From Down East to Far East, Colby’s Asian Migrations Exhibit

As Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (APAHM) begins in May, Colby’s Miller Library is gearing up to host the capstone exhibition for HI 352: Asian Migrations, taught by Professor Elizabeth LaCouture. The class has focused on examining Maine’s connections to Asia and especially Colby’s Asian heritage. As stated in the event invitation for the exhibit, the course is a lab course where “students focus on doing, not consuming, history by researching archival documents and artifacts to uncover the history of Asia, Colby and Waterville.”

A student in the class, Sarang Yang ’19 said it focused on Colby and Waterville mostly during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The class went through artifacts and documents, finding information on Asian restaurants and businesses. Yang said the class was looking to identify any relationships that might have existed between Asia, Colby, and Waterville.

As part of the class and in part to prepare for the exhibit, students visited the Maine Historical Society in Portland to further their research on Asians in the greater Maine area. “I spent two hours doing research and digging through a lot of old artifacts with classmates,” said Jeff Lin ’19, one of the students in the class. Yang said her group’s research in Portland focused on research around the “yellow peril,” which Yang described as the Americans’ reaction toward unwanted Asian labor migrants (included in the Chinese immigration acts), and had the opportunity to examine documents like lists of those who were deported and their court hearings.

The students in Asian Migrations will present their research in the form of an exhibit in Miller library called “From Down East to Far East.” As described in the event invitation, the exhibit will chart Colby and Waterville’s relationship and history with Asia. “From George Dana Boardman, Colby’s first graduate who served as a missionary to Burma during the 1820s, to Vi Tsu Sun, the College’s first Chinese student who attended in the 1920s, and Chinese restaurants in pre-WWII Waterville, this exhibition reveals the depth of our ties with Asia and that Colby has always been a global place,” the invitation reads.

The exhibit will be divided into three parts: alumni, Asian students at Colby before 1950, and how Waterville and Colby were exposed to and received Asian culture. Yang said that Colby had an interesting relationship in the past with Asian culture. “Colby’s sororities used to host these Asian teas, which were pretty racist,” she explained. “They would put on this Japanese-style makeup [and] have Asian teas and performances. The Mikado was a really popular performance — it’s kind of funny because the only Asian person on campus was a visiting Chinese-American professor, and they had to play the part of this Japanese guy in the play,” said Yang. Additionally, one of the first Chinese restaurants to open in Waterville was actually opened by the Shiros, a Jewish family that owned the Jefferson Hotel, which was also located in Waterville. Their son went to college in Boston and came back with a love for Chinese food, so they then opened one of the very first Chinese restaurants in Waterville.

These three subjects will be covered in the first part of the exhibit, which can be seen across from the front desk of the library. The students also collaborated with Colby’s Asian Student Association to create several large collages that will be hung on the first floor. “We made a collage of pictures in Asian students’ yearbooks and current students photos that were just taken for APAHM and we are making four huge collages going on walls of Miller,” said Yang. The class calls this part of the exhibit “Misrepresent[asian],” because, as Yang explained, there is a lack of Asian representation at the school. Additionally, Yang discussed the way Asian students were misrepresented in Colby’s history, since the remaining narrative does not include their voices; instead, it is created through what other students said about them. Though there is an excellent East Asian Studies department, it is small in comparison to the size and scope of East Asia. Additionally, the department does not cover other areas of Asia or Asian American studies. “Basically, what we’re trying to get at is Colby has this very vibrant connection with Asia from its very first graduate, but that all got erased. We’re trying to bring that back and recognize it… there have been Asians here, and there has been Asian history at Colby, and we’re still here,” said Yang.

If there is one thing Yang wants viewers to take away from the exhibit, it’s that they realize there is Asian history at Colby and that history is important as a counter-narrative to what is usually pushed as the only narrative of Colby history. “As an institution, Colby has this one singular narrative about where it started and what it’s about and what its identity is now, and I think it’s important that we look into history to realize how this identity even came to be in the first place and how it developed into the identity we have today, because the identity we have today isn’t necessarily what Colby’s identity used to be 100 years ago,” stated Yang. 

While the first portion of the exhibit has been installed on the first floor of Miller Library,  the exhibit will officially open today, May 4.