By Andrew Hamlin
Northwest Asian Weekly
One of the first things you notice inside the “Grit” exhibit at the Wing Luke Museum is a gas can. A very old, metal, crumpled gas can — the Chinese characters markings on it are just barely visible. It was pulled out of a forest, and it probably isn’t possible to say who left it there, or exactly when, or why.
But a Chinese American presence within a forest speaks to the widespread presence of Asian Americans across the Northwest. “Grit,” devoted to “Asian Pacific Pioneers Across the Northwest,” uses the museum space, with a careful selection of artifacts, to tell the story of resilience, accommodation, and steadfastness in the face of racism, economic downturns, and other misfortunes.
Wing Luke’s Cassie Chinn is the executive deputy director for the museum, project lead for “Grit,” and a fourth-generation Chinese American raised in Seattle.
“One of my earliest and most powerful experiences at The Wing was the opportunity to go on the 1994 Chinese Heritage Tour of the American West,” said Chinn. “We traveled by bus to heritage sites in Oregon and Idaho. It was powerful to walk the mining areas and enter the shops of these early pioneers, and tangibly experience just how deep our roots are and how significant our contributions [were] throughout the Pacific Northwest. We also journeyed with others ranging in age from college to seniors, and the experience across three generations is one I will never forget.” The experience gave Chin an early inspiration for “Grit.”
Aleta Eng, a partnership specialist from the Mount Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest, is a third-generation Chinese American, also raised in Seattle. For years, her family owned a Chinatown/ID grocery store called Wa Sang. She consulted with the Wing Luke Museum on “Grit” and she’s also worked on the heritage tours mentioned by Ms. Chinn.
The oral histories gathered for the exhibit were useful, explains Eng, in filling in gaps of knowledge. For example, she said, “During the heritage hike to Wellington (Iron Goat Trail in the Mt. Baker-Snoqualmie National Forest), one of the participants, Toshiko Okamoto, shared that her grandfather and father were laborers on that Great Northern railroad, following the work as far as Montana. Her grandfather had gone to work for the railroad to send money back to his family in Japan. When her father turned 14, his father asked him to come to America and help. She remembers them telling her about the Wellington train disaster when she was growing up on Second Avenue and Yesler Way in Seattle.”
Chinn explains that through the exhibit, “Visitors follow the footsteps of an Asian Pacific American pioneer — entering the unknown, going through immigration, finding housing, getting work or starting a business on their own, forming a community, and then ultimately passing on — all the while also experiencing the stories, events, and people of the 16 featured sites spanning from Washington, Oregon, Idaho, and Alaska.”
The exhibit includes artifacts from the pass, including a desk from a school, papers, posters, and of course, that gas can. Music fills the air, including recordings of Charley Kahana, a half Hawaiian fiddler who lived and played in the San Juan Islands, British Columbia, and Washington state.
Asian Americans lived and worked all over the Pacific Northwest, creating a challenge for the “Grit” design team. “A huge challenge of this project,” remembers Chinn, “was merely selecting which sites to feature. This was also our biggest surprise. Our Community Advisory Committee reviewed 60 sites, ultimately selecting 16. The other sites are featured on a Picasa photo album and map in the exhibition.
“Surprisingly, we also found that we had significant materials in our own collection related to these sites. It was powerful to discover missing pieces to the stories of these sites. For example, the exhibition features the stories of the Nakamuras, first-generation Japanese Americans who returned to Seattle, after being incarcerated in Minidoka, and purchased the Astor Hotel and Nippon Kan. They were important stewards for this community touchstone, before it was purchased by and rehabilitated by Edward Burke.
“The exhibition also gives name to other Asian Pacific Americans which history has overlooked — from Japanese American crews working the Great Northern Railroad in the North Cascades, who were killed in the famous Wellington avalanche, to Chinese American cooks at the Port Gamble lumber mill.” (end)
The “Grit” exhibit runs through Oct. 19 at the Wing Luke Museum of The Asian Pacific American Experience, located at 719 South King St. in Seattle’s Chinatown/International District. For prices and hours of operation, call 206-623-5124 or visit www.wingluke.org.
Andrew Hamlin can be reached at email@example.com.