Connie Young Yu and Al Young, with their legal team: Shakespear Feyissa, Laurie Shiratori, and Lem Howell. • Photo Courtesy of Al Young
Connie Young Yu and Al Young, with their legal team: Shakespear Feyissa, Laurie Shiratori, and Lem Howell. • Photo Courtesy of Al Young

At a January event at The Wing Luke Museum held to fete the Young Family Collection, the community celebrated the unveiling of a small but iconic group of Col. John C. and Mary Lee Young’s textiles that were rescued from de-accession by the Tacoma Art Museum (TAM). The textiles were at the heart of a highly publicized dispute between Young family descendants, Al Young and Connie Young Yu, and the former repository where Mr. Young and Ms. Yu’s parents had donated their collections decades ago. TAM sold off hundreds of items from the Young family’s collections throughout 2012 and 2013, to better streamline their collections and raise funds for new acquisitions.

In an emotional evening of programming, Al Young, son of Col. John C. and Mary Lee Young, thanked supporters who encouraged he and his sister, Connie Young Yu, to “do what’s right” and stop the auction. Asian American community members in both Seattle and Tacoma objected to the sale and organized to express concern about TAM’s disposal of the collection, in a widespread effort that also garnered the support of the Muckleshoot Tribe.

The story of the textiles captured the attention of local and national news outlets throughout last year, attracting the attention of local activists who mobilized to halt the sale. A legal team, including Laurie Shiratori, Lem Howell, and Shakespear Feyissa, filed a lawsuit on behalf of the Young family, after a third of the Young family collections sold at Bonham’s for $229,467.

While the entire collection could not be saved, the Youngs were able to select nine items that TAM agreed to donate to the Chinese Reconciliation Project Foundation in Tacoma. The Foundation partnered with The Wing to care for and display the remaining textiles that are currently on view at the Museum.

Ms. Yu expressed gratitude to her family’s Seattle supporters and provided audiences with an abbreviated history of the Chinese-American experience told through the story of the Young family ancestors. Ms. Yu’s great grandfather served as a laborer on the transcontinental railroad. A victim of anti-Chinese legislation, her grandmother was detained for over a year at Angel Island. Ms. Yu’s father, Col. John C. Young made his fortune manufacturing soy sauce in San Francisco and investing in the first upscale Chinese-American restaurants in the Bay Area: Johnny Kan’s Restaurant in San Francisco, and Ming’s of Palo Alto.

The textile exhibition is installed in The Wing’s East Lightwell, a narrow transitional space bridging two galleries. The space quietly evokes the immigration experience, through making connections between past and present by keeping a display of steamer trunks within sight. The show features nine textiles, including women’s surcoats, skirts, a pair of trousers, and a belt, with text labels written by Ms. Yu.

One of the garments featured is a gold gilt embroidered vest with a five-toed dragon, indicating it was worn by a member of the Imperial family. Another article of clothing showcased is a pair of riding chaps with a four-toed dragon embroidered in gold thread, signifying it was worn by a prince in the Imperial court. Produced by female artisans, some of the exhibited artworks took a dozen craftswomen as long as six months to make.

Imperial Textiles of The Young Family Collection will be on display through March 29, 2015.

Related Story:

‘We have been perfectly transparent’: Tacoma Art Museum director defends controversial sale of Chinese antiquities

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