There's still time to see most of "Images/Reality: Restoring Tucson History from our Dreams of China," an exhibit at the Tucson Chinese Cultural Center, 1288 W. River Road. It is one of nine projects recognized and supported by the Arizona Humanities Council. We recently talked to Robin Blackwood, head of the center's history committee, about the show and its goal of dispelling cultural stereotypes. To learn more about the center, visit tucsonchinese.org.
Where did your interest in Chinese culture begin?
I've been interested in Chinese language and culture for a long time and studied Chinese in college back in the '60s. Here at the center, Patsy Lee was already doing story boards all over the center about Chinese grocery-store families and she was already director of the senior part of the center when she asked me to join the board. She handed me the history committee, but she's still deeply involved in story boards and special projects.
Tell me about this project.
You might be aware that throughout the history of the Chinese in the United States, they tended to be characterized and pigeonholed, especially in the early days after the Gold Rush during the exclusions law. There were tremendous stereotypes, cartoons that purported characteristics in a very ugly fashion. Even today, we still see a tendency. We believe it is very important to highlight the people—actual people in Tucson—to understand them better as human beings and less as stereotypical models. We started with some artifacts that are no longer at the center, but can still be seen in photos in some of the displays.
What were some of the artifacts?
One was a restored carriage owned by Chinese businessman Lee Goon. He arrived in Tucson in the 1880s and stayed until 1930. He got into the grocery business early on and was quite successful, but he went back to China. The Tucson Rodeo Parade had the carriage and they restored it. We had it on display at the center for our symposium. What we know about it is that it was sold to the Rodeo Parade for $75 around 1938 and they had it in their collection for many years. The carriage is an interesting reflection of Lee Goon and what life was life back in those days.
What else was part of the symposium?
We had Karen Leong, associate professor in the School of Social Transformation at ASU, talk about the Chinese-American culture and persona. She addressed the physical artifacts and what they meant, like the fact that the carriage meant (Goon) and his family were (part of) the elite.
Why is it important to look at artifacts when addressing stereotypes?
It humanizes the individuals and takes them out of the cartoon stereotype and brings them to life.
What's on display now?
We have in our permanent exhibits a silk banner that went up recently. It was ordered from China in the 1930s by a laundryman who worked in Tucson... the laundry was near the Hotel Congress. The building was owned by Louise Marshall (of the Marshall Foundation), who was a kind landlady. The banner was to thank her for a number of kindnesses. He ordered it from China and he presented it to Mrs. Marshall. It's still in beautiful condition because it has never been displayed. She folded it and put it away. We had a custom case built for it and consulted a fabric expert. We talked about it during the symposium, how it humanized the relationships.
How long will other parts of the exhibit be up?
Until February. We have some old garments, men's Mandarin-style jackets, but we don't know much about their history. We do have some handmade women's garments that belonged to the wife of a Chinese grocer who owned Lucky's Market, which is now closed. She made her own clothes from flour-sacking material.
What else can people experience at the center?
All the oral histories we've done: a number of histories from neighbors of Chinese grocers and what they remember. You learn things, like when they went into stores how the stores felt, what they smelled like, looked like, how they'd give the kids candy and how they ran credit. Sometimes when people got into dire straights they forgave the debt.
My mom has her own stories about the Chinese grocery in her neighborhood.
It's obvious there is a pretty deep well of affection for the old Chinese grocery stores and how they formed a part of the old neighborhoods. We need to keep digging deeper and deeper, and we get help from the community.