By Irene Lu
Northwest Asian Weekly
Chinese Americans built railroads, they fought for civil rights, and they brought the Chinese heritage over the Pacific Ocean.
The Young family, among the first generation of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. States in the 1850s, participated in all of these and is now sharing its Chinese art with the Wing Luke Museum.
The Young Family collection of Chinese art and garments, which was first donated to the Tacoma Arts Museum in 1970s, is now stored and presented to the general public at the Wing Luke Museum, starting this Friday, Jan 16.
“They are the early Chinese pioneers and they take leadership roles in our own Chinatown that reflects our heritage and history here in the Pacific Northwest,” said Cassie Chinn, the deputy executive director of Wing Luke Museum. “It allows us to be able to connect our communities here in the U.S. with our rich heritage in our homeland.”
As a partner with the Tacoma Chinese Reconciliation Project, which promotes the civic harmony of Chinese Americans in Tacoma, the Wing Luke Museum is exhibiting nine Chinese garments from the Qing Dynasty, courtesy of the Young Family collection.
Al Young, the son of donors Col. John C. Young and Mary Lee Young, said they picked nine of the best out of the entire collection of 158 items. The rest of the goods were auctioned off in 2013 in San Francisco by the Tacoma Arts Museum, because the museum did not have enough space to store them. The Young family did not own these items because they were already donated to the museum and the family could not get all of them back, and most items were acquired by merchants from China.
“We have a culture, and my parents got these things to remind us, that we did come from a great culture, and they could add to this culture, and we have,” Young said.
Robes, aprons, pants, and skirts in the exhibits show the richness of the Qing Dynasty.
One of the items that will be exhibited that Young described as priceless, was a robe for the emperor made of gold-gilt thread, which took six months and twenty women in the villages to make. At that time, men in the village would take the imperial exam to gain respect from the village, and the only thing to prove a woman’s worthiness was sewing. The value of the robe not only represented the beauty of embroidery, but also added Chinese women to the historical record.
“These are done by our people, you know?” Young said, with a sense of pride.
The Young family’s arrival in the United States dates back to the 1850s, when Al Young’s great grandfather came over to build railroads.
Young’s grandfather was a revolutionary and and loyal follower of Sun Yat-sen ,the first president and founding father of the Republic of China. His grandfather helped overthrow the weak Chinese emperors with revolution and a belief in democracy.
Young said his grandfather would collect donations of as much as ten cents a day, per person, from the Chinese workers in America, sending them back to Kuomintang, the party Sun Yat-sen founded because of the revolution.
Al Young’s father, U.S. Army Col. John C. Young, would tell him the stories as a reminder that they should never forget their country and their culture. Many years have gone by and the role of overseas Chinese has changed overtime. But in the Young family, remembering where they come from is always important.
After his father retired from the Army, Al Young’s parents would travel all over the world, looking for Chinese goods in antique stores. Robes, for instance, are especially valuable.
“In everything, every piece of the embroidery stitch, is invented in China. And it’s representative [of Chinese culture],” Al Young said. After his father and mother passed away in 1987 and 2002, the spirit of being Chinese led Young and his sister, Connie Young Yu, to becoming active in Chinese American organizations.
Most Chinese families in America usually own one nice thing to pass down in the family, and robes are often the top choice. It’s a symbol of ranking and class, and a symbol of home. The nine pieces of clothing in the Wing Luke exhibit are representative of China, of the invention of sophisticated embroidery stitches.
“Our population is continually changing racially and ethnically,” said Shawn Wong, a Chinese-American English professor at the University of Washington. “Having an object like this tell a story…each of these robes has its story on its own.” (end)
The Young family lived the American dream, and the tragic histories and family stories will continue on with new chapters, starting here at the Wing Luke Museum.
The exhibit will be open to the general public from Jan. 15 until March 29.
Irene Lu can be reached at email@example.com.