Duo works to promote Milwaukee's Chinese history
If you're a regular reader of OnMilwaukee.com, you know by now that Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series of paperback books packed with historical photos has included a number of books about various ethnicities and neighborhoods in and around Milwaukee.
The latest installment is "Chinese Milwaukee" ($19.99), by David B. Holmes and Wenbin Yuan, the co-founders of the Wauwatosa-based Milwaukee Chinese Historical Society.
Although the city is dotted with Chinese restaurants, local government has gone on trade missions to Chine and we were happy to welcome YI Jinlian to the Bucks -- however briefly -- Chinese-Americans in Milwaukee seem to have a pretty low profile.
"I think that there is probably a more vibrant Chinese-American community in Milwaukee today than has existed at any time in the past," says Holmes, explaining that its lack of visibility might be due to the fact that the community, "is also probably more dispersed and better integrated than at any time."
We talked to Holmes about the Milwaukee Chinese Historical Society, about the book, about his co-author and about the Chinese in Milwaukee.
OnMilwaukee.com: Can you tell us a bit about the birth of the book and how you came to be involved?
David Holmes: The original inspiration for the book can probably be traced to an article I read in the Milwaukee newspaper several years ago which described efforts by a group of Milwaukee area businessmen to create a Chinatown District in Milwaukee. The article made me wonder about exactly had been the history of the Chinese community in Milwaukee and how far back did this history go.
Out of curiosity, I spent a few hours researching the Milwaukee Chinese community on the internet, performing Google searches using "Milwaukee" in combination with other key words such as "Chinese," "China," "Chinatown," etc. I was somewhat surprised when this initial research revealed that not only that a Chinese community had existed in Milwaukee for more than 100 years, but that it had apparently been exceptional in several ways.
OMC: How do you hook up with Arcadia, then?
DH: During this initial research, I happened to visit a local bookstore and noticed a series of books published by Arcadia Publishing on various ethnic communities of Milwaukee. It occurred to me that the Chinese community of Milwaukee might be an interesting subject for a similar book. On a whim, I called Arcadia Publishing and requested an informational packet with instructions on how to submit a book proposal.
I recruited, Wenbin Yuan, a long-time friend of mine with an interest in history, to be the coauthor for the book. At this point the real work on the project began. It took us nearly six months to collect enough materials (example photographs, newspaper illustrations, etc.) to complete the proposal, and an additional 18 months to complete the book once we had a contract in place with the publisher.
OMC: How difficult was it to assemble the photos?
DH: I would like to note that there were many people besides Wenbin and I who contributed to the book. There were at least 15 volunteers from the Chinese community who contributed numerous hours researching and writing portions of the book. In addition, there were more than 25 individuals and organizations that donated photographs and other images to be used as illustrations in the book.
The volunteers included Dr. Maurine Huang, who had completed her Ph.D. dissertation in 1988 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on a study of the Milwaukee Chinese community titled "Chinese without a Chinatown."
OMC: You and your collaborator on the book are co-founders of the Milwaukee Chinese Historical Society, right?
DH: You are correct in that we are two of the founders of the Milwaukee Chinese Historical Society (MCHS). The MCHS was modeled on a similar organization in Chicago, and was established in anticipation that the publication of the book would likely to spur additional and continuing interest in the history of the Chinese community of Milwaukee.
The Society is somewhat informally organized at present, although we do have a Web site, as well as a display area and office space at the Mercan Chinese Language Institute in the South Bank Tower at Mayfair Mall. Now that the book is published, we hope to work on several projects during the next year, including a Chinese language version of the book as well as English and Chinese language television documentaries on the Milwaukee Chinese community (subject to raising some additional funding). We are looking for volunteers with an interest in Chinese history or Milwaukee Chinese history who would like to play a role in the organization and in these future projects.
OMC: How did you meet?
DH: I have known Wenbin Yuan, my coauthor, for about 15 years. We are both trained as geologists, and working as professionals in the environmental industry. Wenbin came from mainland China to the United States as a student in the mid-1980s and had the opportunity to stay in the United States and to become a citizen. Since moving to the Milwaukee area in the early 1990s, Wenbin has been active in the Chinese community, helping to found or serve as a board member for several Chinese community or professional organizations. He is the President and principal owner of an environmental construction and contracting company named Dakota Intertek Corp.
OMC: Is Milwaukee's Chinese heritage overlooked?
DH: I believe so, and this was definitely one motivating factor in writing the book. When we started the project, an updated edition of prominent local historian John Gurda's book "The Making of Milwaukee" had just been published as well as screening of the four-hour television documentary of the same title. I bought the book and watched the television series expecting to gain some additional insights into the history of the Milwaukee Chinese community, but was disappointed to find barely a single word of mention for the Chinese community.
The neglect of the history of the Milwaukee Chinese community also appears to extend to general studies of Chinese American history. For example, I own three books on the history of Chinese Americans throughout the United States as a whole and have found not a single reference in any of the books to either Chinese in Milwaukee or in Wisconsin.
OMC: It seems that like the Italians in Milwaukee, many Chinese immigrants came, earned some money and went home, barely leaving a trace. Is that true?
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