Sarah Lim: 'Wherever There's a Fight'

Exhibit documents civil liberties

April 19, 2013 

A few weeks ago, Professor Robin DeLugan from UC Merced invited me to give a guest-lecture on museums as sites of social memory to her anthropology class.

I was asked about my thoughts on the high-speed rail project by a student who was concerned about the archaeological management and cultural preservation on land where it is to be built.

I explained to him that an environmental impact report required by the California Environmental Quality Act will help to identify and protect historical and cultural resources in the project area.

As I was heading back to my office after class, I continued to reflect on how much has changed in historical preservation and land use in Merced since the passage of CEQA in 1970.

Before its passage, historic neighborhoods -- especially ethnic enclaves -- were often targeted as the sites for public infrastructure projects.

For example, the current Highway 99 route through Merced was built through south Merced in the late 1950s and early 1960s. It was during this construction that Chinatown on 14th Street was torn down to make way for the new highway route.

Chinese immigrants settled in Merced as early as 1872 when they worked for the Central Pacific Railroad to lay tracks up and down the Central Valley. By 1880, a well-established Chinatown on 14th Street, between K and M streets, had a bustling economy and a population of several hundred.

The early 20th century observed a decline of the Chinese population. This was due to a restrictive immigration policy with regards to Chinese immigration and internal migration of Chinese settlers from rural areas to urban Chinatowns.

Anthony Hong Jew, son of Chinese immigrant Ming Ock Jew, recalls moving to Merced in 1941, "When we first arrived in Merced, there were about eight Chinese families and maybe 20 or so other men working in the four Chinese operated restaurants, one grocery store, one laundry and two gambling halls. One man worked as a bartender at the Hotel Tioga, and one as a cook at the county jail."

The Jew family ran the Merced Tea Garden restaurant at 452 W. 14th St. It was housed on the bottom floor of a two-story building and on the second floor was a Taoist temple.

The restaurant was in business until it was taken down in 1957 for the highway project. While the restaurant and its people are long gone, the artifacts from the temple have been saved.

Today, the Taoist temple exhibit at the Courthouse Museum and a few artifacts recovered from Chinatown are the only traces of this historic Chinese settlement in Merced.

Although the museum is able to preserve and display what is left from this historic neighborhood, questions of why Chinatown was demolished and whether this action violated the rights of the Chinese immigrants remain.

Throughout the history of California, many people have fought and continue to fight violations of their civil rights.

While the Chinese in Merced were not able to save their historic settlement from urban development, others were able to wage effective campaigns to confront prejudice and unfair treatment. The stories of these unsung heroes are being told in a traveling exhibit which will open at the Courthouse Museum on Thursday.

The exhibit, entitled "Wherever There's Fight," is part of California Council for the Humanities' Searching for Democracy program. This thematic program is designed to examine the meaning of democracy today.

The exhibit is based on the Heyday Books publication "Wherever There's a Fight: How Runaway Slaves, Suffragists, Immigrants, Strikers, and Poets Shaped Civil Liberties in California," by Elaine Elinson and Stan Yogi (2009). It is presented by Exhibit Envoy and curated by Elinson and Yogi.

Thirteen interpretive panels of photographs and texts cover the period from the Gold Rush to the post-9/11-era and demonstrate the struggle, endurance and determination of the ordinary people who helped to expand equality and improve living conditions for all Californians.

Please join us on Thursday at the Courthouse Museum for the opening reception of "Wherever There's a Fight" exhibit at 5 p.m.

A documentary entitled, "Merced Assembly Center Memorial: Injustice Immortalized," will be shown at 6 p.m. For more information, please contact the museum office at 723-2401.

Sarah Lim is museum director for the Merced County Courthouse Museum. She can be reached at info@mercedmuseum.org.

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