By Nancy Yang
This September, guest curators Connie Young Yu and Leslie Masunaga will unveil a special exhibit, “Common Ground: Chinatown and Japantown, San Jose,” at JAMsj that focuses on the story of Heinlenville, San Jose’s last Chinatown. Yu is the author of Chinatown, San Jose, USA, now in its fourth edition. The new JAMsj exhibit will focus on the personal story behind Heinlenville’s residents and chronicle that community’s relationship to and influence on current-day Japantown.
The exhibit will feature artifacts from a 2008 Sonoma State University archaeological excavation of the Heinlenville site. Included in the collection are personal mementos of the curators, including a check made out by Masunaga’s grandfather to the Tuck Wo store, and objects from Yu’s family. There will also be a video associated with the exhibit that incorporates photos and interviews.
The construction of San Jose’s last Chinatown began in 1887, several months after arson destroyed the Market Street Chinatown. Heinlenville was bordered by Fifth, Seventh, Jackson, and Taylor streets. It was established at a time of great anti-Asian sentiment, amid calls by city leaders and citizens for the complete elimination of Chinese settlements within the city’s perimeters. Heinlenville was originally surrounded by an eight-foot high fence covered with barbed wire to protect the Chinese from anti-Chinese elements.
The namesake of the town is John Heinlen, a German American immigrant and businessman who defied convention in the 1880s by agreeing to lease land to the Chinese and Japanese in San Jose. His defiant actions, made during a time when strong nativist passions were also rampant, still resonate with us today.
“I feel San Jose should feel very proud,” Yu said. “Having someone like John Heinlen made a huge difference. If it weren’t for him, I think that we (San Jose) would probably have a very bleak racial image. He’s the greatest example of somebody doing good for the community and rising above (the racial turmoil). I feel that if we do anything, it’s to keep the history, the memory, and the inspiration of John Heinlen alive.”
A shared emphasis of their past projects was a focus on community education, through both open houses and public outreach. Yu recalls, “For two years in a row, Leslie and I did our own exhibit. We just put up picnic tables. We had the artifacts and memorabilia, and people could come by and take a look.”
“There’s something tangible, in having something to touch and see,” says Masunaga about the artifacts. “It’s something that connects to you as opposed to seeing something in a book, or on paper, or something that just becomes very academic and very cold.” Tangible items, such as boar’s teeth, marbles, and jade bracelets, in conjunction with photographs and anecdotes, help to elucidate the daily life of Heinlenville. This combination also illuminates the quiet dignity of citizens, in the face of outside hostility.
This personal approach to history is echoed in the Heinlenville exhibit, as the curators’ vision is to celebrate the colorful life and history of Chinatown and its relationship to present-day Japantown. “I think this is an opportunity to say that this place existed, in terms of a physical community,” says Masunaga. “We want to really bring that aspect forward and give more depth to the community that’s here today–not just to the Japanese American community, but also to the local scene–and to understand the interplay between the communities.”
Masunaga notes the significance of telling the Chinese American story. “The sad thing about San Jose is that just about all of the Chinese experience has disappeared. There are a lot of Chinese in the Valley, but there’s no particular Chinese place. There’s no town. There’s not even an event center.”
Yu reflects on the deeper meaning of the exhibit, “It’s really an all-American story. They’d always say, ‘that’s your history,’ or they’d call it ethnic history. But I would say no. I’m talking about American history. And when Leslie talks about local history, she’s talking about our roots. It’s not strictly Asian American history, and it is not a story about ‘you guys.’”
Both curators have deep roots in the Bay Area and have worked extensively together as a team. The two first met in 1990 when Masunaga was working as an archivist at the San Jose Historical Museum, and Yu was working on the book, Chinatown, San Jose, USA.