'The Chinese in America' is an eloquent tale told in photos

"The Chinese in America, 1785-1980," an exhibit of 300 photographs, is like turning the pages of a San Francisco family album sporadically built over a century. With this record, constructed from his own community, the Chinese-American speaks eloquently with everything he knows.

This is a major effort of the Chinese Cultural Center (occupying the third floor of a hotel on Kearny Street) at the edge of San Francisco's traditional Chinatown. Its implications are broad: Opening just following the Fort Mason housing of the Chinese Trade Fair Exhibition, and scheduled to visit many American cities over the next two years, "The Chinese in America" documents with loving, even-toned clarity the influence and the agony of the Chinese immigrant to this country.

Essentially, the exhibit makes a "coming of age" statement for the Chinese-American. It is divided into three sections: The Coming, 1785-1882; Exclusion, 1882-1943; The River of Many Streams, 1943-1980. Along with the technological development of this country, the exhibit panels move from black and white into color, a few of them of Arnold Genthe's sensitive study of San Francisco's Chinatown.

Displayed in the center's auditorium, which is divided by movable panels, the display offers records of the Gold Rush and transcontinental railroad construction hanging opposite local artifacts, puppets, and a joss-house alter. Such items, unfortunately, will not travel with the panels, yet they are vivid reminders of the crudeness of the times and the dauntless efficiency which the Chinese brought to this country.

Broken measuring scales, washboards long in disuse, split grape crates all emphasize how much the development of the West owes to the diligence and patience of these immigrants from a 100-mile radius of Canton, China. Mute evidence to their all-too-silent contribution is reflected in the golden-spike ceremony picture over a century old. Chinese labor cut transcontinental travel time from six months to seven days, yet at the centennial ceremonies in Utah this past decade, the Chinese contribution was again overlooked. By this time, however, the Asian-American had found his voice. This singular tribute to a minority's experience and the capacity of the Chinese to prevail and flourish is scheduled to be shown in St. Louis and Chicago in 1981. It currently is scheduled to visit Honolulu, Minneapolis-St. Paul, and Boston in 1982.

To celebrate the opening of this exhibit, the coordinator, Jack Chen, Trinidad-born, also helped coordinate a three-day Chinese-American studies conference, sponsored by the Chinese Historical Society and aided by the Asia-American Studies Program of the University of California, Berkeley. For a three-day period some 300 participants from throughout the United States, dominantly Chinese and principally Asian, engaged in information sharing that ranged from bittersweet immigration tales to current media treatment of Asians.

of 5 stories this month > Get unlimited stories
You've read 5 of 5 free stories

Only $1 for your first month.

Get unlimited Monitor journalism.