Xiao-Huang Yin, a historian and chairman of the American Studies program at Occidental College, is using Chinese American literature to examine that community's experience in Los Angeles for his book, "Chinese American Literature Since the 1850s," to be published in April by the University of Illinois Press. He has found books, poems and other writings by Chinese Americans, such as Los Angeles short-story writer Yi Li and a 1852 collection of essays, "An Analysis of the Chinese Question," responding to anti-Chinese rhetoric of the day.
During the late 1800s, the Chinese, who had immigrated to America to work on farms and build railroads, were seen as a threat to Easterners who had come West looking for jobs. In 1871, Los Angeles' Chinatown was the site of a violent riot against the Chinese that left 19 dead. Today, about half a million Chinese Americans live in Southern California, about a quarter of the country's total Chinese American population.
Yin said he has been especially captivated by back issues of Chinese-language newspapers, some nearly 80 years old and focused on distinct groups, such as Taiwanese immigrants or those from Hong Kong.
"Newspapers are a wonderful way to see how the community adjusted to life in America, what the issues were that were important to them, how they grew politically, socially," he said.
The newspapers chronicled interracial marriages, the growing gap between the wealthy and poor Chinese, and the conflicts that Chinese-born parents were having with their American-born children.
Like Yin, University of Michigan graduate student Natalina Molina also is tracing an ethnic community's experience in Los Angeles--studying the interaction between the L.A. County Public Health Department and Mexican Americans in the first half of the 20th century.
Going through city records, Molina discovered that racism existed despite L.A.'s early ethnic diversity.
"Back then, citizens thought the health department was some sort of policing force," she said. "I've actually seen old petition files with complaints that such-and-such Mexicans are unclean and their businesses are bringing down property values. Someone even made a nuisance report to the health department claiming that certain Chinese people were 'contaminating the air we breathe.' It's incredible."
Molina credited the efficient organization of the Los Angeles City Archives, which opened in 1980, for helping her find literally tons of information for her dissertation. Many researchers say Los Angeles always has had good libraries, archives and museums, but resource organizations only recently have begun to make that information more accessible, particularly by going online.
A Growing Online Database
For example, the Getty Institute's "L.A. as Subject" project, begun only four years ago, is a growing online database of hundreds of local resource centers, museums and libraries that house photographs, maps, letters, journals and other historical information.
USC's "Information System for Los Angeles" project has more than 10,000 digitized items, such as photography, transcripts of oral histories and census, economic and environmental data, organized by neighborhood. Using a map, researchers can click on an area and receive all pertinent information about it. The "Information System" prototype has been so successful with university faculty members and school teachers that plans are to make it availableonline soon to the general public.
The Los Angeles City Historical Society is using a more traditional scholarly method: preparing a book on the evolution of city government from 1850. Two dozen historians and scholars are lending their talents to the project, expected to be completed in 2001.
Such work supports Los Angeles' growing awareness in the last decade of its historical beginnings, foreshadowing this current academic interest, said Clark Davis, a historian and co-chairman of the Los Angeles History Research Group, a network of graduate students, faculty members and other professionals.
"Look how excited we, as a city, got when a Metrorail construction dig near Union Station unveiled artifacts from old Chinatown," Davis said.
For the city's longtime historians, the sudden academic attention is a pleasant and welcome surprise.
Martin Ridge, a senior research associate at the Huntington Library, said it is about time Los Angeles got its academic due.
"People would do plenty of studies about the black community on the South Side of Chicago, but they wouldn't come here to Watts," he said. "They would do studies of Jewish culture in Brooklyn but not Boyle Heights. But now, with all that is going on, they will."