The Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship in North American Studies allowed me to conduct research on the early Chinese experience in the American West, writes Emily J. Trafford. By accessing the Western Americana microfiche collection I was able to further examine the significance of world’s fairs to Chinese Americans, and to consider how this immigrant group used the Chinese exhibitions to negotiate the terms of their inclusion in American society.
With generous support from BAAS and the Eccles Centre, I was able to spend five weeks in June and July 2016 at the British Library. The Eccles Centre Visiting Fellowship in North American Studies allowed me to conduct research that expanded on a chapter of my recently completed doctoral thesis, which I intend to write up as an article to submit for publication this year. The article focuses on the live displays of Chinese people at the Progressive Era world’s fairs on the West Coast, and argues that the fairs became key sites of battle for the ways in which the Chinese and China were represented in this period. While the thesis chapter concentrated on the role of white
Americans in organising and interpreting these displays, my research at the British Library aimed to further examine the significance of the world’s fairs to Chinese Americans, and to consider how this immigrant group used the Chinese exhibitions to negotiate the terms of their inclusion in American society.
The British Library holds many primary materials relating to this topic. The Western Americana microfiche collection contains documents on the early Chinese experience in the American West, including state legislature reports that contributed to the push for exclusion, and historical and fictional accounts of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Other resources include early studies on the causes and impact of nineteenth century Chinese immigration, reports on efforts to assimilate Chinese communities, and early twentieth century letters from a Chinese official on his views of Western civilization. These sources help to contextualise the significance of the world’s fairs as spaces in which white Americans, Chinese Americans, and Chinese foreign officials could compete over representations of ‘Chinese-ness’. As events that prized international participation and expressions of national pride, world’s fairs presented a unique opportunity for the Chinese immigrant community to celebrate their national heritage in front of a receptive American audience, and to shape representations of China and ‘Chinese-ness’ through the organisation of fair exhibits.
In addition, the British Library provides access to a range of new and specialised secondary literature that is unrivalled in any UK institution. Asian American Studies and the new discipline of Transpacific Studies are currently underrepresented in UK American Studies and History departments, which makes engagement with these topics challenging. During my fellowship, I was able to tap into this literature and broaden my understanding of the Chinese American experience at the turn of the twentieth century. In particular, scholars such as Shehong Chen and Mae Ngai point to the truly transpacific nature of San Francisco’s Chinatown, and the significant role played by the Chinese community in America in shaping events in both America and China. As China refused to contribute to many of the world’s fairs of this period in an official capacity, Ngai sees the Chinese Americans that did participate as ‘culture brokers’ that sought to improve their standing in American society by presenting a form of ‘Chinese-ness’ to American audiences. Regarding their home nation as internationally weak, Chinese Americans used American institutions to negotiate the terms of their inclusion.
During the period of my award, I was also able to participate in the Eccles Centre’s fantastic Summer Scholars programme, presenting my research to a public audience in the British Library’s conference centre. As an early career researcher based in the North West, the opportunity to research and present at such a well-resourced and supportive national institution has been hugely rewarding. Being able to undertake the fellowship shortly after the completion of my PhD, and in a period between academic posts (and the library access that comes with them), has been incredibly helpful. I am extremely grateful to BAAS and the Eccles Centre for creating these opportunities and supporting researchers at crucial stages in their careers, and to all of the staff at the British Library who made my fellowship so productive and enjoyable.
Emily J. Trafford is a University Teacher in the School of Histories, Languages and Cultures at the University of Liverpool.