Artifacts Spark Stories: Archaeology and Oral History at Stanford's Arboretum Chinese Quarters.

Author:Lowman, Christopher B.


The Arboretum Quarters at Stanford University was home to Chinese employees who worked for the Stanford family, and later for the university itself. Less than a century ago, its buildings still stood on the edge of the campus among trees and gardens that Ah Wah, Chung Wah, Jim Mock, and dozens of other employees helped to cultivate beginning in the 1870s. Chinese men paved campus roads and tended flowers, cooked and worked as janitors in dormitories and fraternities, and ran restaurants or laundries on campus and in the surrounding towns. Nearby landmarks like the Stanford Barn and the Arizona Garden remain fixtures of the university landscape, but the Arboretum Quarters was demolished in 1925, torn down by first-year students for a football game bonfire shortly after the last Chinese resident departed. Following its decades-long occupation, this rapid destruction turned the structures and their surroundings into a potential archaeological site. Subsequent excavations, most recently involving teams from both Stanford University and UC Berkeley in 2016 and 2017, yielded glass, ceramic, metal, and animal remains that provide evidence of what life was like at the turn of the twentieth century, during the era when successive Chinese exclusion laws systematically restricted the rights and livelihoods of the men who lived there.

Artifacts and historical documents are not the only resources for understanding life at the Arboretum Chinese Quarters. The memories of descendants and stories known to the wider Chinese community in the Bay Area are important lines of evidence, providing not only individual detail but also cultural and symbolic context for the site. Beginning prior to excavation in 2016 and continuing throughout the project, individual interviews and group events at the site and in archaeology labs not only provided unique information about the employees but also altered the course of research, generating new questions and even changing the way excavation look place. Among the interview-generated questions, some were general (What was the relationship of the Stanford employees to the Chinese communities around them?) while others were specific to families or even individuals ("I have been wanting to find out more information [about] how the Mocks became known and associated with flower growing" (1)). Seeking to answer stakeholder questions, rather than focusing on the interests of archaeologists alone, is imperative in research that involves local or descendant communities, that is, archaeology accountable to more than the academy. Doing so expands the ways of knowing the past, (2) strengthens the credibility of research through incorporating a wider pool of knowledge and experience, and produces information that is relevant for the stakeholders involved. (3) Of the many stories told, two intertwined topics--community relationships beyond the campus and the long-term impacts of Stanford employees involved in the flower growing industry--emerged repeatedly during interviews and community consultations. Seeking to answer questions raised by the community led to an exploration of how the residents maintained relationships with the wider Bay Area and China, and how their many ways of working continued to support their families and communities long after the quarters were demolished.


A Heinz ketchup bottle, octagonal glass body and embossed base broken into several shards, prompted animated discussions at a January 2017 meeting of cultural consultants and other stakeholders involved in the excavation of the Arboretum Chinese Quarters. The remains of the bottle, laid out on a table at the campus's Field Conservation Facility, represented just a few of the thousands of objects recovered during the series of surveys and excavations at the site (fig. 1). This object, stamped with the code "56" (indicating that it once contained ketchup and dating it to between 1890 and 1895), (4) inspired some excitement in part because of the familiar shape, but also because of its unique Chinese connection. "It came from ke-tsiap: 'ketchup' came from a Chinese term," repeated several of the people who picked up the remains of the bottle. The name for the tomato-based condiment, originally fermented soy sauce, passed through Indonesia (as kecap) and eventually to European traders and then to the United States. (5) Beyond this, the bottle itself was a reminder of the way Chinese and Chinese American traditions are woven deeply into past, and ongoing, everyday life for all people in the United States.

Archaeological artifacts, like the ketchup bottle, spark stories. Storytelling lies at both the start and the heart of archaeology; it "begins with storytelling, and the clamor of a multitude of voices goes into the final consistent thread we trace." (6) Memory, oriented toward sensation and perception, is influenced by the circumstances of the moment of recall. This includes the interlocutors, speaking and listening in turn or together, but the process incorporates physical objects and surroundings too. These are tactile, can be viewed and handled, and provide an immediacy and ongoing presence that affected lives in the past and continues to do so in the present. Archaeologists seek to understand these physical, material qualities of artifacts and their interplay with human actions, experiences, and values: that is, their materiality. (7) These same qualities are also powerful tools for oral history. The presence of artifacts affects what memories a person recalls or chooses to share. Given this materiality, "objects may be more effective mechanisms to 'conduct' an oral historical interview than a person." (8) Archaeological projects focused on the nineteenth and twentieth centuries possess the potentially rich resource of living memory. Recent sites can evoke strong, frequently personal memories for the people who knew their occupants, who are descendants themselves, or who have heard stories related as family or community narratives. Such has been the case in recent work focused on the African diaspora, (9) Japanese internment, (10) and tight-knit social organizations like college fraternities. (11)

Informed by long-term community involvement of both individuals and active historical societies in other archaeological projects in San Francisco and San Jose, (12) I conducted a series of interviews with stakeholders who identified themselves as interested in the site's history and future. These began in summer 2016 prior to excavation and continued after the dig's completion in summer 2017. During each interview, consultants interacted with artifacts as well as current and historical photographs, newspapers, maps, and other archival records. While in some cases specific artifacts led to an explanation of their use, more often they created a backdrop for a wider-ranging historical discussion, frequently prompting family stories, which emerged during the process of interacting with the material assemblage. Sometimes this had to do with recognition, whether of patterns in ceramic or of characters in the stamped lid of a medicine box: "I have one of those," or "My grandfather had that." By building memories around the site, from seemingly disparate times and places, consultants also impacted the direction of the continued research: both themes presented in this paper, chrysanthemum growing and wider community relationships, arose primarily from interviews inspired by artifacts or historical documents, in a dialog of questions and statements made by all involved. The result, like the dialog that created it, lies further in the realm of historical storytelling than it does object or site analysis, but nevertheless springs from and returns to material as an integral part of understanding the past.


Fragments of brightly colored ceramics invariably attracted attention from community consultants during interviews or lab visits. Gerry Low-Sabado, a fifth-generation Chinese American and activist whose family immigrated to the Monterey Bay area in the 1850s, brought her own bamboo pattern bowl to campus after seeing artifacts that looked nearly identical. Four Season Flower pattern bowls, cups, and ceramic spoons were the most colorful, and most common, of the decorative patterns. The predominantly pink and green ornamentation depicts four intertwining flowers: winter is represented by a plum blossom, spring by a peony, summer a lotus, and fall a chrysanthemum. These ceramics, along with the solid-colored Winter Green pattern, originated as export wares in the Jingdezhen kilns in northeast Jiangxi Province. (13) A 2016 archaeological survey conducted in Cangdong Village, along the Pearl River Delta in Siyi (Sze Yup, or Four Counties) in Guangdong Province, found no examples of Four Season Flower ceramics among late Qing era materials. (14) The pattern itself appeared less than a century prior to Chinese immigration to...

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