UPPER WEST SIDE — A new exhibit at the New-York Historical Society opening this week retraces U.S. history through the eyes of the Chinese American experience.
"Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion" starts with overseas trade with China in the 1780s, continues through transformative periods like the Gold Rush and the Cold War, and concludes with current social activism around Chinese American identity.
"This is an American history exhibition starring Chinese Americans," said curator Marci Reaven, who is also the museum's vice president for history exhibitions.
In addition to marking major historic milestones using more than 200 artifacts, including letters, posters, documents and artwork, the exhibit aims to personalize the history by telling the stories of individuals.
A 12-chapter comic strip narrative created for the exhibit follows three generations of a single family, from their arrival in the U.S. to their participation in and exclusion from American society.
Amy Chin shared her family's story with the museum after finding artifacts that helped her piece together a deeper understanding of their past.
The comic strip details how Chin's relatives got into the country, despite being legally barred entry by the Chinese Exclusion Act, and goes on to share how they eventually became U.S. citizens and opened their own laundromat in The Bronx.
The story continues all the way to the present, with Amy recently returning to the Chinese village her family emigrated from.
Other sections of the exhibit showcase "the gauntlet of immigration" for Chinese people coming to America at intake centers like Ellis Island and Angel Island in California, Reaven explained.
From 1882 to 1965 — when the Immigration Act was passed, fully opening up immigration to all groups — Chinese men and women were among those detained for months and sometimes years at these centers.
By recreating the typical barracks and interview rooms used at the centers, the exhibit helps visitors imagine what it was like to go through lengthy health exams and interviews in order to prove one's right to entry, Reaven said.
Additionally, newspaper articles, posters and pamphlets at the exhibit show the pervasiveness of anti-Chinese and anti-Asian sentiment during World War II and the Cold War. For example, a Life magazine article from Dec. 22, 1941, explains "How to Tell Japs from Chinese" using photographs and diagrams.
Despite the history surrounding the exclusion of Chinese Americans, the exhibit also shares the story of Chinese American New Yorkers who've made a significant contribution to society, including City Councilwoman Margaret Chin and social entrepreneur Rachael Chong.
The exhibit is included in the admission price and closes April 19, 2015.