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Students tackle Chinese stereotypes of long ago

June 13, 2003

Nearly a decade of work by students in Asian American Studies has paid off with the opening of a new exhibit at the Chinese Historical Society of America's headquarters in San Francisco.

"The Heathen Chinee: Stereotypes of Chinese in Popular Music," a new exhibit catalogued in part by SFSU students, focuses on sheet music from the late 19th century and early 20th century depicting images of Chinese men and women in popular American culture, which contributed to early discrimination against Chinese Americans and the perpetuation of stereotypes.

The exhibit features selections from the 700-piece collection of sheet music amassed by the late Daniel K.E. Ching, a collector of Chinese American memorabilia. In addition to sheet music, the collection of more than 10,000 items includes comic books, posters, trade cards, books, postcards, illustrations, newspapers, photographs and studio portraits.

Ching's executors chose the Chinese Historical Society of America to house the collection after his death in 1990, and the SFSU Asian American Studies Department was selected to catalogue and study the collection. The collection gives SFSU graduate students and faculty a unique opportunity to do primary research for thesis work and professional development activities. In addition, the department's Asian American Access and Retention Project utilizes the collection to develop curricular activities and conduct workshops that educate K-12 students about stereotypes.

To date, more than 100 SFSU students have worked on the project.

"The exhibit is a reflection of how American society looked at Chinese Americans," said Darren Lee Brown, one of seven students recently working on the project. "When the images of Chinese Americans were put into words and into a song, the stereotypes were created and passed along through the culture."

One example is the 1870 song "The Heathen Chinee" with lyrics by Bret Harte, the popular early California writer whose work was said to fuel racial discord in California against Chinese Americans. Sheet music for the song contains lyrics such as "We are ruined by Chinese cheap labor" and "That for ways that are dark, and for tricks that are vain, the heathen Chinee is peculiar, which the same I am free to maintain."

The sheet music collection is especially significant, said Brown, who received his master's degree in Asian American Studies from SFSU last month and whose graduate thesis focused on the music and its accompanying stereotypes.

"Just the title and lyrics tell a lot about how Chinese Americans were perceived. And these songs made the rounds since they were popular in vaudeville. Even the cover illustrations had caricatures of Chinese Americans that perpetuated ethnic stereotypes," Brown said.

Lorraine Dong, professor of Asian American Studies and an adviser to the student interns and volunteers, said the students have been extremely dedicated to their work over the last decade.

"Students have worked on this project over summers, on spring break and during weekends. And they have been very enthusiastic about their work and it shows in the exhibit," said Dong, president of the Chinese Historical Society of America.

The exhibit continues through Dec. 21, 2003, at the Chinese Historical Society of America, 965 Clay St., San Francisco.

-- Ted DeAdwyler


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Last modified June 13, 2003, by the Office of Public Affairs