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This gold mining exhibit helps to ‘unerase’ Idaho’s Chinese history

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Pei-Lin Yu, Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology, Asian American Comparative Collection, University of Idaho
Lee Dick (left), an Idaho Chinese miner, the "Mining Drago," the logo of the exhibit at the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology (upper right), and tally sheet, possibly an order for a Chinese store or apothecary

In the 19th century, when gold mining was all the rage in the west, thousands of Chinese miners settled into what become known as The Gem State.

“It's easy to forget that our beautiful Chinatowns are gone now,” said Pei-Lin Yu, Fulbright Senior Research Fellow at Boise State’s Department of Anthropology. “We used to have enormous Chinatowns. They're gone, and we're lucky to have some archeological sites that we can learn from.”

But there’s a growing effort to educate and celebrate that rich legacy

“Much of Chinese history in Idaho has been erased, some of it by intent,” said Yu. “We’d like to reverse some of that.”

Morning Edition host George Prentice visited with Yu, plus Dr. Terry Panhorst, vice president of the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology; Meichum Lin, Chinese instructor at Riverstone International School and the University of Idaho; and Chinese Idahoan Rebecca Ma about Idaho’s long, rich Chinese history and a unique celebration set for September 18 at the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology.

“We even have some descendants of Chinese mining families here in Boise, so we do our best to remember that history, to honor it.”

Read the full transcript below:

GEORGE PRENTICE: Idaho's history can be colorful, boisterous, and fascinating. But Idaho's history is also complex and sometimes disturbing; and some of that history has, been ignored or pushed aside. We're going to spend a few minutes now on a chapter of Idaho history that we need to hear more about. In fact, it might be more appropriate to say that, instead of a chapter, it could really fill volumes. And that is Chinese participation in Idaho in general, and Idaho gold mining in particular. Pei-Lin Yu is a Fulbright Senior Research Fellow at Boise State's Department of Anthropology. Dr. Terry Panhorst is here, he is vice president of the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology. Rebecca Ma is a graduate student at Illinois State University, and she's also an Idaho native -living in Windsor and Boise. And Meichum Lin is here. She teaches Chinese at Riverstone School and the University of Idaho. Good morning to you all.

Pei-Lin, I'd like to start the conversation with you with some understanding of Chinese Americans and their influence on Idaho - our culture, our economy, and our shared history – all of that, in spite of so many obstacles.

PEI-lIN YU: The Chinese people who came to Idaho, mostly in the early 1860s through the 1880s, experienced tremendous obstacles in coming here. But they had incredible networks of family and also societal networks that helped them make that transition. One of the things I think is easy to miss, especially if you're new to Idaho and we have a lot of people moving here, is that this was a highly diverse and vibrant society in the 19th century. And a large part of that were the Chinese miners who came here following on the heels of the big gold rushes of California. There was a strike in Idaho City, followed by more gold strikes throughout the state, such as in Warren, Idaho. And Chinese miners came by the thousands from China to join in that pioneering experience of gold mining. They were sometimes welcomed and sometimes not. And there's a lot of complex history behind that. But one of the exciting things that I try to remember is that Idaho's foundations among native Idahoans, among African American Idahoans and Latino-American Idahoans, are also greatly founded in Chinese American Idahoans. And at one point, we formed a very large fraction of Idaho's population. And it's easy to forget that our beautiful Chinatowns are gone now. We used to have enormous Chinatowns. They're gone, and we're lucky to have some archeological sites that we can learn from, and also archives and memories. We even have some descendants of Chinese mining families here in Boise, so we do our best to remember that history, to honor it and to basically “un-erase it.” I would say that because much of Chinese history in Idaho and especially in urban Idaho has been erased, some of it by intent. We'd like to reverse some of that.

PRENTICE: And that history leads us to you, Dr. Terry Panhorst. What can you tell us? What might we find at the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology? Paint the word picture of what we might see.

DR. TERRY PANHORST: Well, when you come to the museum to view the exhibit, one of the first things that you're going to see is this enormous dragon that Pei-Lin herself designed, which is really eye catching. You've got to see this. But in particular, we have a case that is filled with archeological materials that are on loan from the Boise National Forest and the Payette National Force. They were kind enough to go through their extensive collections and pick out some things that represent Chinese life during the early years of Idaho. So, we've got a number of things all nicely labeled there. And then also we have a touch screen where you can view background information about particular Chinese individuals from different locations over a period of time. So, we tried to include a lot of little bits and pieces of things there, but really try to connect also to show how these were individuals. And they live their lives much like much like we do,  on a on a day to day existence, using some tools that will look fairly familiar.

PRENTICE: Well, let's talk about those connections and fast forward to the 21st century. Rebecca Ma…you were born in Weiser and lived in Boise. I know you're a grad student right now at Illinois State.

REBECCA MA: Yes, I am an Idahoan. And that definitely says so on my license. And I always tell people I'm from Idaho.

PRENTICE: So, can you speak to the experience of growing up Chinese-American in Idaho?

MA: We were one of the only Chinese families in the town we were. It was just very different because, I was always “the other,” no matter what. I was born in the United States. I was born in Weiser Memorial Hospital, but I was always “the other.” I was treated like “the other” in school. And people never quite understood or quite accepted that that I was just as American as they were. My parents always told me, “You have to remain Chinese as possible.” We only cook Cantonese food, Cantonese and Chinese food. And my parents did this because they wanted me to always understand where I came from. My dad came to New York first and he knew that he'd always be “the other.” So, he said, “Just lean into it and work from there.”

PRENTICE: Can you talk a little bit more about that? I have to assume that these traditions run deep – such as Chinese cooking -that tradition must run deep through your family.

MA: Yes. My parents own a Chinese restaurant in Weiser, and food has always been a huge part of my life. I remember hearing stories of other Chinese kids being ashamed of the food they eat. But my parents, because the restaurant…I was never ashamed of it. I was just like, “Oh, yeah, I eat this, I eat this, I eat that.” I'm in Illinois now and I'll call my mom every now and then and ask her, “How do I make this? “ And then we'll make it together. And then she'll teach me how to make traditional Chinese meals.

PRENTICE: And you'll make those meals for the rest of your life. Meichum Lin teaches Chinese at Riverstone here in Boise, and the University of Idaho. So, Meichum, let's talk about the next generation. You are that bridge. You are teaching Chinese. Can you talk about that? Certainly, it is your profession, but I also have to assume it's your passion.

MEICHUM LIN: Yes, it is. Chinese history in Idaho was not being taught in many of the classrooms. So, for me, as Chinese and also a teacher, I feel like it's my passion and it's my responsibility to pass this information to the younger generations. I work at Riverstone, it’s an international school. We have local students from Idaho. We have international students from more than 45 countries and regions. And so, a lot of them,  the local kids, they do not really know much about Chinese history because it's not even being taught besides learning the language. We talk about the Chinese culture in Mainland China, Taiwan, Singapore, Hong Kong - the Mandarin speaking countries and areas. But sometimes we do not remember that we actually have Chinese living on this land, hundreds of years ago. And for me personally, I did not know about that until I moved to Idaho about ten years ago. So, I got to know about this part of history. I know Polly Bemis, ,her story and the railroad workers. That's why I got to know Professor Yu years ago. And we work together on all these cool projects to talk about the Chinese pioneers years ago, our students get a little bit about this part of history. And actually, in September, which is this month, we are planning to take the 10th graders to visit the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology to learn about the Chinese miners.

PRENTICE: And that brings us back to Pei-Lin. So, Pei-Lin, tell us what will happen on September 18th.

YU: On September 18th, from noon to four, the Idaho Museum of Mining and Geology is going to host a wonderful event, a celebration of this exhibit. Really, it took an amazing team of partners and full of dedication and passion from the US Forest Services, as Terry mentioned, to the Asian American Comparative Collection at the University of Idaho, Boise State University, University of Denver, the Osher Institute, which some of you may have heard of, and the Idaho Humanities Council. All of us came together to create this exhibit, and we also have part of it translated into Chinese characters. The exhibit is a beautiful thing. It's actually continuing to grow as we speak. But we wanted to have an opening and a celebration for the Chinese community and the Chinese-speaking community, the Chinese descendant community in this area, and also for members of the public who are our friends and allies. So, that is going to be a celebration of the exhibit. People will be able to view that. There will be a special video presentation on the history, a really great presentation on the history of Chinese gold mining in Idaho by Renee Campbell of the Asian American Comparative Collection at University of Idaho. We're going to have some other guest speakers, just some Q&A and visiting and community spirit. And there's a rumor there might be some special almond cookies showing up. So, it's just going to be a real nice event. We also even have some groovy T-shirts with the aforementioned dragon that will be available for sale.

PRENTICE: You had me at dragon.

YU: I borrowed heavily from a late Qing dynasty robe. But I will say that this dragon is very bouncy. He's a vigorous, confident dragon full of energy. He has three toes, not five toes, because he is not a fancy Imperial Dragon. He's a regular dragon… working class and he carries a pickax. So, he is the spirit of the exhibit, and hopefully, the spirit of our good intentions.

PRENTICE: Pei-Lin Yu, Dr. Terry Panhorst, Rebecca Ma and Meichum Lin…thank you so very, very much for giving us some of your morning. And you have left us wanting to know more. And that is always a good morning. Thank you.

Find reporter George Prentice on Twitter @georgepren

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