Creating Dynamic Dialogue with Our Past and Present: Reflections on ‘Below the Grid’ (Part II)

In this post, current OHMA student Xiaoyan Li (2016) reflects on how the dynamic dialogic process enlightens the shadows of our past and present.

This article is the second in a three-part series exploring Jack Kuo Wei Tchen’s recent OHMA Workshop Series lecture, “Below the Grid.”

History: A Mirror Reflecting Who I Am

“Walking around the neighborhood, I began to feel how the past coexists with the present,” Prof. Tchen reflected. His words reminded me of my first experience in New York’s Chinatown.

As a student from China, I had initially thought that it would be a place that could make me feel like I was home. However, when I was there, I felt lost. “Why does Chinatown exist?” I couldn’t stop asking. I tried to find a way to understand it.

Therefore, when I read Tchen’s book, New York Before Chinatown, it directly resonated with me. He began to answer my question by bringing a critical insight to the linkages between the port culture of New York City and the emergence of Chinatown.

The book also has personal roots for Tchen. “I was born of a twisted fate,” he writes it in the preface to this book. Tchen is the youngest of six siblings and the first one who was born in the U.S.—an “anchor baby” or child who would help their family stay in the country. 

At his parents’ fiftieth anniversary, Tchen realized that his birth was a product of history. He said, “If the Chinese exclusion law had not happened, I would not be born.”

The Chinese Exclusion Act passed in 1882, prohibiting all immigration of Chinese laborers. When his parents left China and entered the U.S. as refugees in 1949, the exclusion of Chinese was still in effect.

They came to live in the Midwest—a white-dominated community. As a child, Tchen often felt the intense emotion of his mother, missing her beloved family that she left behind in China. “My mom constantly talked about how much she missed her sisters and brothers, China and food, everything. She was lonely.”

Tchen grew up in tandem with the civil rights movement and Vietnam War. He recalled, “All those events I was watching from TV and magazines began affecting me more directly and personally. Along the way, I was called racist names.”

All kinds of critical questions began to occur to him at the same time, about family, China, and the U.S. He started to explore his family’s journey and tried to figure out what was going on in his life, “History is inherently a dialogic process. Everything is informed by this dialogic process through individuals asking questions.”

For Tchen, this reality is both personal and public. By constantly raising questions for himself, he holds a continuous dialogue with history. He also hopes that dialogical practices could be applied in more museums, enlightening the shadows of our past and present.

The Shadows of History

The past is still living with us in a silent way. Sometimes we fail to feel and understand it. I think that is what happened to me the day when I walked around Chinatown.

“Who are those dirty old men?” a child who grew up in Chinatown once asked Tchen. He learned from encounters like this that there is a disconnect between the new immigrants and older rural Cantonese immigrants who survived the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act and created Chinatown.

Because of the invisibility of the Chinese Exclusion Act in American history and culture, recent immigrants are not aware of its context. They believe that this is a country belonging to immigrants, not restricting them. 

This misunderstanding is still dominant among new Chinese immigrants, making it difficult for them to open up and connect with other Chinese groups that have a different collective historical memory.

How to Create Dialogue in a Collaborative Way

Through collaboration with the community, the New York Chinatown History Project grew to document the stories of Chinese laundry workers. They had their own language to name their experience and tell their stories.

But there was still a further role for Tchen to play as a historian. Gradually, he realized that those laundry workers actually didn't know the history of how the Chinese laundry industry began, so he tried to work with them in a collaborative way and help them to construct their individual stories in the context of history.

History Is a River

“In dialogue with the laundry workers, we learned a lot and played a role as shared authorities. And then, our responsibility was actually representing them back to a larger public,” Tchen said, describing the genesis of his idea to create an exhibit about the stories of laundry workers.

The exhibit successfully conveyed the feelings of those laundry workers by keeping their narrative content and language. It was particularly beautiful to learn that when the laundry workers and their children visited the exhibit, they saw that their stories were told respectfully. In that moment, I believe that the new immigrants opened up and connected to the history of the elder generation.

A dialogical museum is a wonderful idea to broaden our understanding of our past and the world we live in. In fact, we could create such dialogue in any place with new social media and start our own historical conversation.

History is not only about the past; it is a bridge that links the past and present. History is not an abstract narrative; instead, it is rooted in our daily life and shapes our present.

Therefore, if history is a river, we could find our original land by making our way back up the river. If we know where we come from, we can better understand where we are.

For more information on upcoming programming relating to John Kuo Wei Tchen’s ongoing work, please visit the NYU Asia/Pacific/American Institute website.

Xiaoyan Li is an international student from China. She worked in Cui Yongyuan Center for Oral History at the Communication University of China for two years before she began her studies in OHMA.

Xiaoyan is a 2016 Davis Fellow. Her study in oral history focuses on the complex intersectional relationship between history and the individual.