Chinese immigration

UD professor helps create Smithsonian exhibit, online research project

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10:29 a.m., Sept. 4, 2013--Jean Pfaelzer, a noted authority on Chinese immigration to the U.S., now shares her expertise and passion on the subject through new platforms.

Expanding her outreach efforts, the University of Delaware professor contributed to an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institution called "I Want the Wide American Earth" and to an online project at Stanford University focusing on Chinese workers in North America.

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Both projects share the stories and conditions of the Chinese migrants who primarily constructed America’s first Transcontinental Railroad in 1865-69. According to Pfaelzer, thousands of skilled Chinese workers were recruited to work in the United States under harsh conditions and for little pay. After the railroad’s completion, the workers faced hostility in their new land — including mass lynchings and criminal arrests — but they maintained their dignity by fighting back, she said. 

Pfaelzer, widely known for her research on these workers, said literary history often buries their stories and fails to highlight the resilience they demonstrated. With the exhibition and the research website, she said she hopes to give a voice to the many that have been silenced.

Now, the Smithsonian Institution’s I Want the Wide American Earth exhibition, part of the Asian Pacific American Program, uncovers and properly divulges these often untold stories in an honest fashion, Pfaelzer said.

“It’s very easy to tell Asian American history as a victim story, but I wanted the exhibit to talk about, not hide, the violence inflicted upon them,” she said. “Their story is of resilience. The Chinese fought violent and dangerous working conditions, and they fought year of brutal assault trying to drive them out of the country. They fought back.”

The exhibition, while highlighting this pertinent time for Chinese Americans, also provides an in-depth look at the role of Asian/Pacific Americans throughout U.S. history. Recently on view at the Smithsonian Institution, the exhibition is now traveling across the country as it continues to celebrate Asian culture in the United States. 

“The exhibit embodies the Chinese’s history of belonging, even as people retain their cultural identities — that’s the American story,” said Pfaelzer.

She also aided in the creation a transnational digital humanities website, the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project at Stanford University. The project, launched by two Stanford scholars, united about 30 Chinese historians, poets, archeologists and other experts in a mission to uncover archives, bones and artifacts and reveal these findings on a new digital platform.

“This project is not frozen,” said Pfaelzer. “The website has letters, immigration documents and photographs. It keeps expanding. Because it’s online, we can keep adding to it very easily and reach a huge audience at the same time. The Chinese railroad workers’ story will appeal to everyone from school kids to public policy makers to scholars — we all ride the railroads. Now we can all learn more about them.”

Pfaelzer works as a professor of English, women and gender studies and Asian studies at UD. She has received accolades for her book Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans. Continuing her research and her writing, she is working on two new books — Muted Mutinies: Slave Rebellions on Chinese Coolie Ships and Of Human Bondage: A History of Slavery in California, in collaboration with University of California Press. 

Article by Laura Hepp

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