The Public Humanist

The Chinese Historical Society of New England Turns 20

In June 2011, Mass Humanities awarded a grant to the Chinese Historical Society of New England, located in Boston’s Chinatown, for public history events connected to the Society’s 20th anniversary. Project organizers Nancy Eng (Executive Director of Chinese Historical Society of New England) and Laura Ng (graduate student in Historical Archaeology at UMass Boston and member of the Chinese Historical Society of New England) touch upon some of the history of the Chinese Educational Mission, which is chronicled in a new book by Edward Rhoads. Check out the upcoming lectures—wouldn’t it be fun to learn more about the history of Chinese immigration to New England in Chinatown?

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Despite the surprising wintery weather in late October, the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE) had a great turnout for the first in a series of events in celebration of its upcoming 20th anniversary. Suffolk University's newly renovated Modern Theatre in downtown Boston that was filled with CHSNE members, supporters, and the general public. Bridgewater State University Professor and Vice President of CHSNE’s Board, Wing-kai To, graciously moderated the event.

Dr. Edwards Rhoads, Professor Emeritus at the University of Texas at Austin, spoke about the first 120 Chinese students to arrive and live in New England in 1872. The talk was based upon Rhoads’ collective biography of the Chinese Educational Mission students described in his newly published book, Stepping Forth into the World. Illustrations accompanying Rhoads’ talk included census records of some of the early students who lived in the City of Chelsea, directly across the Mystic River from Boston.

Dr. Rhoads also showed historic group photos of the young students upon their arrival in New England, dressed in traditional Chinese attire with long Manchu braids or queues. In later photos, they appeared more Westernized as they learned to engage in the all-American pastime of playing baseball. We were delighted to see newspaper accounts of these students forming their own Chinese American baseball team in Holyoke, Massachusetts as early as 1876, only a decade after the rules of baseball were codified.

After attending public and private high schools and colleges in New England, the students were abruptly summoned back to China in 1881 where many later served as officials in the Qing government. A small number made their way back to America and settled in the United States, becoming what Dr. Rhoads calls the founding members of the emergent Chinese American community.

The next week CHSNE held an Open House in early November featuring the first public viewing of the Mount Hope Chinese Burial Grounds Digital Database Project. The project grew out of the work of students and faculty in the Asian American Studies Program at UMass Boston in collaboration with CHSNE.

Inspired by CHSNE’s ongoing effort to honor the historical legacy and community value of the Chinese burial grounds at Mt. Hope Cemetery in Mattapan, students in Professor Peter Kiang’s Fall 2007 Boston’s Asian American Communities course, produced an initial, gravestone-by-gravestone compilation of English and Chinese names with accompanying digital photographs matched with official cemetery records on paper.

In 2009, Laura Ng, a graduate student in Historical Archaeology at UMass Boston and CHSNE member, took responsibility for the project, and created a searchable program with relational database software. The project continues to be a work-in-progress.

According to official cemetery records, there are approximately 1500 individuals buried at Mt. Hope. Prior to the creation of the database, it was difficult for relatives or friends to find information about a deceased individual (e.g. gravestone location, interment date, etc) because cemetery records were in paper form.

Another important purpose in digitizing cemetery records is to document the condition of gravestones and any written text on the burial markers. Because many of the gravestones are broken or eroding, it is important to have photographic evidence of their state of deterioration, as well as any engraved English and Chinese text.

The database will also be a useful resource to scholars researching Massachusetts’ early Chinese American history.

Some might find it difficult to search for deceased individuals because of the “Paper Son” phenomenon caused by the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act (the widespread falsification of documents intended to demonstrate a family relationship between a new Chinese immigrant and one already residing in the US). This means that names on a cemetery record might not match information on a burial marker.

The database is an ongoing project, and we are continuing to photograph every grave marker in the cemetery and to translate and input all the Chinese text on the gravestones.

Other works featured in the CHSNE Open House were the Chinese Laundries in Massachusetts Oral History Project compiled by CHSNE Board member Shauna Lo, the Chinese restaurant matchbook album collection and other historic photos and artifacts from the CHSNE archive collection.

Meanwhile, CHSNE will be hosting the following lectures in January and April:

  • Columbia University Professor Professor Mae Ngai will discuss the emergence of middle class Chinese America based upon her book, The Lucky Ones. Saturday, January 28 at 2 pm at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, 38 Ash Street, Boston
  • Suffolk University Professor Da Zheng will lecture about his cultural biography of Chiang Yee, author of the Silent Traveler series. Saturday, April 28 at 2 pm (location to be announced)

IMAGES top to bottom:

1. Thomas La Fargue Collection, Washington State University

Visitors: A Chinese Educational Mission baseball team in Hartford, CT

2. Dr. Rhoads delivering lecture; courtesy of the Chinese Historical Society of New England

3. Matchbook: Courtesy of the China History Forum

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