Archive Showcases Asian American History

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UC Berkeley's Ethnic Studies Library recently organized one of the largest collections of Asian American historical photos at a public institution, giving students a closer look at Asian American history.

The archive contains roughly 200,000 photos taken by freelance photographer Kem Lee from the 1940s through the 1980s in San Francisco's Chinatown, said Asian American studies librarian Wei Chi Poon.

Lee, a 1956 graduate of UC Berkeley who passed away in 1986, showcased weddings and family banquets in his images in addition to notable events like China's permanent inclusion into the U.N. Security Council.

Funded by a $180,000 grant from the National Historical Publications and Records Commission, the archive took more than two years to process and was completed last December, Poon said.

Prior to receiving the grant, Poon and the ethnic studies library curated a campus exhibition titled "Chinese Overseas: Challenges and Contributions" to garner financial support for the photographs from exhibition-goers.

The archive has already garnered critical acclaim from across the country. The Museum of Chinese in America, located in New York City, and the Chinese Historical Society of America, located in San Francisco, have already signed up to use the photos.

The New York museum will present the images at "The Chinese American Experience," an exhibition that opens in February.

"It's very useful for everybody, particularly for researchers on Asian Americans," Poon said. "A lot of people are trying to use the photos for exhibition, publication and articles."

Officials in the Asian American studies department said professors could likely use the archive as a teaching and research tool.

"It's relatively new," said ethnic studies management service officer Rosa Johnson. "All the faculty know about it. I think it's up to them to utilize it now."

The library is now actively seeking another grant from the commission to fund a second major photo collection, this one by photographer Henry Woon. This archive would contain more than 240,000 images of Asian-Americans in the East Bay and San Francisco from roughly 1950 to 2000, Poon said.

Susan Xue, the head of the Center for Chinese Studies, said she recently visited the collection and was very impressed.

"The research value is high," Xue said. "As a librarian, I think it's a very useful collection for people exploring Asian American culture."


Contact Anna Widdowson at [email protected]

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