Japanese-American–owned Liberty Flower Shop at Pike Place Market, ca. 1931. • Photo courtesy of  Washington State Historical Society
Japanese-American–owned Liberty Flower Shop at Pike Place Market, ca. 1931. • Photo courtesy of Washington State Historical Society

Long before the Pacific Northwest was established as a home for the Pan-Asian-American experience, the foundations of the cities we know today were quite literally laid by the hands of Asian Pacific pioneers growing crops, mining gold, and building railroads and businesses from the ground up, stretching from John Day, Ore., to Fort Lewis, Port Gamble, Bainbridge Island and Vancouver, Wash., to cities in Alaska and Idaho.

It was 20 years ago when Cassie Chinn, deputy executive director of the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience (The Wing), saw some of these sites for the first time.

“I got to go on the 1994 Chinese Heritage Tour in the Pacific Northwest, and that was a bus tour from here to John Bay, Oregon, across Northern Oregon, and then to Idaho,” she says. “It was such an incredibly powerful experience for me to venture so close to where our Asian-American pioneers had touched the rock and had struggled in the heat of summer and in the icy cold waters when they were mining.”

Twenty years later in partnership with the U.S. Forest Service, The Wing showcases a rich, layered narrative of our region’s first Asian Pacific immigrants captured in objects dug up from archaeological investigations, documents, oral history and photographs of 16 historic sites. These stories converge to comprise “Grit: Asian Pacific Pioneers Across the Northwest,” an exhibit showing through October 19, 2014 where visitors can glimpse the arduous lives of these pioneers, and the resilient, renegade spirit from which they operated.

“After this 20-year relationship with Wing Luke … I feel really proud and blessed that the information is getting out there,” says Dale Hom, a retired U.S. Forest Service supervisor who was one of 16 community members to advise the exhibit. “A lot of this history really wasn’t told at least when I was in school. And even today it’s not told unless you take an Asian-American studies course up at the university.”

Stories such as those of Chinese merchant Lung On, who opened Kam Wah Chung Company in the 1880s, a mercantile store and Chinese herbal apothecary in John Day, Ore. The store rose to become the social, medical and religious center of the growing Chinese population for the following 50 years: a safe harbor during tumultuous anti-Chinese times in the United States and across the West Coast. Today, Kam Wah Chung has been preserved by Oregon State Parks and converted into a museum showcasing the life and work of Lung On and his business partner Ing “Doc” Hay.

Other tributes paid in “Grit” tell stories of assimilation in the 20th century.

By 1907, Japanese-American farmers in Seattle had built a thriving economy of their own in the flower market, as with the Japanese-American-owned Liberty Flower Shop at Pike Place Market. Nearly 80 percent of the market flower shops by then were owned by Japanese Americans. But new prosperity was threatened with the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1942 and the subsequent Executive Order 9066 that forced families to leave their belongings, homes and businesses behind with the relocation and incarceration of more than 170,000 Japanese Americans during World World II.

After the war ended, many had very little to go back to. Those returning to Washington state from the Minidoka camp in Idaho found their homes and much of their belongings gone. Enter the Japanese Language School (Nihongo Gakko), then known as the “Hunt Hotel” in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District, a safe haven and temporary living quarters for many of the families returning to rebuild their lives—and thriving as a community center, school and cultural preservation agent today.

The legacy continues when Camp Murray near Tacoma became a temporary home for 500 Vietnamese refugees in 1975. This was the case with Thach Nguyen, who lived at the camp for three months before a camp volunteer from Sumner sponsored his family.

“[For me, Camp Murray meant] stabilization,” Nguyen shares in the exhibit. “Just the fact that we landed in the U.S. all together. There were five of us kids, my dad, my mom was pregnant with my sister. Imagine—with that many kids separated would have been a nightmare. That was the most meaningful thing for my family: to be in one place and sticking together.”

Not only did all of his family members get to stick together, Nguyen went on to become a millionaire at 27 pursuing a career in real estate, and dedicated himself to helping families like his find stable housing.

More obscure is the story of Native Hawaiians making their early mark on the Pacific Northwest. In the 1830s, European trade ships would stop in the Pacific Islands to recruit young Hawaiian men to paddle their ships and help them to set up Fort Vancouver 100 miles up the mouth of the Columbia River in Washington. These young men were made to serve the Hudson’s Bay Company settlers as cooks, shepherds, barrel makers, farmers and lumber jacks, and prohibited from living in the same quarters within fort walls. The servants instead formed their own Kanaka Village right outside, suffering abuse from their masters that they hoped William Kaulehelehe, the Hawaiian preacher the company brought to Fort Vancouver in 1845, would end. Instead, Kaulehelehe and his wife, Mary Kaii lived their lives safely around fort villages until the camp was abandoned by the company in the 1860s. They were eventually forced out of their home by the U.S. Army, who later burned it down.

“I think [the exhibit is] sort of filling in some of the gaps of historical narrative that maybe had been told in the past, but hadn’t included the role of the early Asian Americans,” says Chinn. “And being able to give name to who they were and to demonstrate that yes, we were there at some pretty significant events that are more broadly known … I have been really proud of that: reclaiming that heritage and paying honor to the pioneers that had been overlooked for a hundred-plus years.”

“Grit: Asian Pacific Pioneers Across the Northwest” will be on display at The Wing’s Special Exhibition Gallery through Oct. 19, 2014. A series of related programs and events will take place in the coming months before the exhibition closes, including bus tours to Kanaka Village, Iron Goat Trail, and other Filipino and Japanese heritage sites. For more information, please visit www.wingluke.org/grit.

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