Overseas Chinese – a history revealed

By Diane Ainsworth, Public Affairs



A papier maché dragon hand puppet (above), used in traditional Chinese New Year celebrations, is part of the Chinese Overseas exhibit at Doe Library.
Noah Berger photo

20 November 2002 | The Chinese have a long history of migration overseas, but it’s a history that’s been largely overlooked — primarily because so many relevant materials have never been adequately archived.

An exhibition at Berkeley’s Doe Library is filling in that gap with materials assembled from the world’s largest archival collection of items relating to overseas-Chinese and Chinese Ameri-can culture. “Chinese Overseas: Challenges and Contributions” showcases little-known manuscripts, diaries, poetry, historic photographs, rare books, Chinese newspaper articles, family genealogies, and records of the Chinese internment close to home (on Angel Island) during a bleak time in U.S. immigration history.

The exhibition was designed to spotlight the Chinese people’s influence and impact on world events, says librarian Wei Chi Poon, co-chair of the Doe Library exhibition committee. It is located in the Bernice Layne Brown Gallery on the first floor of Doe Library and runs through Dec. 31.

Five librarians — and a year in the planning
These treasures, which reflect the cultural, socio-economic, and political lives of overseas Chinese, were culled from five libraries across campus, each of which contains substantial holdings in specific fields. The Bancroft Library houses a sizable Chinese American archive; the Center for Chinese Studies Library has one of the most complete collections of local gazetteers in the U.S.; and the East Asian Library, with more than 750,000 books and serials in Chinese, ranks second only to Harvard’s East Asian Library among American universities. In addition, the Ethnic Studies Library has the most comprehensive Asian American studies collection and the largest Chinese American archive in the U.S., while the South/Southeast Asia Library houses a significant number of monographs on Southeast Asia, among other areas.

The exhibition, which fills 14 display cases in Doe Library, took more than a year to prepare by a committee of librarians from all five libraries.

“These resources document and reveal the challenges and the triumphs of the Chinese overseas, as well as their contributions to their adopted and host countries and to their homeland,” Poon says. “We have some unique research materials, which have proven invaluable for the research and teaching needs of faculty, students, and scholars on campus and beyond. They also tell fascinating stories.“

Among the more unusual items are autobiographical manuscripts revealing the daily lives and struggles of Chinese in the U.S., and historic photographs of the first Chinese American woman physician, Margaret Chung, who practiced in San Francisco during World War II. Also included are an account of Chinese entrepreneurs in Silicon Valley, a biography of former Chancellor Chang-Lin Tien, a scholarly account of “Ethnic Chinese as Southeast Asians,” and an insightful profile of famed architect I.M. Pei that even some specialists have not read. Some of these rare items were donated to the library by Poon, who has been collecting valuable materials in China for many years.

A long history of emigration
The exhibition traces Chinese emigration back to its roots during the Han Tang dynasty (206- 907 A.D.). Some of its displays show how migration patterns culminated in today’s distribution of Chinese around the world. Approximately 34 million Chinese reside in 140 countries today, the Overseas Chinese Confederation reports. Asia has the largest population of overseas Chinese, numbering 28 million. The Americas are second, with 3.5 million, and Europe is third, with 1.6 million Chinese. According to Poon, these huge populations have inspired renewed interest among demographers and historians alike in carrying out systematic studies of the Chinese experience in host countries overseas.

“Chinese contributions have really gone unrecognized during this time in history,” Poon says, “and that is part of the reason we established the Asian American Studies Library in 1979: to provide the infrastructure for systematically collecting some of these rare materials.”

Exhibition visitors can view a variety of documents illustrating changing perceptions toward Chinese Americans in this country after U.S. immigration policies toward them changed following World War II. Other documents shine a light on how perceptions of the Chinese changed worldwide, as they did in 1979, when relations normalized between China and the United States, and how perceptions changed again 18 years later, in 1997, when Hong Kong was returned to China. Increased acceptance of the Chinese led to a new wave of émigrés, Poon says — those who began to travel abroad to study.

“These new changes and their impact on the countries in which the Chinese have chosen to live merit much more scholarly research than we have seen to date,” Poon says. “This exhibition is designed to provide only a glimpse of Berkeley’s vast research collections and archives on the Chinese overseas. Our hope is that people who view it will become interested in learning more about the Chinese and their roles in the history and politics of other countries.”


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