Chinese Historical Society celebrates golden anniversary as neighborhood’s memory bank

Pub date March 8, 2013
SectionPixel Vision

In 1963 a publicist, an art collector, an actor, a newspaper publisher, and a dentist joined forces to form San Francisco’s Chinese Historical Society of America. The group’s mission was simple: to preserve and document Chinese culture in the US. Now celebrating its 50th anniversary this year, it has the same goal it always has had with one major difference: a museum to house the fruits of its labor.

The CHSA moved into its Chinatown digs 12 years ago. The building was built in 1932 by funds raised by a group of Chinese women who traveled up and down the Pacific Coast visiting various Chinese communities to raise funds to construct a small gym and women’s dormitory in Chinatown. In the midst of the Great Depression they somewho drummed up $25,000 for the cause, and the gym provided athletic space to its urban community until it was struck by the 1989 earthquake. 

As the CHSA’s executive director Sue Lee takes me on a tour she speaks with almost an encyclopedia-like knowledge of Chinese history on the West Coast. Her animated descriptions of each and every exhibit make it clear that the enthusiasm for preserving Chinese culture that drove the Historical Society’s original founders hasn’t been lost over the generations. 

In the CHSA’s early days, the founders’ sense of urgency stemmed from the immigration restrictions put in place during the Cold War due to the Chinese’s association with the Soviet Union, which were resulting in a withering Asian population.

Lee explains, “[the founders] thought, ‘this is all we’ve got’. Lee explains. “They were visiting dying Chinese communities up and down the west coast, collecting stuff, interviewing old timers, and picking up stories, and artifacts.” 

That drive to preserve has been augmented by new goals for the Historical Society in the modern era. “We also want to engage local artists to use our history and to be inspired by Chinese-American history for their artistic endeavors,” says Lee.

One direct way the CHSA is putting that plan in action is through its “Creative Spaces” program. Currently in its second year, “Creative Spaces” invites artists, designers, curators, and educators to propose concepts for interpreting and presenting history in the museum. This year Leland Wong, an artist and Chinatown native, has been chosen as one of the featured artists.

A stage inside the museum has been transformed into a working studio for Wong. Visitors can peek in whether Woing is working or not.

A playful collection of intricate Qing Dynasty children’s hats temporarily donated by collector Leslie Selcow in memory of Jade Snow Wong, a Chinese-American ceramic artist and author, fills another exhibition space. In another area, a small suitcase contains the sparse belongings Chinese immigrants commonly brought with them when traveling to America: a notebook, a few pieces of clothing, an umbrella. Visitors are invited to write which items they’d bring on paper luggage tags and attach them to the trunk. History’s tidal changes are visible in the tags that I glimpse on my visit — everything from video games to iPods to the maybe-not-so-portable family cat is scribbled on the tags.

Lee tells me that the lessons learned at the CHSA are certainly not confined to Chinatown residents, or even to Chinese Americans. “Our challenge is always to reach out to our own community as well as to educate the greater community.”  Last year, the Historical Society partnered with the Israeli consulate to honor Dr. Feng Shan Ho, a Chinese diplomat who saved thousands of Jews in Vienna from being deported to Nazi concentration camps during World War II. 

In the over-informed, distracting era we live in, making people care about history is a constant challenge, but it seems clear that Lee and her crew are up for the challenge. “We’re trying to be more active,” she says. “We can’t be a mausoleum, we have to be engaged. We have to try to inspire people.”