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“Bulls in a China Shop: The Asian-American Struggle for Place” by Vivian Nguyen

Vivian Nguyen

As a Vietnamese-American, food is important to how I understand my cultural identity, how I celebrate my traditions, and how I feel close to my family and ancestors. Furthermore, by virtue of its deliciousness, it is the medium by which most people are introduced to and understand my Vietnamese heritage. Through my digital humanities research project, I wanted to take food, something that is relatable to and enjoyed by everyone, and offer a different way of experiencing it. Bulls in a China Shop: The Asian-American Struggle for Place is a digital curation of political art and texts that illustrates the evolution of Asian-American identity and the Asian enclaves that would eventually become known as “Chinatowns”. In exploring this history through the lens of Chinese-American cuisine, my project invites a conversation on belonging and the fragility of Americanness.

When I first started this fellowship, I had envisioned traveling to New York City to visit Asian American archives, museums, and businesses and to take photos of NYC’s Chinatown for the virtual reality component of my project. However, a fire at the Museum of Chinese in America that damaged and destroyed tens of thousands of artifacts in January and the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic forced me to adapt. Despite these setbacks, I was able to complete my research project with only eight books on Chinese American history and gastronomy, three journal articles on urban planning, and one digital archive about San Francisco (my access to scholarly literature was limited due to library closures).

I became fascinated by the many different political cartoons, pamphlets, and newspaper articles that span from the 1800s to present day. While a pamphlet explaining why Chinese cuisine is inherently un-American by itself may seem like a blip in American history, when placed side-by-side with health code orders that targeted Chinese restaurants decades later, a pattern emerges — a layered exclusion that is all too familiar for Chinese-Americans. Working with sources that span a vast period of time and incorporate a mixture of mediums, it was hard to readily see such a connection. However, this inspired me and contributed to the direction in which I decided to complete my project.

Using Omeka, a web platform used primarily by libraries, museums, archives, and scholarly collections, I created a platform that allows users to explore Chinese-American history. By allowing users a choice in how they navigate the artifacts — either through curated collections, themes, time periods, or locations — I empower them to interact with the website, making connections and conclusions themselves, rather than offering a specific narrative or a linear story. Using digital humanities was thus key to making this research project more easily accessible and interactive for all kinds of users, especially given that Asian-American history is seldom taught in schools and universities.

Image of the Omeka site for Bulls in a China Shop featuring political cartoons and other historical documents
Image of the Omeka site for Bulls in a China Shop featuring political cartoons and other historical documents. (Click to enlarge.)

As anti-Chinese and, more generally, anti-Asian discrimination become more pervasive and visible due to COVID-19, it is important that corrective education projects like Bulls in a China Shop exist to show that this prejudice and these acts of racism are not unique but are rather a pattern visible throughout American history. Through this project, I hope to not only raise consciousness on the Asian-American experience but to also empower and inform the community’s activism and collective history. I am truly grateful to have had the opportunity to create this project, and I look forward to continuing to develop my website this summer and onward.

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