Reinvigorating Chinese-American history

March 11, 2018 GMT

There’s history hidden in Marysville’s Chinatown: From the families who have lived there and traditions which have endured the buildings and structures that have been around longer than some people have been alive.

It’s a cultural landmark for many older Chinese-Americans, but its history is fading with much of the younger generation. That’s why a handful of historians, scholars and civil rights leaders have started a committee and are planning a two-day gathering next weekend to discuss ways of preserving that history and educating the next generation on its significance.

“I don’t think much of the younger generation knows that Marysville was once the second largest Chinatown in the United States. If it wasn’t for the Chinese Exclusion Act, it might still be the second largest,” said Jean Quan, former mayor of Oakland. “We think more people should know about that history, whether it’s Asian-Americans or Californians in general. Marysville is one of the few places that has survived with some of its history still intact.”

Quan’s husband, Dr. Floyd Huen, founded the Asian American Studies program at UC Berkeley. Huen said he connected with other professors from similar programs at colleges like UC Davis and Sacramento State about putting together meetings to talk about ways of preserving Chinese-American history.

After Brian Tom, founder of the Chinese American Museum of Northern California in Marysville, took Huen and Quan on a tour of his museum, the group decided it was the perfect location for the gathering.

“We talked about how we wanted to have something like an annual program where we could bring students in our Asian American courses to learn,” Huen said. “The museum in Marysville is really a gem. It deserves to be updated and further developed.”

Tom, who is also credited with founding the Asian American Studies program at UC Davis, grew up in Marysville, but has since moved to the Bay Area. However, his cousin, Gordon Tom, still lives in Yuba-Sutter and helps with the museum when needed, either by taking people on tours or telling personal stories of what Chinatown used to be like when he was a boy. Brian Tom credits his cousin for inspiring him to start the museum to preserve the history.

“He started this place to basically pass down that history to the next generation and to let people know what this place means to so many of us,” Gordon Tom said. “We are really happy to see the next generation is continuing the traditions we’ve passed on to them. For everyone else, this upcoming event will give you a look into the early days of our Chinese history.”

Celebrating pioneers

The meetings will be March 17-18 at the Yuba County Library, during the annual Bok Kai Festival. Organized by members of the museum and the Chinese Historical Society of San Francisco, the first day will include panel discussions and a tour of the Chinese American Museum of Northern California.

The second day will include a discussion about how Chinese-American museums, groups, historical societies and Asian American Studies can come together to educate people. The talks will also revolve around the possibility of organizing an annual pilgrimage to commemorate Chinese-American pioneers and historical events.

Huen said just like Japanese-Americans take an annual pilgrimage to Manzanar – the site of a large concentration camp where many Japanese-Americans were incarcerated during World War II – Marysville could be that for Chinese-Americans.

“We will be talking about that formally on Sunday. If there is enough support, that’s something we can build moving forward. An annual pilgrimage would help to highlight and promote our history,” Huen said.

Quan said the committee is expecting about 50-100 people to make their way to Marysville for the event – everyone from Bay Area residents and members of the Chinese Historical Society to students from programs at UC Berkeley, Sacramento State and UC Davis.

“A lot of the people my generation learned from will pass in another 20 years or so. We want to make sure those oral traditions continue and the next generation has some appreciation for our history,” Quan said.

Those interested in attending the meetings can RSVP and purchase tickets at http://bit.ly/pioneerweekend. For information regarding events on March 17, contact Brian Tom at brianltom@gmail.com. For information regarding events on March 18, contact Huen at floydhuenoakland@gmail.com.

“(The Yuba-Sutter region) has lots of history that people, locally or regionally, might not know or appreciate. So, this event is obviously not just for people in the Asian American community, but for everyone. We’d love to have some local people join in on this very unique opportunity,” Quan said.