As it was the Year of the Horse (my daughter's zodiac), we returned to San Francisco for the annual Chinese New Year Parade. This time, we were accompanied by friends and we chose to visit the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum (CHSA). Founded in 1963, CHSA is the oldest and largest organization in the country dedicated to the documentation, study, and presentation of Chinese American history. Through exhibitions, publications, education, and public programming, CHSA promotes the contributions and legacy of Chinese in America.
In the main gallery, CHSA’s rich and varied collection tells personal and historical narratives, providing a dynamic survey of immigration, labor history, and stories of resilience. During our visit, we were delighted to take part in a dramatic retelling of “I Want to Go to School: The Case of Tape vs. Hurley”. As former living history volunteers ourselves, we loved it.The presentation was performed in the traditional Chatauquan format - the presenter spoke about their life in character, then the audience was allowed to ask questions of the character, and finally the the presenter came out of character to answer additional questions that the characters themselves would not have been able to answer.
Tape vs. Hurley
Mary Tape was a biracial Chinese American woman who believed that her daughter, Mamie, should have the same access to education as white children in San Francisco. In particular, Mary Tape wanted her daughter to be able to attend public school. When the local school principal, Jennie Hurley, stood in the schoolhouse door to bar Mamie’s entrance on the sole
grounds that she was Chinese, Mary Tape took Jennie Hurley to court. To read more about this landmark case, almost seventy years before the famous Supreme Court Decision Brown v. Board of Education desegregated American public schools, visit the National Women's History Museum online exhibit, Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance.
In the 1870s, 10% of California's population was Chinese. They were a major force in the American West. However, America's welcome to Chinese labor were short-lived. With few legal rights and little support from a weak ancestral land, they were victimized by American laws passed to harass them. Ultimately, Chinese laborers were banned entry to the United States. Amidst rising ant-Chinese activities, their immigration declined rapidly from a high to 39,579 in 1882 to a low 10 in 1887. The legacy of exclusion rendered Chinese America almost invisible.
Art in Residence
Another favorite exhibit at CHSA was the the stage gallery where rotating exhibits featuring Chinese American artists, particularly those who connect their work to the Chinese American experience, are on display. Resident artist Leland Wong has transformed the stage gallery into a working artist’s studio. We were able to peek in and see works in progress including street photography, activist posters, and whimsical paintings that reinterpret traditional Chinese images and motifs.
The Chinese Historical Society of America Museum is located on Clay Street. If you are in Chinatown, I encourage you to visit. They offer educational programs for children and adults as well as a walking tour of Chinatown. Just call ahead for schedules.