More than one story: LSA student creates exhibit to celebrate Chinese Americans in Detroit

Source: LSA Magazine

A 1965 street scene from Detroit Chinatown’s Cass Corridor location, at the intersection of Cass and Peterboro. Photo courtesy of the Chin Family

The textbook story of Detroit’s Chinatowns might go something like this: Many Chinese people were left in poverty after two wars that Britain waged on China, in which Britain forcibly exported opium into China in exchange for tea. At the end of these two wars, in the mid-1800s, many people from China traveled to the United States, including the metro Detroit area. Today, a centralized Chinatown no longer exists in the city.

Lily Jiale Chen’s telling of the story is a much richer version, displayed in three dimensions and in vibrant colors at the Detroit Historical Museum. Chen is an assistant curator at the museum as well as a doctoral student in the Department of American Culture at LSA. A museum provides unique opportunities for visitors to engage with history using all of their senses, Chen says. “You get to occupy a physical space that looks, feels, and sounds like what you’re studying.”

She recently put her studies into practice in the curation of an exhibit called Detroit’s Chinatowns. Chen emphasizes the plurality of the word “Chinatowns,” explaining there’s more than one story to tell here.

For example, as Chen considered how to introduce how people from China arrived in the Detroit area, she had to acknowledge that the story, because of the colonial history, is not neutral. Many people from Taishan in Guangdong province were willing to make the long journey in the mid-1800s to the United States, where many were tricked into indentured servitude and hard labor to build the transcontinental railroad, Chen says.

In the late 1800s, Chinese immigrants traveled the very same railroads to Detroit, where they created communities, faced racism and exploitation, started businesses and families, went to school, had picnics and parades, went dancing, and went to war.

That story of migration is just one of many Chinese American stories featured in the exhibit, alongside cheery images of baseball players on Belle Isle in the 1950s, restaurant menus, and a telephone created for the exhibit that speaks many of the different Chinese dialects spoken over the last 150 years in Detroit.

In the exhibit, a timeline from the Detroit Free Press glides across a wall alongside photographs curated from family albums, a case of congressional war medals from Chinese American veterans, Miss Chinatown pageant photography, and memorabilia from Chinese restaurants that were home to community organizations.

The objects and words that fill the exhibit space tell many simultaneous, sometimes contradictory stories, filling in blanks in some instances, and raising fruitful questions in others. The room is full to bursting with stories of many shapes: painful, quotidian, personal, and joyful.

Chen says the exhibit “is less about celebrating multiculturalism, and more about how histories of oppression and resilience influence the way we live today.” But how to show the nuance, variety, and depth of these stories within the four white walls of a museum?

“I had to think really critically about doing it [telling these stories] practically,” Chen says.

“I had to ask myself, what does it look like to carry out your dreams, visions, with very limited timespan, very limited budget?”

Working closely with community members, Chen learned that many family photographs were being held in local archives, and she worked with museum staff to return the materials to families. “Something that theorists sometimes miss,” Chen says, “is that the practice of museum work provides opportunities to decolonize.”

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