The Chinese American Museum of Chicago just reopened its doors to the public on July 1, 2020, after being closed since March, due to the COVID-19 outbreak. A video of the reopening is available on a Chinese website: http://video.sinovision.net/?id=57080&cid=124&fbclid=IwAR1JFmQDCF61-jNvMpIFVFGaAakkRuMxtn4yZFGysYTXGUQN_BPZhh8fWOI
Many people from China began arriving to the United States during the California Gold Rush of 1849. Afterwards, many of these Chinese immigrants found jobs building the transcontinental railroad, which connected the Eastern and Western coasts of the United States via railroad. Once the railroad was completed in 1869, a large number of these immigrants then sought work elsewhere. It is around this time that Chinese immigrants began moving to Chicago, to find better jobs and less discrimination.
The Chinese American Museum of Chicago was founded in 2005 to document Chicago’s Chinese history. The first floor of the former warehouse displays the Museum’s temporary exhibits. When I visited, the temporary exhibit was called “The Chinese Helped Build the Railroad – The Railroad Helped Build America.” This wonderful exhibit showed how much we owe to the hard work of the Chinese immigrants who helped build the United States’ transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Unfortunately, the Chinese workers received inferior treatment in comparison to other groups who worked on the transcontinental railroad. For example, they received lower wages than others and were often the ones made to do the dangerous work of dynamiting the mountains, to make space for the railroad.
The second floor of the Museum is the permanent exhibit that displays the history of Chicago’s Chinese history. My visit there began with a 15-minute video that a staff member put on for me to watch. The video is called “My Chinatown: Stories from Within,” and was created in collaboration with the Chicago History Museum. It not only uses a screen, but also uses props next to the screen as part of the presentation.
After watching the video, I made my way through the rest of the permanent exhibit. It includes a beautiful diorama from Chicago’s former Wentworth Avenue Ling Long Museum, which closed in the 1980s. The Ling Long Museum was built during the Chicago World’s Fair Century of Progress in 1933-34, and displayed dioramas of famous Chinese stories. The diorama at the Chinese American Museum of Chicago is beautiful and intricate. Unfortunately, it is the sole surviving diorama from the Ling Long Museum. The remaining dioramas burned down when the Chinese American Museum of Chicago experienced a devastating fire in 2008.
Through objects, photographs, and signs, the Chinese American Museum of Chicago documents Chicago’s Chinese history from the nineteenth century up until the present day. This includes mention of the Chinese Exclusion Law of 1882, which banned Chinese immigration to the United States. That means that Chinese immigration to Chicago went on hold for several decades. However, after World War II, the restrictions were lifted. Many Chinese immigrants began arriving in the United States during China’s political upheaval in the 1950s. I found it interesting that the last section of the Museum’s exhibit mentions how many of the more recent Chinese immigrants to the United States were Chinese children adopted by U.S. families.
The Chinese American Museum of Chicago is a great place to learn the history of Chicago’s Chinese community. It is located in Chicago’s Chinatown, in the South Side of Chicago. While in Chinatown, you can also grab a meal at one of the numerous Chinese restaurants there, and look at some of the Chinese-inspired architecture in the neighborhood.
Sources and Further Reading
“Objects from the Former Ling Long Museum, 1930s.” Chinese American Museum of Chicago. April 26, 2018. https://ccamuseum.org/2018/04/26/objects-from-the-former-ling-long-museum-1930s/ (accessed June 27, 2020).
Fuchs, Chris. “150 Years Ago, Chinese Railroad Workers Staged the Era’s Largest Labor Strike.” NBC News. June 31, 2017. https://www.nbcnews.com/news/asian-america/150-years-ago-chinese-railroad-workers-staged-era-s-largest-n774901#:~:text=Chinese%20laborers%20made%20up%20a,hammered%20in%20at%20Promontory%2C%20Utah. (accessed June 27, 2020).
“History and Mission.” Chinese American Museum of Chicago. https://ccamuseum.org/history-and-mission/ (accessed June 27, 2020).
Isaacs, Deanna. The Museum that Works. Chicago Reader. October 23, 2008. https://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/the-museum-that-works/Content?oid=1105917 (accessed June 27, 2020).
Steffes, Tracy. “Chinese.” Encyclopedia of Chicago. 2014. http://encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/285.html (accessed June 27, 2020).