The editorial team for the Winter 2021 “Oregon Chinese Diaspora” special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly (OHQ) worked with researchers and cartographer Jesse Nett to create a new map of Oregon, one showing the locations of known Chinese communities across the state between 1850 and 1943. The final product is simple but striking. It marks places in Oregon where people who were part of a vast global diaspora made their homes, labored for subsistence and wealth, formed families, grappled with emotions and ideas, and lived the daily and seasonal rituals, monotonies, surprises, and indignities that mark all humans’ time on Earth.
Chinese people formed Oregon communities on the coast, along the Columbia River, in the Willamette Valley, across southern Oregon, and within the mountain ranges and valleys of the state’s northeast corner. The OHQ map visualizes guest co-editor Jennifer Fang’s announcement that “the works in this special issue compellingly demonstrate that reclaiming the place of Chinese people paves the way for nothing less than a new understanding of Oregon’s history.” Such newness is at the heart of what makes OHQ valuable.
The journal exists as an archive and a forum, a place where, for 123 years, a rough collective of academics, community knowledge-holders, obsessive researchers, editors, and authors have both stored details about the past and scoured those details for meaning, always asking new questions and incorporating newly recognized context into their answers. There will never be any new pieces of information that remain from the past; all that we will ever have to work with already exists, even if it has not yet been uncovered. Those new angles of looking are largely what allow for growth in understanding.
OHQ’s purpose assumes the value of studying what happened in a particular location, as does the mission of the journal’s publisher, the Oregon Historical Society (OHS). In January 2022, shortly after the “Chinese Diaspora in Oregon” issue had reached mailboxes and had begun to sell in the OHS Museum Store, OHS staff decided to take its scholarship on the road. We wanted to animate the map through in situ conversations about the Chinese people whose lives had been integral in shaping those local communities.
The authors responded enthusiastically to inquiries about presenting their work, and we scheduled programs for May and June, expecting that the weather would allow for safe travel and COVID-19 infection rates would not be too high to responsibly gather in person. Planning the series of programs felt both like a way to expand access to the research in the special issue and to bring into the physical realm OHS’s long months of digital pandemic outreach. We visited Eugene, Ashland, Portland, John Day, Canyon City, The Dalles, and Salem — all places about which the special issue had brought substantial new understandings of Chinese history to readers and researchers. COVID stopped us from having the Portland gathering in person, with the silver lining that anyone can now watch a recording of Jennifer Fang’s and Myron Lee’s fantastic virtual presentation online.
I believe the programs achieved what we intended when organizing them. At the first event, in Eugene, a crowd filled the University Oregon’s Museum of Natural and Cultural History. People asked the sorts of detailed questions that demonstrated their knowledge of — and interest about — specific places in the area, and this was repeated at stops throughout the tour. When someone raised the question of whether there had been a Chinatown in Eugene, the discussion made clear there is no real consensus on that answer.
Throughout the tour, a common refrain in the question-and-answer period was: What happened to all these people; why aren’t they, or their descendants, here anymore? The OHQ special issue addresses these questions in general and specific ways for communities across the state. Authors explain the broad impact of the long series of federal exclusion laws, peaking with what is commonly called the 1882 Exclusion Act, as well as the influence of highly local realities, such as a railroad company moving and then completing its rail line, miners working and eventually extinguishing gold lodes, and local ordinances and prejudices pushing a community from downtown to the outskirts. The question of what happened to these people is at once one about memory (why didn’t I know this before?) and family (were they no one’s ancestors?). The answers are complicated, as historical answers must be, and they point to the histories of bigger places: Oregon and the United States, China and the Guangdong Province, and the Pacific Ocean, the largest body of water on the planet, which Chinese people rode upon, sometimes repeatedly, to make lives for themselves on both of its shores.
The “Chinese Diaspora in Oregon” special issue relies on historians, family researchers, and archaeologists, all of whom work with a mix of adjacent and overlapping questions and pieces of evidence. Much of the issue’s research is grounded in the work of the Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project (OCDP), a collaborative multi-agency partnership dedicated to research and education on Oregon’s early Chinese population; OCDP co-founder Chelsea Rose was a guest co-editor on the special issue and co-authored two articles. One of the OCDP partner agencies is the Malheur National Forest, and U.S. Forest Service (USFS) archaeologists also authored articles in the special issue.
During the OHQ on the Road series, I walked into a partially constructed railroad tunnel and saw the bench-and-heading construction that had taken me so much time to understand, in written descriptions, as we prepared the Buck Rock Tunnel manuscript for publication. I visited the nearby forest, where workers would have lived as the blasting and digging and moving continued, day and night, and I thought about how loud it must have been, whether the people at camp must have had to shout to make themselves heard, what it may have sounded like to hear laughter rolling up the hillsides.
Two weeks later, I stood with other field trip guests in the Malheur National Forest as USFS employees passed around objects they had found at a site we would soon visit. I was struck by emotion as I held the carefully labeled archival bags and boxes, containing remnants of a shoe and glass medicine vials. Bodies had made and filled and touched these objects, sent some of them across an ocean, and now, here we were, reverently inspecting them, trying to gain answers to our questions: What was it like for you here? Why did you come? Why did you leave? I feel fortunate to live in a time and place that encourages such questions and provides the resources and the space necessary to delve into the remains of the past in an attempt to make sense of the answers.
Much of this work has happened because of public funding and support. On the field trip through the Malheur National Forest, for example, I learned from USFS archeologists about how policy related to wildfire protections and timber sales generated resources for cultural assessments that resulted in their learning a great deal more about the history of Chinese people on that land. In Eugene, I learned about how public policies related to construction on sites with potentially significant cultural belongings can result in archaeologists’ being present to monitor, identify, and report on uncovered objects. Everywhere we went for the series, public audiences showed up to listen to and ask questions of the people who had used the funding and opportunities available to them to discover and share more about our collective past, and I’m sure those audience comments led the presenters to approach their work with fresh perspectives.
Part of OHS’s mission is to advance knowledge and inspire curiosity about all the people, places, and events that have shaped Oregon. As we continue to revel in the accessibility and reach of our 123-year-old print journal, its much newer digitally accessible pages, and the modern use of virtual events, taking OHQ on the road reminded us of the power of gathering in the places where history happened and learning about the past together.
OHQ on the Road Series
Longevity: The Archaeology of a Chinese Business in Eugene's Market District
This presentation and panel discussion on a recently re-discovered early twentieth century Chinese restaurant and gift store in Eugene’s downtown district illuminates a new chapter of Chinese experience in Oregon.
Oregon’s Early Chinese American History and Portland’s Louie Chung
Portland, Oregon (virtual)
Louie Chung immigrated to Oregon 1892 and worked as a contract laborer before becoming a wealthy Portland merchant. Join us for a discussion of what his story tells us about early Oregon history and the Chinese American diaspora.
Bona Fide Merchants and the Buck Rock Tunnel: Chinese Diaspora in Southern Oregon
Discover how researchers used historical-document analysis and landscape-scale archaeological investigation to uncover powerful stories of the Chinese merchants and laborers whose actions left significant marks on southern Oregon.
Tour of Chinese Mining Sites in Malheur National Forest
John Day, Oregon
Join two researchers whose work has helped reveal fascinating new information about the businesses, homes, and lifestyles of Chinese gold miners in eastern Oregon on a tour of the sites where Chinese miners lived, worked, and recreated.
Uncovering the History of Chinese Mining in Eastern Oregon
Learn how the work of the statewide Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project has uncovered histories of Chinese mining partnerships in eastern Oregon — including business records, clothing, tools, and work and home sites — that shift our understanding of Oregon history.
Wing Hong Hai Company Store Open House
Discover objects from the Wing Hong Hai Company Store, which played an important role in the maintenance of Oregon’s Chinese diaspora communities in The Dalles. It is hosted by the current building owners who are renovating the store and researching early members of the Chinese community in The Dalles.
Searching for Salem’s Early Chinese Community
Learn how community members helped advise an archaeological team in uncovering a funerary table in Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery, one of few physical remnants of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth-century community, which led to reinstating its use in a revived annual Qingming festival at the cemetery.
Eliza E. Canty-Jones’s Other Posts
Palmer Award 2021
July 27, 2021
“History is who we are and why we are the way we are”
June 2, 2020
The Power of the Vote: A Brief History of Voting Rights in America
March 3, 2020
Welcoming Challenging Conversations: An Oregon Historical Quarterly Special Issue about White Supremacy and Resistance
December 10, 2019
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