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Missouri Historical Society explores the deep roots of Chinese Americans

The Missouri Historical Society uncovers hidden history in the Chinese American Collecting Initiative and is also asking the public for help.

ST. LOUIS — The Missouri Historical Society couldn't turn down an offer — a small group of Chinese St. Louisans wanted to collaborate with the organization to better document the Chinese-American experience.

"You can't pass up something like that," said Christopher Alan Gordon, the director of Library and Collections for the Missouri Historical Society. "It was a great opportunity."

That opportunity has now been dubbed the Chinese American Collecting Initiative. Volunteer researchers have been sifting through public records like school photos, old restaurant menus, and death certificates to understand the vastly unwritten history of a community that has apparent deep roots in Missouri.

"St. Louis is a city of immigrants, we all know that," said Gordon. "But people automatically think of the Germans, the Irish, the French, the Greeks, but you know, the first Chinese-American immigrant to come to St. Louis came here in 1857, right before the Civil War. And I don't think people quite understand how that community really developed."

Gordon's statement comes at a time when Asian Americans across the country are efforting more acknowledgment of the community's historical contributions to building America.

Asian Americans and belonging

Now in its third year, the 2023 STAATUS Index survey highlights the lack of Asian American history and contributions. In the survey's findings, people's familiarity with key moments in Asian American and Pacific Islander history varies dramatically. More than 52% of Americans claimed they were moderately familiar with the incarceration of the Japanese American community during World War II. Other significant events, like the overthrow of the Hawaiian Kingdom and the murder of Vincent Chin, were not nearly as well-known. In fact, only 13% of the 5,234 Americans surveyed said they knew Chin's story well.

Chin's 1982 murder represents a pivotal moment in civil rights history as it was the first time that federal hate crime laws were used in a case involving an Asian American victim. Chin, a Chinese American adoptee, was brutally beaten by two white auto workers during a wave of anti-Japanese sentiment in Detroit. Chin died from his injuries and his attackers, who targeted him under the assumption that he was of Japanese descent, each received a small fine and no jail time. This sparked outrage from the Asian American community then and continues to serve as a reminder of the consequences of anti-Asian hate. 

St. Louis is experiencing its own racial reckoning with Asian Missourians, as many AAPI groups are galvanizing efforts to reclaim the contributions of a century-old Chinatown destroyed during the urban renewal of the 1960s. The St. Louis Chinatown was founded around 1869 in downtown. It housed grocers, launders, and merchants until it was blighted to help build Busch Memorial Stadium in 1966. The first apparent Chinese immigrant on record was Alla Lee, who arrived in the city in 1857.

Stories from Chinatown are also resurfacing from the historical society's initiative. Peter Tao, a well-known St. Louis founding architect of Tao + Lee and a prolific Asian American advocate, is just one of the volunteers behind this new research. Tao, who is the Chinese American Advisory Group chair for the initiative, grew up in St. Louis. His father William Tao helped start and lead one of the founding national chapters of OCA - Asian Pacific American Advocates, a 50-year-old organization that serves more than 10 million Asian Pacific Americans across 80 chapters and affiliates. 

Tao's parents left an indelible imprint on St. Louis through philanthropy and service. Perhaps that's why it's fitting that Peter, who also serves on the OCA board, is working to uncover more contributions through the collecting initiative.

"I hated history growing up, and I didn't like writing either, so now I'm doing history, and I'm writing." Tao joked. "I think when you learn these stories, and if you can get it so that it's relatable, they really become very important to enriching your own life."

New stories emerging

Tao has been writing blog posts for the historical society of stories that humanize the beginnings of Chinese Americans in St. Louis — from that of a rising star athlete to food entrepreneurs. The story of an all-American baseball kid, who grew up in Chinatown, is one of Tao's favorite finds.

Tao discovered a 1924 St. Louis Post Dispatch article that referenced Madison Elementary School, where children from Chinatown attended. With this information, the Historical Society later discovered photos of school children four years later. That eventually led to the discovery of a 1927 St. Louis Globe-Democrat article about the story of Hop Leong, a young boy who excelled in baseball. The boy later went by the name Henry Lang and became a rising star on his school team. A death certificate later helped Tao understand this teen's short-lived yet amazing life in St. Louis. 

"He learned every pitch possible as a middle schooler," said Tao. "It's just a wonderful story because it's one of those little boys' dreams, right? It has nothing to do about who you are or where you're from."

Collecting more keepsakes

Though the history is centered around Chinese American experiences, Tao says his stories are meant to inspire and show the humanity in us all.

"This is one big story," said Gordon. "It's one big Missouri story. It's one big St. Louis story. I think that is really what we want to achieve when we're telling the story, and I think we're headed in that direction."

Gordon is now looking for more keepsakes and hoping to hear from more families as the initiative grows. He has a growing collection of old menus from defunct restaurants, which can also sometimes be found on eBay and the like. He's hoping more people will be willing to donate items to research as well.

Peter Tao just wants people to share the understanding that an Asian American experience is, indeed, American. He hopes that by sharing these community stories people will not only see differences but understand how they contribute to belonging.

"These are intended to be human," said Tao. "You assume something automatically right away when you look at someone, particularly Asian. And the Asian American community is so complex and diverse. When they read these stories, the intent is that they'll understand the person."

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