Museum Seeks Materials For 'Chinese In The Sunset' Exhibition

Museum Seeks Materials For 'Chinese In The Sunset' Exhibition
The kite-flying club at Abraham Lincoln High School. | Photo: San Francisco Public Library
By Fiona Lee - Published on July 28, 2017.

While Chinatown's history has been well-documented, other Chinese-American communities around San Francisco have frequently been overlooked when it comes to the historical record.

To bring those stories forward, the Chinese Historical Society of America is preparing an exhibit on the history of the Chinese community in the Outer Sunset.

"[This history has] not been documented," said Palma You, gallery coordinator at the CHSA. "It’s not been studied. We’re going to fill that gap in that story."

You said the CHSA team is looking at the period between 1950 and 2010. They have tracked down pioneer families—Chinese-American families who moved to the Outer Sunset after World War II—and service organizations during the period.

You and CHSA are asking the public to stories, photos and artifacts that support the stories from the period, and they will have a direct impact in shaping the exhibition.

"Those stories will drive the content of the exhibit," she said. "We know the broad title and the type of information we’ll get—we don’t know what we’ll actually get."

A Francis Scott Key softball team had several Chinese-American members, January 1971. | Photo: San Francisco Public Library

One difficulty is in surfacing the stories themselves. "Before the internet, nothing was published, things weren’t circulated out," You told us. "The response has been pretty good for that period in time where information is scarce, [the 1940s-50s]." 

To research the exhibition, CHSA has built community partnerships with a number of organizations, such as the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA), which is helping the society out with population maps, and San Francisco Public Library (SFPL), which is supporting the exhibition through its history center and photo archives. 

However, another major challenge is putting together the exhibition under a much shorter timeline than usual. 

"Museums normally start research two to three years out," You noted. "We have less than 12 months from the time we received the grant to the debut."

The office of District 4 Supervisor Katy Tang, who represents the Outer Sunset, is funding the project through a grant. As a result, the exhibition is focused specifically on the Outer Sunset, rather than including other major Chinese communities in San Francisco like the Richmond or the Excelsior. 

A rifle team at Abraham Lincoln High had Richard Yee, a Chinese-American, as its captain.  | Photo: San Francisco Public Library

During the last few months, CHSA has sent out multiple calls for submissions to Outer Sunset families.

"We’re getting a good response from the early pioneer families," she noted. "Early pioneers are willing to share their memories. They feel it's important to share their history and pass it down. I didn’t know they still existed."

The early pioneers first came out to the Sunset after World War II. While Chinese-Americans wanted to branch out to other areas of the city, discrimination and legislation prevented them from purchasing property in parts of the city where banks, deeds and developer covenants restricted home sales to white residents.

You shared a story from a CHSA founder who was looking for a home on Taraval St. in the Outer Sunset in that era. As he drove around the neighborhood, suspicious neighbors and merchants called the police. Eventually, a police officer pulled him over and said, "I don't think they want you here." 

Despite discrimination and redlining, Chinese families persisted, and by the late 1940s, they had established a foothold. 

As You was researching the history of the community in the area, she found scrapbook and newspaper photos of Chinese-Americans participating in local events in Outer Sunset and Parkside as early as 1952, including the Parkside Improvement Club's annual May Day parade.

"[There were] Chinese people participating in community events in the 1950s," said You, "when all of the statistics and official records say that they weren’t there. That’s not true; they just weren’t there in large numbers to be countable."

While Outer Sunset's pioneer families have responded to the call for submissions, You is also hoping to receive more materials from Baby Boomers and younger residents, particularly from the last 10 to 15 years. 

"The exhibition is very community-driven," said You. "We’re hoping that...interest will grow and we’ll receive more stories between 2000-2015 from people who have experience during those years. We’d love for people to be interested in sharing what their lives are like in the Sunset now."

If you're interested in sending in materials to be part of the exhibit, contact CHSA at [email protected] with the subject, “Chinese in the Sunset,” or call 415-391-1188 x x109 to speak with a staff member or make an appointment to visit us at 965 Clay Street. Materials will be accepted through July 31, 2017.