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Chinese-American History and Successes Showcased at San Francisco Museum

The Chinese Historical Society of America is one of the oldest and largest organizations in the United States to document Chinese-American history. The group has collected 50,000 artifacts such as books, photographs, and art that reflect the heritage of Chinese-Americans.

Some of those pieces are on display in a small museum at the society's headquarters in the western U.S. city of San Francisco. As we hear from VOA's Deborah Block, one of the museum's goals is to dispel stereotypes about people of Chinese descent.

The Chinese Historical Society of America is tucked away along this street in the Chinatown section of San Francisco. About 25 percent of San Francisco's population is of Chinese descent, and a number of them live and work in this popular tourist area. Four years ago the society opened a museum, partly to show the importance of Chinese-American history.

The first wave of Chinese immigrants came to the western United States during the mid-1800s. Many of them worked for low pay in poor conditions as laborers building railroads and working in gold mines. With the loosening of American immigration laws in the 1950s and 60s, another wave of Chinese immigrants came to the United States.

Leonard Shek, the museum's program coordinator, says the exhibits not only educate the general public, but also help Chinese-Americans learn about their history. Many of them are third or fourth generation, and feel disconnected from their roots.

"What we're trying to teach people is, for one, just to be proud of themselves. Be proud of their history, be proud of their identity.”

The museum also documents prejudice against Chinese in the United States. Marisa Louie, exhibition coordinator at the museum, says racism was evident in cartoons, songs, and newspaper articles in the past. Even children's books dating back to the 19th century degraded the Chinese.

"You show how early on in life mainstream Americans were learning about discrimination and anti-Chinese prejudice,” said Ms. Louie. “Children who were learning to read at age 3 would learn the kind of misconceptions [such as] that the Chinese would eat mice."

In 1892, the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in the United States, which severely limited further Chinese immigration. It remained in effect for 61 years. Many western states enacted discriminatory laws, making it difficult for Chinese immigrants to find work, so many of them started their own businesses.

The museum also highlights success stories, such as Chinese-American journalists and astronauts. Mr. Shek says the museum wants to show the diversity of Chinese-Americans.

"There's a rich history of a number of different professions and we want people to understand the struggles we've faced over time and that we still face aspects of struggle and discrimination today," Mr. Shek told us.

Museum visitor Margarie Smink was surprised to learn that the Chinese had accomplished so much. "I found that they were really integral to so much of the industry and the development of commerce and utilities and success of the Western movement of the United States by being so much a part of the building of the railroads, the shipping industry. It also showed me the struggles they had to overcome to be accepted rather than downtrodden here in the United States."

Mr. Shek says acceptance is not a given. Some people look at him and think he is from China.

"People will still come up to me and say, 'Oh wow, you speak very good English.' Well, you know, I was born here. This is a common perception."

Him Mark Lai, who is on the board of directors at the Chinese Historical Society, says since the 2001 terrorist attacks in the United States, he is concerned more Chinese-Americans will be unfairly targeted as being anti-government.

"Recently, you have a lot of anti-immigrant feelings. Chinese, because they look different, are very easily just mistaken for a foreigner,” says Mr. Lai.

The Chinese Historical Society of America and museum is helping Chinese-Americans with research to trace their ancestors, so they can better understand their past and the future of Chinese-Americans.