At Crossroads

[This text was originally published in AREA Chicago #11 in July 2010]

Just as Chicago was reborn from the Great Fire in 1887, so too has the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago been reborn after a fire two years ago. Next year marks the centennial of Chicago Chinatown’s move to its current location on the South Side. The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago has joined with the community to plan the celebration. This article reflects on the relationship and future direction of the museum in the Chinese community.

Destination as a starting point:

The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago

“WHY CHICAGO? Prejudice and violence against Chinese on the West and East coasts made life difficult. The Midwest community was more accepting of Chinese, allowing them to make a living as merchants, restaurateurs, laundry men or grocers…”

(The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, The Journey of Chinese Immigration to Chicago exhibition wall text.)

Like many other immigrant groups, the Chinese found Chicago as a destination for starting a new life. The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago was founded in response to the community’s call for a museum to preserve the history of the Chinese immigrants in Chicago beginning in the late nineteenth century. Governed by the Chinatown Museum Foundation and incorporated as tax-exempted nonprofit organization in 2002, the museum exhibits different aspects of Chinese culture on its first floor and the history of Chinese immigration in the Midwest United States on the second floor. The organization has gained the support of professionals from the Field Museum, the Art Institute of Chicago, and the Chicago History Museum in collection preservation and exhibit development. The museum has organized public events for the major Chinese festivals, such as the Lunar New Year celebration in the early months of the year, a cocktail reception for the Dragon Boat Festival in June, a concert with traditional Chinese music for the Mid-Autumn Festival in September. Other education programs initiated by the museum include: workshops on kite-making and woodblock printmaking, presentations on the history of women’s foot-binding in China and the early experiences of Chinese immigrants in Chicago, as well as talks and demonstrations concerning themes of daily life in the Chinese community such as transnational culinary culture and traditional furniture-making styles.

In 2008, the museum experienced a disastrous fire that ruined almost 90 percent of the collection; after a more than year-long renovation, the museum was reopened in September 2010 with the help of community fundraising. As the museum’s president and Co-Founder, Dr. Kim K. Tee, and Executive Director Anita Luk put it, the museum is at a crossroads. The museum’s current primary focus is to rebuild its permanent collection so as to advance its future strategy in community outreach and civic engagement. But what will the museum’s role be in helping Chicago’s Chinese community engage with its own history?

The adventure:

Exploring the Chinese American community’s engagement with the museum and their history

To celebrate the Chinatown centennial in 2012, the museum is partnering with the Coalition for A Better Chinese American Community, the Chinese American Ser-vice League, the Chinatown Chamber of Com-merce, the Chicago Public Art Group, and the Chicago History Museum. I spoke with Theresa Mah, who has a Ph.D. in history and teaches Asian American history at UIC. She serves as Policy Consultant for the Coalition for a Better Chinese American Community. Theresa shared her thoughts with me on the role of the museum in civic engagement and cultural advocacy.

Carol Ng-He

Why does the Chicago Chinese American community need a museum that focuses on its immigration history?

Theresa Mah

Every community needs access to its history. The question might be where to start. There are very limited opportunities for anyone to be exposed to Asian American history, at most one or two mentions of Asian Americans’ contributions to the building of this country in our history textbooks and just a handful of college-level Asian American studies programs. Yet Asian Americans have been an integral part of American society for hundreds of years. Institutions like the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago can increase the public access to learn about the Chinese American experience in US society. This includes stories of their struggle, resistance to oppression, and contributions to America. Countless stories are still waiting to be told and to shatter false impressions of Asians as passive and apolitical model minorities.

Carol Ng-He

What can this museum offer to the community?

Theresa Mah

By telling the stories of Chinese Ameri-cans, the museum helps change society’s understanding of this community as well as the understanding of themselves. Such history is an incredibly powerful force in encouraging activism and critique of the status quo. The more people are aware of Chinese American history, the more inclined this group would be to become politically engaged today and in the future.

Carol Ng-He

How exactly is Chinese American history connected to increased community engagement?

Theresa Mah

In the absence of an institutionalized Asian American history education, there is a tendency of assumption that Asians simply reproduce their homeland culture in the United States. It is completely misguided. Asian Americans have developed a distinctive culture that is different from their culture of origin. By showcasing struggles like the hardship of our forebears in fighting for naturalization and voting rights, the Museum can galvanize active community civic engagement.

Carol Ng-He

What else can the Museum and other community institutions do to provide a stronger and more relevant cultural education for Chinese immigrants today?

Theresa Mah

We’re thrilled that the Museum collaborates with us for the centennial to spread awareness about the Chinese community’s history in Chicago. The centennial will be more than just a series of parades and parties; we’ve included a strong educational component that will emphasize the value of Asian-American history, specifically the history of the Chinese American community in Chicago. In the past we have taken steps to triple the number of Chinese-American registered voters, having young volunteers get out the vote, and securing community participation in town halls and forums. We hope that our centennial activities will build on that work by giving the community a deeper sense of commitment and pride attached to continuing to participate in these struggles, in making history. ◊

To learn more about the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago, visit:

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