MAY IS Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month, commemorating the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants in the United States in 1843 and the completion of the transcontinental railroad in 1869, which was built largely with Chinese labor.
To celebrate, here are a few museums and historic sites where you can learn more about one of the country’s fastest-growing racial groups.
Museum of Chinese in America, NYC
There’s more to Manhattan’s Chinatown than dim sum and Shanghai noodles and dumplings, or the souvenir shops lining Canal Street.
The newly renovated Museum of Chinese in America, in the heart of one of the most vibrant Chinese quarters in the United States and designed by Vietnam Veterans Memorial architect Maya Lin, features impressive exhibitions and programs that engage visitors in the 160 years of Chinese-American history, culture, and experience.
Even for a Chinese American, it can be easy to underestimate the diverse experiences and contributions of the Chinese in the U.S. This museum does a great job of bringing to light the complex story of the country’s largest Asian group.
Location: 215 Centre St., New York, NY
Angel Island National Historic Landmark, San Francisco
Ellis Island is pretty famous as the port of entry for immigrants from Europe, who were greeted by the promise of liberty and freedom (or at least the statue). Their Asian counterparts, on the other hand, made their way into the U.S. through Angel Island, near San Francisco, where they were not as warmly received.
Between 1910 and 1940, the island served as a processing center for over 175,000 immigrants, mostly Chinese, hoping to begin new lives in the United States. However, due to the Chinese Exclusion Act, they faced tough restrictions, and were sometimes detained and interrogated for as long as two years.
Immigrants carved poems into the walls of the buildings, expressing the anguish and suffering they felt but generally did not reveal to their families after being released.
Today, Angel Island is a National Historic Landmark and a research center, where you can learn about its history as an immigration floodgate while historians seek to learn more about the experiences of those who were held there, bringing increased attention to a site that was virtually unknown until recently.
For Asian Americans like myself, this landmark serves as a reminder to not take our citizenship or the opportunities we’ve had in life for granted.
Wing Luke Asian Museum, Seattle
Located in the city’s Chinatown-International District and affiliated with the Smithsonian Institution, it’s named for the first Asian American to be elected to public office in the Pacific Northwest.
What I love about this museum is that it incorporates historic landmarks — including a hotel where Asian immigrants sought refuge upon arrival in Seattle — a family association room, and an imported foods shop, all highlights that make a visit worthwhile.
It also features a library and community heritage center named for Gary Locke, former governor of Washington State and the first governor of Asian descent in the continental U.S.
Location: 719 South King St., Seattle, WA
Manzanar National Historic Site, Southern California
Asian Americans have often been regarded as perpetual foreigners in their own country, a stereotype that has at times resulted in consequences for their community.
One of the darkest moments in Asian-American history occurred during WWII, when nearly 120,000 Americans of Japanese descent were interned in concentration camps throughout the Western United States.
The Manzanar National Historic Site has been preserved as an interpretation center with exhibits documenting life in the most well known of the camps. The barbed wire, barracks, and watchtower lend Manzanar an eerie resemblance to the Nazi concentration camps of Europe.
It’s frightening to witness the injustice that paranoia and cultural ignorance can lead to. The interpretation center seeks to ensure that no racial group will ever again have to endure it.
Location: West side of Highway 395, 9 miles north of Lone Pine and 6 miles south of Independence, CA
Asian Pacific American Program, Smithsonian Institution, DC
Although the Smithsonian does not have a museum devoted to Asian-Pacific-American history and culture, it does run the Asian Pacific American Program aimed at promoting an understanding of the Asian-Pacific-American community through research, exhibits, and programs.
The program holds frequent events and exhibitions at the Smithsonian’s various museums. Current exhibits include “The Art of Gaman,” featuring arts and crafts made by Japanese-American detainees at internment camps during WWII, and “Creating Hawai’i,” which looks at public perceptions of Hawaii and how they compare with its realities.
I’m pleased that the Smithsonian is making this effort to put Asian-American history and culture on display in its museums, bringing greater awareness to a racial group that is so often marginalized in mainstream American culture.
For Asian history outside the U.S., check out Go In Peace: Seven Asian War Destinations.
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Valerie Ng is a freelance writer based in Berkeley, CA. When she's not traveling, she looks for ways to experience foreign culture in her backyard. Her writing has appeared in World Hum, The Travel Channel, The Dallas Morning News, Not For Tourists, and TangoDiva.
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