Finding Asian America in the Museum

By April 15, 2021Blog

The Museum has issued an official statement condemning the recent resurgence of racial violence against Asian, Asian American Pacific Islander communities. As local historians, we celebrate the impactful contributions of AAPI members in our community and embrace the educational power of intercultural connections. This essay is in response to racial violence and what role history museums can play in cultivating social justice.

Statement of Solidarity with Asian, Asian American, and Pacific Islander Communities

Keeping Family Stories Alive

Escaping the nightmare of poverty, my father’s family immigrated to Cleveland, Ohio from Seoul, South Korea in the late 1950s. The war in Korea forever divided families and destroyed lives, including my great grandfather who was executed for accused political affiliations with the communist regime. It was in this world that my grandfather’s youngest brother, Lee Dal Joon (DJ), found hope and survival through table tennis.

Scouted at the 1958 Asian Games, DJ became a six-time US Open Table Tennis Champion in the 1960s and 1970s and created a pathway to citizenship for his siblings. In 1972, my grandparents settled in Los Angeles with their three sons where they operated a 24/7 mini-mart on the border of Hollywood and Koreatown.

What is left out of this story are details of racial struggle, discrimination, trauma and self-silencing my grandparents and parents endured as Americans in America. What is also forgotten is how fragile stories of Asian Americans are because they are often overlooked, ignored and undocumented. Early in my youth, I wondered about the lives of other Asian Americans and how many of their experiences and contributions were forgotten. This wonder inspired me to pursue a career in the Humanities.

Early Asian Americans in Los Altos, Mountain View and the Santa Clara Valley

In order to better understand the recent surge in anti-Asian violence in 2021, I looked inward to my field of museums. Curators and collections managers have a great moral responsibility to justly document and record histories. These collections will become the history that future generations rely on to understand the past.

Recounting the stories of Asian Americans in the Santa Clara Valley reveals a complex questionability of our current understanding of local history. The earliest immigrants of Asian-descent to the region made up over 30% of the agricultural workforce in the 19th century. Japanese and Chinese communities in particular made up a significant portion of the population with a recorded 40,400 Chinese immigrants arriving between 1851 and 1860 to California. The falsehood of hope and lure of paid work on the Transcontinental Railroad played a large role in the influx of Chinese immigrants in the 1860s. Chinatowns and Japantowns, big and small, developed rapidly throughout the peninsula towns of San Mateo, Menlo Park, Mayfield (Palo Alto) and San Jose. Families began planting their roots and giving life to second-generation Asian Americans.

In the late 1860s, Japanese and South Asian immigrants rose in significant numbers. The enactment of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act created a shortage of cheap labor, which was then filled by Japanese farmers and garden caretakers in the Valley of Heart’s Delight. At the turn of the 20th century, it is often forgotten that there were close to 2,000 recorded immigrants from India and Southeast Asia living in California who also began laying their roots in America. In 1905, the assembly of the Asiatic Exclusion League aimed to prevent more people of Asian-descent into the country. Locally in Mountain View, a chapter was formed to fight against Japanese (and other Asian) immigration and for school segregation.

In the town of Mayfield (south of Palo Alto annexed in 1925), a small Chinatown survived despite the town’s citizens’ vocal protest and hostility against their Asian neighbors. Leland Stanford, founder of Palo Alto and Stanford University, became an influential figure in further propagating racism and racial violence against Asians. In his inaugural speech as California’s governor in 1862, he referred to Asian immigrants as “an inferior race” and vowed to “repress the immigration of the Asiatic races” to America’s shores. In recent years, Stanford students and citizens of Palo Alto have called upon the university institution and city officials to rectify this dark history by acknowledging its racist roots.

In the Museum’s permanent art collection, scenes of Mayfield’s Chinatown can be found through the oil paintings of local artist Anna Knapp Fitz. With almost 200 artworks by Fitz in the collection, her paintings typically depict local street scenes or idyllic orchard landscapes recreated from old photographs and her memories of Los Altos. I often wondered if her paintings of Mayfield scenes were created from her imagination or an old photograph – and if so, where that photograph was today.

Nearby in Mountain View, racial violence began with local political and social leaders banning to organize anti-Asian local, state, and federal policies. The Mountain View Anti-Coolie Club was led by Benjamin E. Burns, Mountain View founding city council member, and Frank L. Huff, public education leader and principal of the Mountain View Grammar School. The Club intimidated residents not to hire Chinese laborers in hopes of forcing them out of the area. Like Stanford University, Huff’s name is memorialized by Frank L. Huff Elementary School in Mountain View today. Amid calls for social justice during the Black Lives Matter (BLM) marches last summer, parents argued the school district should rename the school. A couple of miles away, another elementary school was renamed in 2019 to Jose Antonio Vargas Elementary School after Jose Antonio Vargas, a Filipino American Pulitzer Prize winning journalist and immigration rights advocate who publicly identified himself as an “undocumented immigrant.”

On February 19, 1942, the signing of Executive Order 9066 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt shocked Japanese Americans across the nation. In Los Altos, Japanese and Japanese American residents were now forced out of their homes and sent to internment camps in Tule Lake and later Heart Mountain, Wyoming. The Museum houses a collection of family photographs, memorabilia and keepsakes from notable Japanese American families of Los Altos including the George Furuichi family, Shoichi Kagawa family and Charlie Hamasaki family. Despite the violence and betrayal, Ben Furuichi and Fred Furuichi are brave examples of the many Japanese Americans who enlisted as American military in the war.

In the decades following the war, the Bay Area stepped into the spotlight as a radical leader of the 1960s and 1970s civil rights movement. In 1968, the term “Asian American” was coined and adopted in academia as more Asians and Asian Americans reclaimed and redefined their identity within the framework of American society. On the campus of Foothill College in Los Altos Hills, the United Asians group called for an ethnic studies program following the ethnic studies curriculum modeled after San Francisco State University and University of California, Berkeley. Coalitions, unity and friendships among communities of color bonded at this particular time in history to decolonize public institutions and spaces.

Cultural Imperialism and Racism as a Building Block in the American Museum

In the 18th and 19th centuries, the aristocratic nobility of the European social class roamed the world in search of natural stones, geological and zoological specimens. It was at this time many traveled to Eastern, Central and Southeast Asia and stumbled upon cultural relics, ornaments, religious manuscripts, calligraphic works and artworks. These souvenir artifacts from their travels were then kept in special rooms, known as “cabinets of curiosities,” for safekeeping and enjoyment. It was these very collectors who established the first museums in Europe and, to an extent, America. These very collections would be housed in prestigious museums and cultural institutions we know today.

In graduate school, I became fascinated by this exact moment of transformation: the pivot from private “cabinets of curiosities” to public institutionalized collections.

At whose discretion is an artifact or artwork deemed “representative” of a culture? Who is the authoritative writer of history and who decides what institutions collect and who should be remembered as “significant” in history? How does the display of cultural artifacts affect our imagination of people of the world?

The power that objects and collections hold in dictating how we interpret and understand global cultures and identities are simultaneously subtle and enormous. From this lens, much of America’s artistic and cultural understanding of Asia is explored and understood through the Western gaze rather than our own authentic voice and self-representation as AAPI Americans. This is culturally dangerous because museums and collections are oftentimes the gatekeepers of documented history, which results in erasures of other truths and stories.

Moral Leadership and the Los Altos History Museum Social Justice Collection

The Museum is continuing efforts with the Social Justice Collection to acknowledge the existence of institutionalized racial discrimination, disenfranchisement and marginalization for communities of color in public spaces. On Sunday, March 11, 2021, AAPIMV (Asian American Pacific Islander Mountain View) organized the Stop Asian Hate March & Rally at Mountain View City Hall. We hope to document memorabilia from this rally as well as other marches and community events that illustrate a new social justice movement in the era of COVID-19.

Moreover, we are seeking artifact donations of family photographs and materials to the Permanent Collection that will expand our understanding of AAPI history within the local region. We have started some of this work already through the past exhibitions like, “I Want the Wide American Earth” (traveled by the Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center, on view in October 2017), but we have much more to do in our research and programming.

On Friday, May 7, 2021, the Museum is hosting a film screening of “The Valley” with local film director Saila Kariat. In honor of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this conversation will explore her artistic journey as an Indian American film maker and writer as well as a discussion on suicide, mental health stigma and high-achievement culture in Silicon Valley.

The Asian diaspora is vast and wide, comprising many ethnicities and cultures that are sadly whittled down to one legal racial category in the United States. Today, 31.4% of Los Altos residents and 31.8% of Mountain View residents identify as AAPI. Considering AAPIs make up only 5.6 % of the entire American population, these percentages in our local region are astounding. This national issue has become a local issue and the Museum must participate in the conversation of racial justice.

I look forward to witnessing the big changes a small museum can make. I strongly believe in the educational power of museums and their ability to inspire action. When we see the world’s potential and recognize its disparities, our enlightenment will be the change needed for public good.

Contributed by Dianne Lee Shen Collections Strategist


Thank you to Yuetong Zhang, Collections Media Intern, for her research assistance for this blogpost. Yuetong is currently based in Gaborone, Botswana and a student at De Anza College, majoring English.


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