If you’ve ever walked down the main drag of Clement Street, you’re probably familiar with why some locals call Richmond the “New Chinatown.” Dim Sum, Chinese Bakeries, and boba places are in abundance. But if you search the web for the keywords “Chinese,” “Richmond,” and “San Francisco,” it’s hard to find much about the Chinese American community in the Richmond beyond the restaurants they own.
“Chinese in the Richmond,” a new interpretive exhibition born from a collaboration between the Western Neighborhoods Project (WNP) and the Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA), aims to change that. The project, started in 2019, stitches together transcribed interviews and primary sources to present a people-first telling of Chinese American history in the neighborhood. Together with a 2017 collaboration titled “Chinese in the Sunset,” the exhibitions will also tell a complete story of Chinese American westward migration in San Francisco as well as offer a complete archive of transcripts for future researchers.
This Saturday, April 24, the organizations will host an open house at the WNP Office at 1617 Balboa Street to celebrate the project and collect primary sources like photographs, deeds, medals, and souvenirs. The open house will also showcase a COVID-cautious sidewalk exhibition of the previous project, “Chinese in the Sunset,” and offer opportunities to chat with the researchers and organizers behind the project.
“We’ve had this scheduled for some time as an opportunity to reach members of the community who might have stories to contribute,” says Nicole Meldahl, Executive Director of the Western Neighborhoods Project. Increased attention on anti-Asian violence, however, makes the mission to reaffirm and document an Asian community’s history in the city all the more timely. “Our entire project has taken on a new significance. It’s even more important to document and share history from this community now,” she says.
Oral histories, unlike historian-written third person narratives, tell the history of an era through specific, personal stories. In the case of “Chinese in the Richmond,” the stories are paired with visual aids. In one sample shared with the Weekly, a person who moved to the neighborhood in 1955 tells of how stunned they were to own a home large enough for 7 people after living in the more compact Chinatown. Another, who arrived in 1962, talks about a bus driver who would let neighborhood children play on the buses whenever the bus’ antennas became detached from its cables. A third who moved in 1961 talks about how their bilingual father, a realtor, made it his project to “bring Chinese out of Chinatown.” The oral histories were conducted throughout 2020, mostly on Zoom — something Meldahl says has enabled researchers to interview far more subjects than initially expected.
“Oral histories are the best part of history, in my humble opinion,” says Meldahl. “They really showcase the humanity in history.”
The project began in 2019 with the support of the Office of Economic and Workforce Development, while the oral history interviews and research were funded by the California Humanities “Humanities for All,” project grant. California Humanities aims to bolster an appreciation for the humanities through education, field building, and public engagement, according to their website.
The exhibition is still collecting stories. The organizations are inviting neighborhood residents to get involved by volunteering for an interview on the CHSA website or by bringing memorabilia this weekend. More information about the exhibition, open house, and taking part in an oral history interview can be found on the Chinese Historical Society of America website here.