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It Looks Good On Paper

By Scott Smith in Arts & Entertainment on May 24, 2005 6:28PM

Last weekend, the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago opened its doors to the public. The first such museum “between the coasts” is also the newest Chinatown attraction, 2005_05_24_cam.jpgoccupying the former Quong Yick wholesale headquarters. Saturday afternoon was a celebration of three years’ planning, fundraising, and extensive volunteer work. The Museum and its Foundation are entirely volunteer driven, and Chicagoist was briefly reminded of this Saturday while a group of them reattached the front door.

The inaugural exhibit Paper Sons: Chinese in the Midwest 1870-1945 is the first comprehensive exhibit documenting Chinese Americans’ early settlement around these parts. Between 1887-1943, U.S. policy restricted Chinese immigration almost exclusively to those with relatives already in the country. The exhibit’s title refers to the papers immigrants brought to support their family history and assist them with the interrogation process. Hundreds of thousands of Chinese passed through the Angel Island Immigration Station, many were detained and imprisoned. They faced further hardship on the west coast, encountering widespread bigotry and harsh labor conditions. Those who relocated to the Midwest found conditions more hospitable.

Paper Sons brings gravity to these challenges without resorting to overdramatization. Many Chinese immigrants worked overtime as laundrymen and restaurant workers, you’re reminded while perusing old menus and a reconstructed Chinese hand laundry. Chicago history buffs will appreciate the photos of the Chicago World’s Fairs. The 1893 event featured a full-size Taoist/Buddhist Temple, and visitors to the 1933 “Century of Progress” could walk through a copy of the Lama Temple. The WWII era is given brief, Smithsonianesque treatment. A few photos of diplomatic missions and Madame Kai-Shek’s visit to Chicago help you understand how much Chinese-Americans appreciated the fight against the Axis Powers.

The exhibit concludes (or begins, depending on which direction you walk) with portraits of Chinese-American families. Recognizing that this exhibit and this space serve heritage and history, the organizers ask that if you recognize anyone in these portraits, please contact them.

Paper Sons runs through December 1 at The Chinese-American Museum, located at 238 West 23rd Street. The Museum is open Friday through Sunday. Admission: $2, seniors and students $1.

Thanks, Justin!