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Chinese-American Veterans Invited to Museum for Photo Shoot

By Casey Cora | November 7, 2013 7:09am
 Portraits of Chinese-American military veterans will be added to the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago’s archives.
Chinese-American Museum of Chicago
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CHINATOWN — The Chinese-American Museum of Chicago is inviting the city's Chinese-American military veterans to the museum for a photo shoot where museum volunteers will also collect information on their personal lives and military service. 

The photos and information will be added to the archives at the Chinatown museum, 238 W. 23rd St. The event takes place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Saturday.

The project is led by Tom O’Connell, an Evanston photographer who's been a museum volunteer for the last six years.

"If I can take a good picture and it flatters them and tells a story then I've succeeded at some level," said O'Connell, 59, who tried a similar project at the museum back in 2007.

"Last time, it was mainly World War II and Korean-era vets. It would be nice to get some of the younger guys this time and spread it out over the generations," he said. "I'm keeping my fingers crossed that it gets a better response."

This time around, he's flagged a wide range of Asian-American military and law enforcement groups across the state to help spread the word about the project, which aims to bring to light the tales of service and survival, sometimes in the face of nasty anti-Asian bigotry.

Scholars and researchers can trace the history of Chinese-American soldiers as far back as the Civil War. Nearly a century of discrimination and racism would follow, culminating with the the Chinese Exclusion Act and other associated laws that excluded Chinese migrants from working in America or even marrying American women.

Still, Chinese-Americans enlisted in World War II in droves and the Exclusion Act was dropped in 1943. It's called a "neglected history" by the museum.

"The best way that any immigrant can portray loyalty to America is to serve in the military ... and as many as 20,000 Chinese-Americans volunteered to participate as military in World War II," said Roger Dong, a retired Air Force veteran who founded the San Francisco-based nonprofit Chinese American Heroes group, which seeks out and publishes untold stories of heroism.

O'Connell hopes to capture some of the people behind those tales at the upcoming photo event.

Participants can "come as they are" for the free high-resolution portrait, which will be made available on a CD in about a month, and they may also bring an active-duty photograph of themselves that will be scanned.

They'll also be asked a few basic questions to be logged into paperwork destined for the museum's archives. Currently, the museum hosts a "From the Great Wall to the Great Lakes" exhibit, which contains only a small corner devoted to Chinese-American military service.

"Maybe someday we can do a full-fledged exhibit," O'Connell said.