Michael Truong welcomed us and informed us that CAM is jointly operated by the Friends of the Chinese American Museum and the City of Los Angeles. It is housed in the city-owned Garnier Building, built in 1890 in the area of Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. Recognized as the oldest surviving structure in Southern California that is linked to the Chinese community, it originally housed Chinese businesses and civic organizations.
Our guides then proceeded to lead us, in two groups, through the on-going exhibits on display.
The “Sun Wing Wo General Store and Herb Shop” exhibit is a re-creation of an actual shop that was housed in the Garnier Building in the 1890s. We were shown examples of acupuncture instruments and herbs that doctors specializing in Chinese medicine used. Banking and postal services were also available at the time the store was opened to the public. A letter writing service that was provided was essential for those workers who came with little or no education. Today visitors can write a postcard to their friends or relatives from a replica of a writing station.
The exhibit on the mezzanine floor is “Origins: The Birth and Rise of Chinese American Communities in Los Angeles.” Highlights include the creation of “New Chinatown,” Chinatown associations and youth groups such as the all-female Mei Wah Drum Corps, and the depiction of Chinatown in Hollywood movies. The exhibit chronicles the dispersion of Chinese population to Monterey Park and throughout the San Gabriel Valley during the years after lifting of severe immigration quotas by the U.S. Government in the 1960s. Our guides explained the reasons that Chinese began to populate areas to the east of Chinatown, and also described some of the challenges communities faced and continue to face, such as the “English-only sign” controversy in Monterey Park, which first occurred during the ‘80s.
At the end of the tour, we were treated to a mini-exhibit of our own. Some artifacts belonging to the Museum that are not currently on display were shown to us. They were:
- A photograph taken in 1865 depicting a parade in Old Chinatown Los Angeles
- A photograph of Chinese men working to build a railroad in California
- A medical record from a health inspection of an immigrant who had arrived at Angel Island but was denied entry because he had meningitis
- A letter to Doris Soo Hoo from a friend who wrote about her observations of Chinese people in Chinatown
- Examples of hats owned by Mabel Hong, wife of Y.C. Hong
We thank our tour guides and CAM for a highly informative and fascinating morning spent at the Museum. We learned much from their expert commentary and lively stories. For those of us who are researching our Chinese ancestors’ histories, the Museum provides a good overview and excellent primary source examples of the historical and cultural context in which they immigrated, lived and worked. As one tour member said, upon hearing and learning about the history of Chinese in Los Angeles and in the U.S., he realized how interconnected we all are to our past.
For more information about the Chinese American Museum, consult its website: http://camla.org/