SAN FRANCISCO, June 6, 2003 - After more than a year of work, students from San Francisco State University's Department of Asian American Studies have unveiled to the public for the first time a significant collection of sheet music dating back to the late 19th century that shows how stereotypes of Chinese Americans took root in popular culture.
"The exhibit is a reflection of how American society looked at Chinese Americans," said Darren Lee Brown, one of seven students from SFSU to work 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."
The exhibit -- "The Heathen Chinee: Stereotypes of Chinese in Popular Music" -- can be viewed in the Philip P. Choy Gallery of the Chinese Historical Society of America's headquarters on Clay Street in San Francisco through early next year.
For nearly 10 years, students in SFSU's Asian American Studies Department have been working with the Chinese Historical Society of America to catalog and study the enormous Daniel K.E. Ching Collection of Chinese American images from more than a century ago.
The exhibit is part of a 700-piece collection of sheet music amassed by the late Daniel K.E. Ching, a collector of Chinese American memorabilia that dates back more than 100 years. In addition to sheet music, the collection includes comic books, posters, trade cards, books, postcards, illustrations, newspapers, photographs and studio portraits. In all more than 10,000 items make up the collection. After Ching's death in 1990 his executors chose the Chinese Historical Society of America to house the collection. The Asian American Studies Department at SFSU was selected to catalogue and study the collection, giving SFSU graduate students and faculty the unique opportunity to do primary research on the collection for thesis work and professional development activities. In addition, the department's Asian American Access and Retention Project is utilizing the collection to develop curricular activities and to conduct workshops educating K-12 students about stereotypes.
To date, more than 100 students from Asian American Studies and other parts of the University have worked on the project.
The sheet music collection is especially significant because the songs contributed to widespread discrimination of Chinese Americans and the perpetuation of stereotypes, said Brown, who received his master's degree in Asian American Studies from SFSU last month and whose thesis focused on the music of that era. "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," said Brown.
For example, take the sheet music of the 1919 song "Fast Asleep in Poppyland." Part of the lyrics read "Far away where fields of golden poppies grow; kissed by sunshine while they're swaying to and fro; lives a pretty little China maiden and her heart with love is over laden for the one who she loves so."
Another example in the collection 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. 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 students were astonished at what they found in the songs, said Brown. "You don't have to read between the lines to understand how people felt at the time. It has been a good history lesson for all of us," he said.
Lorraine Dong, professor of Asian American Studies and an advisor 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, who is president of the Chinese Historical Society of America.
1600 Holloway Avenue, San Francisco, CA 94132 415/338-1111