100 Years of overlooked history: Uncovering Asian American stories in Evanston and the Midwest
By Hannah Zhihan Jiang
Note: Click here to view this article in the Evanston Roundtable. It was one of a four-part series focusing on the Evanston History Center's work to uncover Asian, South Asian, and Pacific Islander histories in Evanston. This first piece outlines the overall project and the impetus that began the drive to collect more history. The three other parts tell the story of a Chinese immigrant and Evanston resident, Wong Aloy.
When Melissa Raman Molitor, a 10-year Evanston resident, asked the Evanston History Center this year about Asian American historical archives, she was told that the center has no such records.
“It gets started with this question in my mind: Who were the first Asians to come and live in Evanston?” she said. “I found out there was no way to find that information.”
Provoked by the sharp uptick of anti-Asian incidents across the U.S. in 2020, Molitor founded Kitchen Table Stories Project, a multimedia healing justice project based in Evanston, where one in every 11 residents identifies as Asian, South Asian or Pacific Islander (ASPA), according to the U.S. Census.
Last July, Illinois became the first state in the U.S. to pass legislation mandating the teaching of Asian American history in K-12 public schools, beginning with the 2022-23 school year. The law is known as the Teaching Equitable Asian American Community History (TEAACH) Act.
As Illinois public schools prepare to teach Asian American history this fall, Molitor, who aims to center ASPA voices, was startled that neither the Evanston History Center nor the Evanston Public Library could produce archives.
“How do you teach Asian American history and the Asian American experience,” she recalled wondering, “without having that rooted and grounded in your own community?”
Molitor took matters into her hands by reaching out to the Evanston History Center. Together, they established in April the Evanston Placemaking Initiative, a project to uncover Asian American history in Evanston and to create living archives of ASPA residents in Evanston.
Molitor and Jenny Thompson, a historian at the Evanston History Center, are making research material available on the website of the Kitchen Table Stories Project to help Evanston educators teach Asian American history rooted in the local community.
The website has established a Teaching Resource page compiling local cultural organizations, related books and stories and ASPA history lesson plans for different grade levels. Molitor has also rolled out workshops to share ASPA-related multimedia resources with educators.
Another highlight on the website is the “cultural mapping” of Evanston. Each pin on the map marks an ASPA life story from Evanston or nearby, featuring articles, audio stories and videos.
Thompson is distributing her first 40-page article portraying one of the earliest Asian Americans in Evanston, Wong Aloy, a man who emigrated from China in 1882. (The RoundTable is publishing that article on three consecutive days following the publication of this article. Click here to begin reading that story.)
“I honestly cannot believe that this story was out there and had not been told,” said Thompson.
Evanston Township High School English and reading teacher Patti Delacruz’s ethnicities are Korean and Japanese and she grew up in Chicago. She said she barely learned in school about Asian American history, not to mention local ASPA history. The only lessons taught, she said, were related to the Vietnam War and the Japanese internment camps during World War II.
“I don’t have the knowledge about the Indian and the Indian American community, for example,” said Delacruz. “I would have to go to my colleagues and ask: ‘Can you tell me more about that history?’ They have a rich community history to tell. It’s just not documented.”
Delacruz signed up for one of the professional development series provided by the Asian American Advancing Justice Chicago, the primary organization promoting the TEAACH Act. Executive Director Grace Pai said the series models lessons, introduces Asian American history and discusses how not to perpetuate harmful stereotypes against Asians in class.
Pai said the organization doesn’t have enough resources on Illinois or Midwest-specific Asian American history. “That’s a gap we cannot address on our own,” she said, explaining that the material must come from research institutions and universities.
The untold history
In 1917, Liu-Wang Liming arrived in the United States.
Liu-Wang Liming (1897-1970) was listed as Frances W. Wang in the 1920 Northwestern University yearbook. Credit: Provided by Jenny Thompson, Evanston History Center
At the age of 12, she refused to have her feet bound, a traditional Chinese custom to break and bind young girls’ feet to limit the size of their feet. “The lotus feet,” about 4.3 inches in length, were considered a mark of feminine beauty.
The 1,000-year practice was gradually abandoned in the early 20th century, but Liu-Wang was the first in her county to reject the practice, according to Zheng Wang’s book Women in the Chinese Enlightenment: Oral and Textual Histories.
Liu-Wang later converted to Christianity, went to school, and earned a scholarship to attend Northwestern University. After her studies, she returned to China to fight for women’s rights and democracy. She founded the Shanghai Women’s Suffrage Association in the 1930s, according to Helen Rappaport’s book, Encyclopedia of Women Social Reformers, Volume 1.
Thompson discovered Liu-Wang’s story in the 1920 yearbook of Northwestern University.
The Chinese Exclusion Act from 1882 to 1943 barred most Chinese laborers from entering the U.S., and Chinese immigrants from becoming U.S. citizens. Thompson said students were among the earliest Chinese immigrants. They were granted permission to study in the U.S. with the expectation that they would return to their home country after studying.
With little-to-no-documentation of Asian American history in Evanston, Thompson said she had to conduct a ground-up investigation that included going through U.S. Census data, newspapers and yearbooks.
“There’s always going to be history that’s been lost because nobody has paid attention to recording it,” Thompson said. “The ideal archive is collecting as things happen. We have to go back to the beginning and bring them back together.”
In addition to Chinese students in Evanston in the early 20th century, she noticed Evanston had an “explosion” of Chinese-owned laundries around the same time. She also spotted a dramatic increase in the Filipino and Korean population during the 1920s.
“It’s exciting to find these stories,” Thompson said. “Who are these people? What are their stories? Where did they come from? Did they have families? Where did they live?”
While housing discrimination against Black Evanstonians in the 20th century became relatively well-known as the city approved the nation’s first reparations program, Thompson said it’s possible that Asian Americans also suffered from housing discrimination.
During her early research, she found an anecdote of a Japanese American family unable to settle in Evanston in 1943 during World War II because of objections from the neighborhood.
“They had to back out and tear up the lease,” said Thompson.
Daniel Aquino, the Filipino Chinese co-owner of Coffee Lab & Roasters on Noyes Street, said he is excited and curious about the project.
Aquino moved to Evanston in 2008. The national rise of anti-Asian hate in 2020 impelled him to embrace his Asian heritage, he said. Since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, more than 10,000 incidents of anti-Asian hate have been reported, according to Stop AAPI Hate, a national coalition collecting data on racially motivated attacks related to the pandemic.
Since then, Coffee Lab has become well-known in the Evanston Filipino community. Many of the members started to gather at his shop every Sunday, said Aquino. He learned through a customer that many Filipinos of the older generation settled in Evanston more than 50 years ago. Some of them were recruited as nurses from the Philippines, Aquino said.
“I didn’t know that we’re here until the last three years,” he said. “We’ve always felt like that we’re the foreigners here.”
Thompson and Molitor aren’t the only ones seeking to unearth stories of ASPA history in the Midwest.
When Professor Victor Jew, a senior lecturer of Asian American studies at the University of Wisconsin, started looking into Asian American historical archives in the Midwestern universities in the 1980s and 1990s, archivists dismissed his requests, claiming the libraries possessed little relevant material. The archivists were only able to find records pertaining to Asian history, said Jew.
Since then, Jew traveled to more than 20 archival locations in the Midwest, hunting up old boxes of material and discovering traces of more than a hundred years of Asian Americans’ lives in the Midwest.
“Many archivists don’t know and are not curious. They assume there is no Asian American history in their archives,” said Jew, “but there is. There is a lot.” He found that Asian Americans have been present in the Midwest since at least the 1870s.
The ignorance stems from decades of presumed white racial homogeneity in the Midwest, said Professor Ji-Yeon Yuh, an associate professor of Asian American Studies and History at Northwestern.
According to the Pew Research Center, the Midwest is home to 12% of Asian Americans; other regions have larger portions of the population – including the West (45%), the South (24%) and the Northeast (19%). As of 2010, Asian Americans make up 3% of the overall Midwest population, according to the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice
University archives always had the material, said Yuh, but it was never cataloged as “Asian American history.” She said the archivists, mostly white, can only catalog things that they know about, and few had studied Asian American history.
Erika Lee, a History and Asian American studies professor at the University of Minnesota, described Asian Americans in the Midwest as “doubly invisible” in her essay Asian American Studies in the Midwest: New Questions, Approaches, and Communities (2009). She said their stories are not only omitted from the American historical narrative but also absent in the scholarship of Asian American history.
“Many people think, ‘Asian Americans in the Midwest, that’s only since the 1980s or 1975,’” Jew said. “But we can push it back for 150 years.”
He found that before many Filipino laborers immigrated to the Midwest in the 1920s, some Midwestern professors from the University of Michigan, the University of Chicago and the University of Wisconsin went to the Philippines to improve the territorial administration during American colonial rule in the Philippines from 1898 to 1946.
“It’s not just one-way. It’s not just about them coming here,” Jew said. “There’s a history of interconnection.”
Jew has published a book, Asian Americans in Michigan: Voices from the Midwest, and is gathering material for a new book about Asian American history in the Midwest.
Yuh has guided Northwestern students to conduct oral history projects in the past decade. They talked to Japanese Americans who resettled in Chicago after World War II and Korean veterans from the Korean War.
“Where are you going to hear relatively unfiltered voices of ordinary people? Is it going to be in a newspaper article where you get a couple of quotes? Not really,” she said.
Yuh said what has been discovered about Asian American history is only the tip of an iceberg.
“We need to have so many [materials] that they fill up an entire library,” said Yuh. “Now it fills a shelf.”
Yuh sees the passing of the TEAACH Act as a starting point, hoping as more people know about Asian American history, they will contribute to the literature in various ways.
“They might become novelists, filmmakers, poets, scriptwriters, playwrights, advertising executives, politicians – and be able to create more Asian American narratives.”