the Chinese American Museum
As a young Chinese American, I've heard these funny terms. And so have you. We can laugh now, but life wasn't so funny a hundred years ago for young Chinese like ourselves in Los Angeles. Did you know that Chinese immigrants were one of the building blocks of this city's rich multiethnic culture that we see all around us today? Did you know that the El Pueblo Monument on Olvera Street, the "birthplace" of Los Angeles, was the home for many Chinese immigrants over a hundred years ago?
Ask yourself why you don't know the answers to these questions. At UCLA, are we too busy partying or driving around in our fancy "ethnic" decorated race cars to recognize our history? Look around Los Angeles -- on the streets of Monterey Park and the hills of Westwood -- and what do you see? A generation of young Chinese Americans who are predestined by their parents to become money-making doctors, lawyers, and engineers. Are we a generation that have forgotten our history?
Don't get me wrong. I appreciate this great American life. But if it weren't for my ancestors laboring in the fields or sweating in the sun working on the railroads, I wouldn't be able to enjoy my university education. So I feel that we -- today's generation of young Chinese Americans -- are slacking as the leaders of our community.
I bet you didn't know that it has taken over 14 years in endless City Council meetings in order to get a 6,046-square-foot building on Olvera Street to honor Chinese American heritage and this city's multiethnic history. Why did it take 14 years? Did it have anything to do with our lack of involvement as youth?
Recently, I had the privilege of spending a day at El Pueblo. First, I took a VIP tour of the grounds and then interviewed Suellen Cheng, one of the curators of El Pueblo and also one of the founders of the Museum of Chinese American History (MCAH), which hopes to open in 1999. The idea for the Museum came from discussions involving El Pueblo and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC) and the efforts of Dr. Munson Kwok and Mr. Howard Quon, who first appeared before the City Council in 1984. This museum will be first of its kind for Chinese Americans in Los Angeles.
The museum will be housed in the Garnier Building, which was built in 1890 and is located on the birthplace of the City of Los Angeles. One hundred years ago, Chinese immigrants called this area their home. Now, it will once again serve the Chinese community. According to Suellen, the museum's mission is to share the richness and vitality of the Chinese American experience and to highlight our contributions to the dynamic and diverse community of Southern California.
The Museum's goals are to:
* present exhibits on Chinese Americans illustrating our creative resourcefulness, rich culture and heritage; * define and interpret the role of Chinese Americans in establishing the Los Angeles community;
* provide educational programs to the visiting public and schools;
* collect historical documents, photographs, and artifacts; and
* serve as a repository for research on Chinese American history.
On October 22, 1997, the Museum's planning committee hosted a gala event in Los Angeles honoring Chinese American "Historymakers" for their significant contributions to Southern California. Those Historymakers included the Honorable March Fong Eu and her son, Matthew K. Fong. They were people who paved the way for us and represent the voice for Chinese Americans today.
Life for the early Chinese immigrants of L.A. was not easy. Did you know that in 1871, 19 Chinese were brutally lynched by 500 Angelinos? Some still consider this day as being the worst racial violence in Los Angeles. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act barred Chinese immigrant laborers from entering the United States and denied immigrants who were here the right to naturalization. Around 1934, the relocation of "original" Chinatown began, a process of moving Chinese Americans from the Union Station area to the present-day Chinatown. However, in 1948, the city wanted to build again -- this time, the Hollywood Freeway. This construction destroyed the rest of the "original" Chinatown, except for the Garnier Building that lies between the "original" Chinatown and the El Pueblo property.
It has taken several years of hard work for the Museum of Chinese American History to gain recognition. Not only did MCAH have discussions with the City Council, but it has also had to justify its existence to others. In 1990, the Los Angeles Times reported that Mexican American protesters opposed the development of the south side of the El Pueblo plaza, the area where the Museum is going to be located. According to the article, protesters said the area was becoming too commercialized and there wasn't enough space for celebrating Mexican American culture. The MCAH has long stated that their proposed project will not only recognize Chinese American history but also other immigrant cultures which have commingled in Los Angeles from the beginning. Nevertheless, ethnic tensions continue to exist. During my tour of El Pueblo, I saw vandalism on two plaques on the Garnier Building and the landmark on North Los Angeles Street. Someone had scratched out references to Chinese residents on these plaques.
During my visit to El Pueblo, I was very impressed by Suellen and her passion for Chinese American history. Suellen was not born in Los Angeles. In fact, she was born in Taiwan and immigrated to the United States at the age of 26. Her interest in Chinese American history began at UCLA when she was an intern at the Asian American Studies Center. There, she discovered the lack of information about Chinese American history. She became involved with the Chinese Historical Society and visited the El Pueblo Monument when she was a graduate student. At that time, Suellen noticed that the tour guides only spoke about the Mexican American culture of El Pueblo and nothing pertaining to Chinese Americans, despite the proximity to Chinatown. She wanted to fill in these historical gaps and volunteered to become a tour guide.
Today, after many years of laboring at this historical site, Suellen is now a permanent curator and is exploring the oral and written history of the Chinese Americans around the El Pueblo area. She and the older Chinese American generations share a common dream that they can pass on the knowledge that they have obtained to a group of young, passionate Chinese American students.
After my visit to El Pueblo, I wondered where are these "young, passionate students"? Perhaps it's not our fault that we lack the knowledge of our history, but shouldn't we do something about it? Whether we are first generation or fifth generation Chinese Americans, we need to preserve our history, because without it we have no existence.
To get involved, contact Suellen Cheng at El Pueblo de Los Angeles at (213) 626-5240.
Shanelle Eng is a senior majoring in East Asian Studies.)