Chinese diaspora narrative histories: expanding local coproducer knowledge and digital story archival development.

AuthorTang, Shirley S.


Despite the large, diverse, and historically significant presence of Chinese in metro Boston--originally due to the independent, nineteenth-century legacies of the Massachusetts China Trade, the attraction of elite New England private schools, and the establishment of one of the nation's earliest East Coast Chinatowns--the archival resources currently available to scholars, educators, and relevant public constituencies in Boston, including Chinese community members themselves, remain relatively limited, particularly in comparison with cities such as New York, Seattle, Los Angeles, Chicago, and Oakland where Chinese/ Asian American museums and public libraries have played important institutional roles as producers and/or keepers of community-centered Chinese American materials.

For obvious reasons of size, scale, and symbolic representation, most scholarly literature and journalistic portraiture about the Chinese in metro Boston have focused on the historic significance and contemporary issues of the Chinatown community, which since the mid-1870s has had a rich history of settlement, business, and social organization in the heart of downtown Boston. (1) Important contributions of the Chinese Historical Society of New England (CHSNE) during the past two decades have added depth and breadth to the range of local Chinese American historical documentation available, albeit with the strengths and limitations of a grassroots, volunteer-led operation. (2)

Outside of Boston Chinatown, few researchers or educators have considered various other twentieth-century streams for local Chinese diasporic presence, (3) such as

* pre-World War II Taishanese immigrant-run laundry-based settlements throughout metro Boston

* post-World War II Cantonese immigrant movement from Chinatown to specific suburbs connected by the subway

* post-Cold War Chinese scholars/students with links to local science, technology, and industry settings

* post-1965 professionals and more recent post-1990s Chinese intellectuals in suburbs

* post-1979 ethnic-Chinese refugees from Southeast Asia who have resettled in low-income urban neighborhoods

The diversity and complexity of the Boston's Chinese diasporic population through these historic socioeconomic, cultural, and political dynamics--and other factors such as the recent growth of inter- and multiracial and Chinese transnational adoptee families--suggest the need for fresh approaches to archival development and production by and for new generations of locally grounded Chinese American individuals, families, and communities. (4)

While individual documentation priorities typically center on capturing elder oral histories before such sources are lost, there is clearly insufficient capacity within small, nonprofit operations such as CHSNE to adequately address existing and emerging needs for local Chinese community history research. Furthermore, though the institutional wealth of Boston's elite private universities is world renowned, academic programs in those institutions have rarely invested or engaged with local Chinese or Asian American community documentation or development. (5) This article suggests, therefore, the importance of Chinese community archival development from the vantage point of an alternative university setting characterized by low-income, underresourced, and underresearched student/community profiles that are federally recognized by the U.S. Department of Education designation of Asian American Native American Pacific Islander Serving Institutions (AANAPISIs).

AANAPISIs represent a small but noteworthy sector of minority-serving institutions within higher education that include a range of community colleges and four-year schools that enroll high percentages of low-income Asian American or Pacific Islander students. (6) Typically, such institutions are located within or near large and historically constituted Asian American or Pacific Islander geographic concentrations, including Chinatowns. The University of Massachusetts Boston (UMass Boston), with a service area that includes substantial urban, low-income Chinese, Vietnamese, and Khmer communities, is the only AANAPISI research university in New England, having received its official federal designation originally in 2008.

Since 2000, the Asian American population in Massachusetts has grown more than 62 percent. Although Massachusetts is the fourteenth largest state in terms of total population size, its Chinese American population is currently fifth largest, following California, New York, Texas, and Hawai'i. (7) Diasporic Chinese American students at UMass Boston come largely from Boston proper and its neighboring cities such as Quincy and Maiden, where the Asian American population grew by 65 percent and 52 percent, respectively, from 2000 through 2010. Census data compiled by UMass Boston's Institute for Asian American Studies show that of Chinese residents in Boston, Quincy, and Maiden in 2010, 68 percent, 75 percent, and 78 percent, respectively, were foreign born. As a commuter university, UMass Boston's Chinese American students typically live within immigrant households where they have demanding daily responsibilities due to the effects of linguistic isolation and cultural barriers facing their families. (8)

Furthermore, roughly one-third of the Chinese adults over age twenty-five in those three cities had not attained a high school diploma and had individual poverty rates of 29 percent, 12 percent, and 23 percent, respectively. In contrast, only 9 percent and 6 percent of Chinese American adults in the nearby suburbs of Newton and Lexington had not received a high school diploma and only 7 percent and 4 percent of Chinese American individuals were in poverty. (9) The relatively large numbers of Chinese American undergraduates at UMass Boston from Boston, Quincy, and Maiden compared with the small numbers from more affluent, highly educated suburban towns such as Newton and Lexington is a clear indicator of the low-income, high-educational-need Chinese American and Asian American student profile that is a defining characteristic of the AANAPISI designation. Indeed, though private Boston-area universities may enroll higher numbers of Chinese American students, their income profiles are far above the Title III-defined low-income profile that UMass Boston or other AANAPISIs must show institutionally.

In the remaining sections of this article, I argue for the value of AANAPISI curricular and community contexts to support archival development and coproduction capacity within Boston's Chinese community. Academic programs such as Asian American Studies at my urban public research AANAPISI university have a unique role to play in archival development as well as other dimensions of research, education, advocacy, and community capacity building, precisely because of our fidelity with students' profiles, family histories, and community realities.


For the past thirteen years, I have led a long-term programmatic effort at UMass Boston to craft innovative ways of studying, documenting, and teaching about Boston's Asian American communities, including the Chinese American community and the local/global Chinese diaspora. This effort is based on a commitment to "coproducer...

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