Q&A with Common Ground Exhibit Curators, Connie Young Yu and Leslie Masunaga

Connie Young Yu and Leslie Masunaga are JAMsj guest curators. They are currently working on the new JAMsj exhibit,  “Common Ground: Chinatown and Japantown, San Jose,” which will open in September of 2012. They sat down with interviewer, Nancy Yang, to discuss their vision for the exhibit.

What inspired you to create this exhibit? Was there anything in your own life experience that drove you to create the exhibit?

Connie:  I grew up hearing about my parents and their oral history.  My father was born on Cleveland Avenue (in Heinlenville, which no longer exists. Heinlenville was a Chinatown that would be located within the boundaries of present day San Jose Japantown).  He was in his twenties when he left the 6th street settlement.  My father was actually there until 1937. So his memories were very strong.

He remembered Japantown and having Japanese neighbors. He saw the transformation from Chinatown to Japantown. This is what I think is really exciting. I feel that this site of Cleveland Avenue, of Sixth Street, and Jackson Street  was the birthplace of the first Asian American community in Santa Clara Valley. It was no longer just Chinatown, and no longer just Japantown. More Asians moved in including Filipinos. This was really the first multicultural place.

I think that the story (about Chinatown and Japantown) is very inspiring. You want to reach people in a way that they can understand and identify with, because the story is ultimately about people, and it’s about conflict and struggle.

It’s important to realize that Chinatown and Japantown existed because of immigration restrictions. In 1972, I wrote this article called “Remembering 1882.” It was about the Chinese Exclusion Act, and there was a lot of research into the anti-Asian laws. There’s a lot of history and background to this site,  which still survives as Japantown, and the roots of that were in the Anti-Asian Laws.

There was a fence that was built when Chinatown was new (an eight-foot high fence that was covered with barbed wire originally surrounded Heinlenville).  The fence was locked up every night by Charlie (community leaders hired Charlie, a white security guard who patrolled the area). Gradually, there was no fear of people who could come and burn another  Chinatown down. The fence was to protect the Chinese, he said, so no one could get in, and no one could get out.

Leslie:  Basically, I was into the historic preservation of buildings, because they were tearing down all of downtown San Jose. And the building I was in, they tore up under it, so I got into history and got into general local history.

The community doesn’t know its history. The individual histories aren’t there, much less the history of Japantown, Northside, and other neighborhoods. While we start developing things, everything gets wiped out. And people keep saying that San Jose has no soul and I say that’s because we keep erasing things. You don’t celebrate. You don’t build on something. You just keep wiping it out, and then it begins to look like everything else.

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.

Now that these communities like Japantown are over 100 years old, it’s important to maintain what’s there.  We want the community to prosper, but we also want to celebrate and commemorate the past and what’s there.

That’s great that you have those anecdotes about the interaction between the Japanese and the Chinese communities.

Connie: These were Asian American activities, but the cultures of China and Japan are so different, and a perfect example is the theater. Chinese theater  is so elaborate  and Japanese theater is  very different. The Japanese had sumo wrestling, which the Chinese did not. There is an anecdote from a woman that I interviewed. She remembered that her mother said,  “there’s a half naked man down the street!” It  was a sumo wrestler doing an exhibition. They were very shocked because the Chinese never dressed like that.

Leslie: This area was the center of the shopping, and the social life, and everything else. Even though all the Asians farmed, they would come here to do the shopping, to go to church, to do things, and some of it’s really interesting is to see where that interplay is. One of the things in the exhibit is a check that my grandfather wrote, but it’s made out to the Tek Wo board. Obviously they were trading with each other and they were buying from different stores, but they were very distinct communities. The interaction  wasn’t necessarily at the personal level; it was not necessarily that people would go to the same churches, or the same social clubs, but there was this community interplay.  Dr. Ishikawa (Dr. Tokio Ishikawa formerly owned the property where JAMsj currently resides) talks about buying lottery tickets from the Chinese that were around. And Grant Elementary School (near Japantown) was a mixed school. You can see the pictures.

Why do you think that there is not a greater general awareness of early Chinatowns and Japantowns and how they have contributed to the present day?

Leslie: The problem with history in schools, is that they try and cram in the big picture, the mainstream idea, and it tends to be East Coast dominated.

Everybody hears about Ellis Island, but nobody hears really about Angel Island. Even  teachers don’t know.  They may know that these (Asian) people came in the 1850’s and that the Chinese worked on the railroads, but that’s it.

The problem is, Connie’s book really is about the only book out there that’s about Chinatown in San Jose. So you don’t get the whole picture, you get one little story and then you have to go look for it.  We just don’t have a mechanism where people are learning the history.

Connie: I always go back to the Chinese Exclusion Act. When you exclude a people, there’s a disconnect. Their immigration is interrupted. And when it’s interrupted, it becomes a blank story.

After the exclusion law was repealed, people had a hard time talking about the past. The exclusion law separated families and excluded Asians from American society. When you’re excluded, you don’t write about it. You have no record, you are invisible. You’re not a citizen – you’re just a non-entity.

From 1882 to 1943,  laborers were excluded and their history was obliterated. Most history is written from the point of the victors – the businesses, or the leaders. The laborers are omitted.

And you know what happened – that’s why all the Chinatowns faded. It was a cultural center, and it was a home base for agricultural workers. So you have Chinese workers, and then Japanese, and then after when the Japanese were excluded and persecuted, you have the Mexicans, and then the Filipinos. There are people who specialize in labor history, and there are books on labor, but who would want to write about labor, except people who really were affected by it.

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About JAMsj

The Japanese American Museum of San Jose's (JAMsj)mission is to collect, preserve, and share Japanese American art, history, and culture with an emphasis on the Greater Bay Area.
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