Salem museum hopes to spread awareness of local Asian American history

Kylie Pine remembers how one of the first requests she got as curator at the Willamette Heritage Center was centered on a common myth about Chinese immigrants. A person asked about underground tunnels in Salem where Chinese people purportedly lived in the late 1800s.

There is no evidence that Chinese people lived in underground tunnels. Now, the center is using a grant that will dispel other myths about a population that was reviled and targeted by white settlers while also highlighting the rich history of the Mid-Willamette Valley’s Asian American community in the Salem community.

“The story that we want to tell is that there were people that lived here in spite of the harsh realities of the legal and social and economic issues that they were facing and survived and thrived,” Pine said.

A $5,500 grant from the Oregon Heritage Commission will help the heritage center buy hardware so that existing panels that describe local Japanese and Chinese stories can be checked out by different community organizations.

“This is allowing us to take those panels and give them a little bit more life and also tell the stories outside of our museum walls and hopefully working with other partner organizations,” Pine said.

She cited the World Beat Festival as an example.

One of the panels explores Japanese American history before World War II, when many families farmed celery in the Labish Village area, just north of Keizer.

Pine said the museum did an exhibit four years ago that explored the Japanese American experience during World War II.

“Which was particularly traumatic as most of the individuals of Japanese heritage were forcibly removed from their homes and placed in incarceration camps,” she said.

Those in Marion County were initially sent to camps in northern California, she said. Some were later moved to Heart Mountain in Wyoming, where more than 14,000 people were incarcerated.

“The experiences weren’t monolithic. Some people were released to go back to school … some people went to work on beet farms out in eastern Oregon,” Pine said.

The grant will provide hardware to make the panels more portable.

Pine hopes this will be the foundation to a larger exhibit that explores more details of the Asian American experience locally with artifacts.

While Salem is an overwhelmingly white community, she hopes the project will help realize that communities of color also have called the area home.

“Historically there’s always been individuals of color, communities of color that have been here since a really long time. And so how do we bring those stories to the forefront that don’t necessarily show up in some of the other historical museums and documents?” she said.

She said bringing those stories to light can be difficult, because preserving the history of those who were heavily discriminated against may not have been a priority for recordkeeping.

“And it’s hard, it’s a challenge for us,” Pine said. “We can talk about systemic racism within the museum as well. In the way that the structures have been set up, those stories haven’t always been saved, cared for, classified, sought out, and looked for.”

There were racist ordinances in Salem’s city code that applied only to noodle houses owned by Japanese and Chinese proprietors that required them to keep the windows open, Pine said.

“Some of the challenges for us as historians is ‘Why was that?’” she said.

In recent years, historians in Salem have increased efforts to bring to light the experiences of Chinese immigrants in Salem.

Kimberli Fitzgerald, the city’s historic preservation officer, traveled to China in 2018 to find family members of those who lived in Salem’s Chinatown. A utility box in downtown Salem at the corner of State Street and High Street Northeast details some of Chinatown’s local history.

Fitzgerald’s work included unearthing a shrine at Salem’s Pioneer Cemetery, used during the Qing Ming festival in the late 1800s, which is the Chinese traditional day for honoring the dead and cleaning headstones.

In April, people gathered there to celebrate the third annual Qing Ming Festival.

Contact reporter Saphara Harrell at 503-549-6250, saphara@salemreporter.com.

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