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My Turn

by Dmae Roberts


Leah Hing (1907-2001) was born and raised in Portland by immigrant parents who owned a Chinese medicine and tea store. Hing earned her pilotís license in 1934. (Photo courtesy of the Oregon Historical Society, #ba019445)

EDUCATIONAL EXHIBITS. In the 1920s, Leah Hing (second from right) started an all-Chinese womenís band in which she was a saxophone player. (Photo courtesy of Jackie Peterson-Loomis)

From The Asian Reporter, V26, #6 (March 21, 2016), pages 6 & 11.

A tale of two exhibits

People of my generation didnít learn much about Asian-American history growing up. It simply wasnít taught at school. I knew nothing about exclusion laws until the 1990s. I remember being shocked when I learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and how it discriminated against Chinese laborers. Though the miners and railroad workers were allowed to stay in America after the act was signed into law, some 20,000 could not return after they went back to China to see family members because of another exclusion law, the Scott Act of 1888.

These exclusion laws created a society of bachelor men such as Ing (Doc) Hay at the Kam Wah Chung & Co. general store in John Day, Oregon, who never returned to China even for a visit. Many other Asian exclusion laws followed that barred immigration from Japan, Korea, South Asia, and the Philippines.

Young people in Portland now have an opportunity to experience a part of history that still is not included in many school curriculums. Luckily, the Oregon Historical Society (OHS) currently has two important and educational displays on view. The first is a travelling exhibit that features the complex immigration history of Chinese Americans in relation to exclusionary laws targeting them. The second was created locally and highlights the people and communities who were part of Portlandís two Chinatowns.

In January, OHS hosted the west-coast premiere of "Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion," which is on loan from the New-York Historical Society before it is displayed in China. The exhibit, which runs through June 1, 2016, chronicles the early days of China trade to the history of Chinese immigration and the life of Chinese Americans.

Eliza Canty-Jones, director of community engagement at OHS, said the national exhibit tells the story of exclusionary laws against Chinese Americans beginning with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which wasnít repealed until 1943. It covers the history of "paper sons" ó when people circumvented unfair laws by buying false documents stating they were blood relatives of U.S. citizens in order to enter the U.S. The exhibit also documents the intense interrogations and long detentions Chinese immigrants endured, sometimes up to two years, at the Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco.

In conjunction with the national exhibit, the OHS museum opened a second exhibit ó "Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portlandís Historic Chinatowns" ó that is on view through June 21, 2016. By the 1900s, Portlandís Chinatown was the second largest in the nation.

Jackie Peterson-Loomis, Ph.D., a retired history professor at Washington State University Vancouver, brought the national exhibit to the attention of OHS. She then curated "Beyond the Gate" to highlight 100 years of history in Portlandís Old Chinatown (1850-1905) and New Chinatown (1905-1950).

What I love about history is learning about personal stories. OHS recently brought Judy Yung to Portland to celebrate the opening of "Beyond the Gate." Yung, the author of several books about Chinese-American women, is professor emerita of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Yung featured Portlander Leah Hing, a resident of New Chinatown whose story appears in "Beyond the Gate," in a slide presentation.

Leah Hing (1907-2001) was born and raised in Portland by immigrant parents who owned a Chinese medicine and tea store in New Chinatown. In the 1920s, she started an all-Chinese womenís band in which she was a saxophone player. Yung interviewed Hing in 1982. She said Hing considered the band "a novelty act" with only one song in their repertoire. The band played "Happy Days Are Here Again" to mostly white audiences during the Depression and travelled across the U.S. and Canada for two years.

According to Yung, Hing returned to Portland to work in her fatherís restaurant. There she met an aviation instructor who wanted to start an all-female stunt team and encouraged her to take flying lessons from him. Hing accepted, but was disappointed when her father would not let her go to China as a pilot to fight the Japanese during World War II. Another Portlander, Hazel Ying Lee, joined the Womenís Airforce Service Pilots (WASP) and was killed in an accident while piloting aircraft during the war.

When Hing received her pilotís license in 1934, she bought a Fleet training biplane and began performing in air shows. Yung said Hing experienced discrimination during World War II, when she was rejected by an aviation club because she was Chinese. She worked at the Portland Air Base as an instrument mechanic. In 1943, after congress repealed the Chinese Exclusion Act because China was now an ally, Hing became the first woman of color to work at the Aero Club, a downtown social club. She worked as a hat-check girl, switchboard operator, and photographer. Hing stayed there until she retired at age 70. Hing died of heart failure and cancer at the age of 94, surrounded at her home by relatives and friends who all remembered her as being funny, energetic, and gutsy. She had also told Yung she thought of herself as "sort of a rebel" who liked to do challenging things.

Peterson-Loomis, also the founder of the Old Town History Project, was first introduced to the elder Chinese community and to Old and New Chinatown by Leah Hing. Later, Bruce Wong, along with his wife Gloria, Bertha Saiget, and Norman Locke, also served as her mentors. The OHS exhibit was produced in collaboration with them and other members of the Old Chinese community, whose history is now being collected and preserved by the Portland Chinatown History and Museum Foundation. Peterson-Loomis said she worked with veteran set designer Carey Wong on the "exciting and important project," bringing together the history of one of Portlandís earliest and most influential ethnic groups.

Both exhibits feature the history and profiles of people we hear little about. Itís personal stories like Hingís that really connect me to the lessons that can be learned from history. For me, the exhibits have direct correlations to what is happening today regarding immigration policy and the rejection of refugees escaping war-torn countries. I especially hope families will visit OHS to take in the full impact of these important displays.

The Oregon Historical Society Museum is located at 1200 S.W. Park Avenue in Portland. The museum is open daily ó 10:00am to 5:00pm Monday through Saturday and noon to 5:00pm on Sunday. Admission is free for Multnomah County residents. For more information, call (503) 222-1741 or visit <www.ohs.org>. To learn more about the travelling exhibit, visit www.chineseamerican.nyhistory.org.

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