Preserving Local Pasts: Richard Chu’s Project to Document Asian American Histories in the Pioneer Valley

Richard T. Chu, Five College associate professor in the history department at the University of Massachusetts Amherst, is teaching and conducting oral history projects in Springfield and Amherst, MA through his course “Asian-Pacific American History, 1850-present” (History 253). When asked about his motivation to document the lives of Asian Americans in Western Massachusetts, Professor Chu tells Past@Present, “Teaching about the history of racism and marginalization of Asian Americans over the course of my career at UMass has helped me realize that the field of Asian American Studies, which was born out of the activism in the 1960s against the Vietnam War and the fight for civil rights and against racial prejudice, should remain true to its activist roots, in that teaching ‘about’ Asian Americans means also ‘working in solidarity’ with them outside the classroom.”

Born and raised in the Philippines, Chu moved to the U.S. in 1992, and joined the UMass History department in 2004.  His research and publications focus on Asian American history, the history of the Chinese and Chinese mestizos in the Philippines and of the different Chinese diasporic communities in the world, centering on issues of race, ethnicity, gender, empire, and nationalism. He started teaching Hist 253 as a general education course, focusing primarily on the history of Asian Americans in the whole nation. In Spring 2017, he started to add the civic engagement component to his course, and in Fall 2018, began teaching it as an honors course.

Roeun Chea’s interview, being shown at the culminating event December 8, 2018 at UMass Center in Springfield. Born in Cambodia, Chea was forced into a concentration camp under the reign of the Khmer Rouge, where he remained for three years. Now 50 years old, he came to the U.S. thirty years ago after spending three years in a Thai refugee camp. Access interview here.

When asked why he chose to focus his oral history projects on Springfield and Amherst, Chu says, “Springfield and Amherst chose me. These two cities have significant populations of Asian Americans, so it was but natural that the bulk of my work is focused on working with their communities.” Chu believes that it is important to come up with projects that would benefit both these communities and UMass students. That is why he is now engaged with the Bhutanese Society of Western Massachusetts; Bayanihan Association of America, Inc.  (a Filipino-American association); the Regional Tibetan Association of Massachusetts; the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts; the Vietnamese Catholic Community of St. Paul’s Church in Springfield; and  the Cambodian American community of Amherst. “Through the years, I hope to expand the outreach to other communities such as the Korean and Indian American communities, which have a significant presence in the Pioneer Valley,” adds Chu.

This semester you are leading a group of students in Springfield to document local history. They conduct oral history interviews to document Asian American community history in Springfield. Why did you decide to take this approach with your students?

This is the third semester that I have been conducting this oral history project with the Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The reason for this approach is two-fold. First, this is a project that the communities identified as benefitting them. For many of these communities—unheard of and unknown by the majority—documenting the lives of their members is one way of getting their voices heard. Community leaders also see the widening gap between the first generation (many of whom went through war, genocide, and other traumatic events back in their home countries) and the next generation, and are concerned that, without preserving the voices of the older generation (many of whom do not speak English), succeeding generations will forget their own past which could result in the loss of their own sense of identity as “Asians” (or as “Bhutanese,” “Vietnamese,” etc.). Second, this project is something that my students can do in a semester.

What is the importance of teaching this course for the local history? In what ways does this course contribute to the people of Springfield?

In the Pioneer Valley, there are a growing number of Asian Americans in the last two decades. U.S. census records from 2010 have shown the Asian American community as having registered the highest percentage of population increase in the state of Massachusetts (47% from 2000-2010). Amherst and Springfield rank among the top 20 cities and towns in Massachusetts with the largest Asian American population. For instance, Springfield has 2,000 Vietnamese living in the city, although this figure is quite conservative. The actual number may be more like 4,000. Go to Springfield and you see neighborhoods with Vietnamese nail salons, restaurants, and grocery stores. There is a Vietnamese Buddhist temple, a Catholic parish, and a community center. Leaders of the  Bhutanese (refugee) community estimate that there are currently 3,000 Bhutanese living in the cities of Springfield, West Springfield, and Westfield. In addition to these communities, there are Chinese, Cambodians, Hmong, Laos, Filipinos, Indians, Koreans, Japanese, and other ethnic Asians living in the Springfield and Pioneer Valley area. Thus, in order to enrich and complete our local histories, we need to document and recognize the lives and contributions, as well as the hardships and struggles, of these Asian Americans.

This sounds fascinating.  How can other researchers, or people just generally interested in this history in the Valley, learn more about the history you are preserving?

At the end of the project, the videos are uploaded on to the website of the Special Collections and Archives Division of the W.E.B. Du Bois Library and hence made available to the public for research and other purposes, but most importantly, for us to learn about the life stories of Asian Americans living in our midst.  

“Meet-and-Greet” event at UMass Center in Springfield with Asian American community leaders, November 2, 2019. Hist253H students have a preliminary activity before conducting their oral histories which brings them to listen to Asian American community leaders give the history and the challenges of their communities. Speaking before the class this Fall semester was Linda Hill, an officer of the Chinese Association of Western Massachusetts and who holds a doctoral degree in Molecular Biology and Biochemistry from UMass. 

Your students conduct oral histories with residents of Springfield. Who are the interviewees? What are the challenges of documenting local history in Springfield?

The interviewees are members of the different Asian American communities in Springfield and the Pioneer Valley. The leaders of these communities identify a member willing to share his/her life-story for the project. The interviewees so far are those who can speak English, as my students are not equipped to act as translators or interpreters for this type of project. This limits in a way whom community leaders can tap for the project.

One of the challenges therefore is the language barrier between my students and some members of these communities. In coming up with the idea of an oral history project, the community leaders also had in mind preserving the voices of the immigrant/first generation, such as members of the Bhutanese community whose families lived for generations in Bhutan before being driven out by an ethnic cleansing policy of the fourth King of Bhutan, then lived for 20 years in refugee camps in Nepal before coming as refugees to the U.S. starting in 2008. Many of these refugees (from Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, to name a few) do not speak English, or very minimum English; and they are slowly dying out. But it is also their lives that community members want to preserve. So another challenge is finding appropriate translators/interpreters for such interviewees.

My Hampshire College colleague Professor Kimberly Chang and I, in collaboration with the Bhutanese Society of Massachusetts, have applied to the Mass Humanities Foundation for a grant to fund a Digital History Project that would train bi-lingual local Bhutanese youth on how to conduct oral histories with older members of their community. Through this project, we hope to not only empower members of the Bhutanese community with certain skills (video-recording, interviewing, etc.) but also help preserve the voices of their non-English speaking members.

Another challenge is getting the students from UMass to Springfield, due in terms of the distance between the two places and the lack of affordable transportation facilities to bring them there.

Lastly, some people who are immigrants or refugees are reticent to talk about their experiences, either out of fear of the authorities or trauma, or both. Hence, conducting these oral history projects can be a very sensitive issue, both for the students and the interviewees, but specially the latter. And I have to make sure that the students are equipped to handle uncomfortable or sensitive moments during the interviews because some questions may bring up traumatic or unpleasant memories.

What have been some of the powerful “moments” for you in this project?

There are many powerful moments, but here are three:

  • Toward the end of the semester the students present an edited 20-minute version of their interviews at the UMass Center in Springfield. This event brings together all the interviewees and their families, along with their respective community members and leaders; the students in the class; local officials such as Springfield City Councilor Jesse Lederman; and the Board members of the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. Members of the communities always express their gratitude and joy in being able to see one of them telling their life-story, and that these stories will be preserved for others to learn from. Witnessing the culmination of the collaborative efforts between the community members and my students in producing these videos always brings to me a sense of fulfillment in my vocation as a teacher.
  • When students tell me either during or after the semester how much they have learned from the course, or how they were transformed or inspired by it, that is a powerful moment for me.
  • Being nominated and then selected for the 2018 Community Hero Award conferred by the Commonwealth of Massachusetts Asian American Commission was another powerful moment. It reaffirmed the significance and importance of my work.\

How has this kind of public history work changed your approach to other research and courses that you are teaching?

It has certainly expanded my area of research. My main research areas as a historian are U.S. empire, colonialism in the Philippines, and the Chinese diaspora. But one of my sub-fields is Asian American Studies. I have done some research on Asian American communities in the U.S. For instance, I have published with the Institute on Asian American Studies of UMass-Boston a demographic study on Filipinos in Boston/Massachusetts.

I have yet to write for publication about my work with the Asian American communities here in Western Massachusetts. I already have an outline of what to write and the editor of an Asian American journal has encouraged me to submit an article on the topic. But until I finish my next major monograph, which is on the Chinese in the Philippines during the first decade of American colonization (1898-1908), this project has been placed in the backburner, even as my collaborative work with these Asian American communities continues during the fall semesters when I teach this course. As a Five-College faculty sharing 50 percent of my time with the four colleges, I only get to teach this course at UMass once a year. I hope that I could teach this course every semester at UMass so as to continue my work with the communities, and to help build the department’s public history and oral history programs of the Department. In Spring semester 2020, I will be teaching  this course at Smith College for the first time. In doing so, I hope to sustain the collaborations and continue the relationships that I have built with the different Asian American communities.

Are there other important or interesting aspects of this project that you could share with us?

As a public research and land-grant university, our university has a commitment and responsibility to use our resources and skills to reach out to people living around us, especially from the marginalized sectors, and for us to learn from and be enriched by them. My dream is to be able to institutionalize this course so that it can be taught every semester in order to not break this relationship with Asian American communities in the area, and that this becomes a core subject of our department with adequate funding for anyone to teach the course, especially if I am not around anymore to teach it. People whom I collaborate with in the various communities have told me how much they respect UMass, and that they wish that a stronger relationship could be built between UMass and local Asian American communities. I hope that this public history project is but a step toward developing that synergistic relationship that benefits these communities, our students, our University, the Pioneer Valley, and the whole state of Massachusetts.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: