As a New York City–based historian, curator, and cultural organizer, Jewish history, intellectuals, organizers, and activists have been influential at every turn. This impact began in a Levitttown-like suburb and continues in my teaching today.
All Diaspora and migratory experiences have been touchstones in my efforts to understand Chinese and Asians in the Americas histories and now New York Anglo- American political culture in a global frame. Yet none has been as deeply affecting and informative as the Jewish experience for my reflections as part of a refugee family moving to Park Forest, Illinois at age four. I’ll brie y touch on three intersected research “knots,” then get to my teaching approach. Not linear, questions return in cycles, renewed and made more complex
First, when we started the New York Chinatown History Project I gained an appreciation of the deeply rooted Jewish historical and organizational presence infused in the Chinatown/Lower East Side area. I wanted to establish an Asian American parallel to Yiddishkeit culture rooted in both neighborhood and deep translocal histories. Stories of the Garden Cafeteria (now Wu’s Wonton King), a place where local writers, organizers, and community folks would gather, intrigued me. I imagined Isaac Bashevis Singer and Emma Goldman sitting across time over American coffee. (It soon became a Cantonese eatery in 1983.) Why hadn’t the Chinese New York community developed in similar ways? A good part of the difference: the Chinese Exclusion Act, 1882–1943, but effectively lasting till 1965/68, when Emanuel Celler helped author the Hart-Celler Immigration Reform Act. There simply had not been a critical number of Chinese New York families to create comparable networks and inroads. Or had this in fact happened yet that history was not documented?
Second, just as Chinese Exclusion was “forgotten,” eugenics-driven policies and laws also devastated the communities of Little Italy and the Lower East Side. Redlining was preceded by Robert Moses and “slum clearance,” which was preceded by Anglo- Protestant Progressives “planning” and rezoning away immigrant and migrant “dirtiness.” While the nation today is well coached in remembering the immigrant history of Little Italy and the Jewish Lower East Side, the eugenics history remains hidden (in plain sight). The 1924 National Origins Quota effectively ended the migration streams and the racialized exclusion of “inferior” “unfit” Europeans now largely un-told and un-noted—another parallel to the public ignorance of Chinese Exclusion. What could I glean from this systemic public erasure?
And more intersected yet, a nod to a third knot, Park Forest, Illinois, was one of those post–Korean War GI suburbs where excluded European whites could “become white.” Philip Klutznick—part of the FDR administration that continued the exurbanizing policies of “slum clearance,” builder of highways and Chicago region developer—wanted to build a suburb that Jews could move into. Racial covenants, for so many “others,” kept my family from being able to move into Oak Park, but Klutznick allowed young Chinese American professionals to enter Park Forest, where I grew up amidst unresolved feelings of living in a placeless home.
Each of these three time/place stories, for me, constitutes a meaning-filled fragmented “artifact” theorizing my life experience. Many qualify as Marianne Hirsch’s “postmemory” tidbits—conveyed unresolved traumas to descendants innocent of and dislodged from the lived knowledge yet filled with unresolved, inchoate feelings. Conceptualizing such artifacts together enables me to link my refugee, Diaspora family with a larger set of Jewish, Italian, Puerto Rican, and African American Lower East Side stories that challenge foundational paradigms of what it means to be an American, retrospectively and today.
Jack Tchen, historian, curator, and teacher, has just been appointed as the Clement A Price Chair of Public History and Humanites at Rutgers University - Newark. He is the founding director of the Program in Asian/Paci c/American Studies at New York University. He cofounded the Museum of Chinese in America. He is currently completing work on a PBS documentary with Ric Burns and Li-shin Yu on the Chinese Exclusion Act and curating a visual study on New York City–based eugenics Progressives.