How CHSA Works to Combat Racism and Violence Through Soft Power

It’s Asian Heritage Month, and the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA) in San Francisco is finally able to reopen at 50% capacity. To celebrate, CHSA is hosting a community event this Saturday, May 29th, from 8 to 10:30 pm. The event is a chance to view the exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion and see the launch of an outdoor public video projection project called Dear America by local artist Christy Chan. The projection will feature a collection of images created by local and nationally recognized Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) artists.

CHSA’s mission is to promote the contributions and legacy of the Chinese in America through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs in its museum and learning center. It is housed in the historical landmark building at 965 Clay Street, designed by famed architect Julia Morgan in 1932. The building was formerly the home of the Chinatown YMCA and includes beautiful Chinese motifs in Western architecture.

Ceiling of the Chinese Historical Society of America
Ceiling of the Chinese Historical Society Museum/Karin Jensen

CHSA has been taking advantage of its closure due to the pandemic to address structural issues, update security, and rethink and update its collections. The museum owns one of the largest collections of Chinese American ephemera and artifacts in the United States, including Chinatown miniature dioramas by artist Frank Wong and paintings by Jake Lee, James Leong, Stella Wong, and Dong Kingman.

Diorama of a vintage Chinese laundry by Frank Wong
Diorama of vintage Chinese laundry (like the one my grandparents operated!)/Karin Jensen

Its exhibit, Chinese American Exclusion/Inclusion, explores the centuries-long history of trade and immigration between China and the U.S. and raises the question, “What does it mean to be an American?” In today’s climate, the question is particularly relevant.

Re-creation of women's barracks at the former Angel Island Immigrant Detention Center
Re-creation of women’s barracks at the historic Angel Island Immigrant Detention Center/Karin Jensen

Although CHSA will replace the Exclusion/Inclusion exhibit in the winter with new work, this exhibition is so important in terms of the way it documents the history of Chinese American immigrants. A portion of the exhibit will move to the downstairs Learning Center. Other parts will move to new locations such as Chinatown store-fronts. In conjunction with this exhibit, CHSA’s next online event, scheduled for June 12th, is called The Living Legacy of the Chinese Exclusion Act in the 21st Century.

In this presentation, Harvard’s Jonathan Alloy argues that attacks on Asian-Americans during the COVID pandemic are in part a legacy of America’s first laws of ethnic discrimination. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, in force until 1943, set Chinese Americans apart as “other” – in other words, as people not considered to be true Americans.

Mr. Alloy will discuss how the Act and its related court cases set the stage for the contemporary treatment of immigrants by defining people who are “aliens” as not subject to or protected by the Constitution. Further, the actions by the government in the 19th and 20th centuries to enforce the Chinese Exclusion Act led to the creation of green cards, passports, and the immigration bureaucracy that continues in the 21st century.

Judicial precedents resulting from challenges to the Act are still in use today – including the 2017 “Muslim Ban” and the government’s 2020 proposal to exclude certain immigrants from being counted in the Census (since rejected by the Supreme Court).

In winter 2021, a new exhibit, We Are Bruce Lee: Under the Sky, One Family, will debut. This exhibition will feature rare items on loan from the world’s top Bruce Lee collectors and artworks by local artists inspired by the master. This exhibition will focus on Lee as a thinker and a racial unifier as much as on Lee as a Hollywood icon and a martial artist.

Entrance to the CHSA
Entrance to the Chinese Historical Society of America/Karin Jensen

Executive Director, Justin Hoover, says, “Everything we do is about combatting racism and violence toward immigrants and non-whites. We aim to share the story of the Chinese in America both through the lens of individual stories and significant historical events. Anyone who has experienced otherness and the plague of violence can relate. “Often, the only way to combat injustice is through the arts – through soft power.”

For more information about CHSA and its events, see the links below.

Resources and References:


This article first appeared on News Break here.

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