Jeannie Chen: Uncovering the Landscapes and Layers of History

MLIS candidate seeks to build community of archivists and volunteers, preserve Chinese and Chinese American history in Southern California.

Jeannie Chen was an undergraduate student in the CSU Northridge English Honors Program when she took an English course titled “Globalization, Resistance, and Everyday Life,” taught by Professor Rick Mitchell. For her final project that semester, she decided to conduct research on the Evergreen Cemetery in Boyle Heights, and soon discovered that there was more to the historical site than meets the eye.

In 2005, the construction of the Metro Gold Line by the LACMTA uncovered the skeletal remains of more than 170 people buried near Evergreen Cemetery. Established in 1877, this pauper’s graveyard (or “potter’s field”) was the site where as many as 1,400 Chinese were believed to have been buried, due to segregation laws preventing burial with non-whites. The discovery launched a significant effort by members of the Chinese community to ensure the proper burial arrangements and handling of these remains as the MTA determined its next steps. In the months following, archaeologists were hired to document the collection, and plans were made to donate replicas to the Chinese Historical Society, Chinese Benevolent Association, and UCLA Fowler Museum.

Chen, who is now a MLIS candidate in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, learned that in 1992 the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California purchased the shrine that was erected at Evergreen in 1888 and the land beneath it. In 2010, a memorial wall was unveiled next to the shrine to honor the labor of the forgotten Chinese railroad workers, and the site is now a registered historic monument. she walked the cemetery grounds, noting how the years of human hands and weather had worn down and made new impressions upon the headstones, and the disparities between them.

“I remember going to Union Station to try to see the original sites where early Chinese Americans used to live,” Chen recalls. “I learned about what really happened through the archaeological reports. Reading all of that gives you insight that you don’t have just by looking at Union Station.

“I was thinking about the polished, clean veneer of the train station, and how you can’t see any traces of what kind of history happened there,” Chen says. “Urban landscapes are like layers and layers that just get covered over. People don’t really remember what happened.”

Chen also discovered that in 1871, in an area of Los Angeles formerly known as Calles de los Negros (or ‘Negro Alley’), 17 Chinese men and boys were massacred by an angry mob near what is now Union Station. Today, there remains no sign that something so violent had happened, just a few footsteps away.

“That’s why the work of archivists and archives are so important,” Chen says. “Everything is developing and changing so fast that people think, ‘At least we can preserve a part of it. We can still preserve the stories.’”

What started out as a class project led Chen on a journey to help preserve the history of Chinese American in Los Angeles and beyond, as a volunteer and aspiring archivist. Now in her third quarter in the UCLA Department of Information Studies, she encourages her fellow Bruins – both from IS and from disciplines across campus – to assist the CHSSC in its preservation efforts.

“When we think about archives, we don’t just think about the manuscripts or artifacts, but also the whole architecture [of archives themselves],” says Chen. “For example, the Getty Center, Huntington Library, and UCLA Special Collections all have climate controls and various other factors relevant to the actual construction of the buildings that are used to house these items. So, ultimately [archives are] an interdisciplinary effort – you also need people with other kinds of expertise in order to make it work.”

Chen already knows the power of collaboration in archival sciences. As a member of the Diversity Subcommittee of the Los Angeles Archivists Collective, she has sought to engage with underrepresented communities and ensure inclusion of all archival endeavors, including citizen archives, film archives, and ‘lone arrangers,’ in LAAC programming. The organization was originally founded in 2014 by UCLA MLIS students Courtney Dean, Angel Diaz, and Jennifer Kishi, and UCLA IS professors Michelle Caswell and Anne Gilliland serve on the LAAC Advisory Board.

“The LAAC is committed to forging connections with archivists living and working in L.A. and the whole of California,” says Chen. “They are an especially social-justice oriented organization, with emphasis on volunteer, advocacy, and outreach efforts. My purpose in joining LAAC was to get to know more like-minded people and build relationships between dedicated archivists and the communities that need their expertise and knowledge. In the near future, the Diversity Subcommittee is hoping to organize free workshops in local community spaces and libraries, so that individuals and families can come share their stories as well as learn some basic archival tools and skills to preserve their cultural and historical memory.”

Chen, who has been volunteering with the CHSSC for almost a year, says that the experience has been invaluable.

“I started volunteering during my first quarter at UCLA in 2016, having previously processed an archival collection for an internship at CSUN’s Special Collections and Archives (The Carl Sandburg Collection),” she says. “Every time I come here to CHSSC, I always learn something new.

“In the last 20 years, other people from the community have come and volunteered to learn more about the CHSSC, including former UCLA MLIS students. They see how important it is to help preserve the community’s stories. It’s different from larger, well-funded archives [that] have the resources. People here do what they can; everyone volunteers what extra time they have. That’s what’s so special about this.”

Chen has reached out to Asian and Asian American student groups at UCLA to raise interest and recruit volunteers for CHSSC.

“There are so many opportunities that I’ve learned about through UCLA or by doing extracurricular campus activities,” she says. “There are so many connections to be made.”

Chen underscores the importance of archives on all disciplines, and on the inclusion of ethnic studies in education. She says that most children acquire “a very sanitized version of history” in their education.

“What I remember from elementary and middle school was that whenever there was a holiday like Thanksgiving, I’d learn about the ‘Pilgrims’ and the ‘Indians’ being friends,” she says. “Kids today are still learning that narrative and they’re not getting the whole picture.”

Chen says that the deeper understanding that ethnic archives and studies provide ways to put America’s immigrant roots in perspective.

“It’s not just about the Chinese, the Japanese, Native American people, or any other one group,” she says. “You have to look at how they interconnect with each other. I am lucky to be able to have these encounters with history and to learn more.

“If you look just at the Chinese community in America, it is already so diverse. Everyone comes from a different context, different stages of Chinese immigration. Some have had long roots here in America. My mother is an immigrant, so we’re still relatively recent. We assimilated to a different kind of society than the Chinese who came here in the 19th century would have known. Those kinds of disparities and these [historical] societies are really important in bringing those stories together—bridging the gaps in our understanding of the Chinese in America.”

Chen has been accepted to the Rutgers University Institute of Jazz Studies Archival Fellowship, where she will spend two weeks gaining hands-on experience in processing one of the Institute’s collections and preparing a related digital project for her portfolio. She will also be attending the ALA Spectrum Institute and Annual Conference in Chicago from June as a 2016-17 Spectrum Scholarship recipient, and will present some of my work at the Archival Education and Research Institute at the University of Toronto in July.