What was it like for Chinese immigrants arriving in Montana?
History teacher and historian Mark Johnson, who teaches at Concordia International School Shanghai, and some of his students are finding that out as they pore over Chinese letters and documents at the Montana Historical Society.
They’ll share their discoveries at a free public talk, “In Their Own Words: Translating Documents from Montana’s Chinese Community,” at noon Wednesday, June 4, at the Montana Historical Society.
This past week they were delving into two fascinating projects:
— The story of Wing Hong Hum, a Butte miner and American citizen, who was desperately trying to get permission for his brother, Wing Goon Hum, trapped in Hong Kong, to join him as civil war and chaos engulfed China; and
— The history of the Montana branches of the Chinese Empire Reform Society.
On Tuesday afternoon, Johnson and his students were set up in the MHS Research Center examining documents and taking digital photos they are transmitting to Shanghai, where students and older family members, are translating them.
Some of the letters and documents, which are dated from 1935 to 1954, are in Chinese, others are in English. Until now, historians only knew the English side of the story.
With the help of this translation project, those who wrote the letters can now speak for themselves.
These stories haven’t been told because there was no one to translate the Chinese documents in the MHS archives, Johnson said.
Johnson, a Great Falls native who graduated from Carroll College, now teaches social studies at the Concordia school in Shanghai. Unlike most high school students who learn history from books, his students learn it by doing hands-on research.
This is the second team of Concordia students he’s brought to Helena. The first came in 2012 to work on a translation project that shed light on the likely innocence of an immigrant, Ah Chow, who was accused of murder and lynched at Helena’s Hanging Tree.
That student research project earned him the 2012 History Channel Educator of the Year award at the National History Day event in Washington, D.C.
Difficult to translate
On this trip, students Allen Wang and Jonathan Tai, who both read and speak English and Chinese, came along. They are joined by former student Maddy Crispell, now a junior at George Washington University, and student Madison Boll, who is working on a video project.
While the students get firsthand experience being historians, the historical society gains immensely, as well.
“The value for us is the translation of the letters because they’re written in Chinese,” said Molly Kruckenberg, MHS research center manager. “There are not a lot of people in Montana who speak Chinese, and a lot of researchers who are interested in that aspect of Montana history don’t speak or read Chinese. And there’s different dialects and such that it’s difficult even locating people who can accurately translate these materials. Having … an accurate translation makes the materials so much more accessible and available to the public than they are right now.”
Both Wang and Tai have better Chinese language abilities than the rest of the group, said Crispell.
“It’s a lot better having them on the team.”
They can glance at the documents and fairly quickly determine what they are.
“Many Chinese people today can’t read traditional Chinese,” she said, because most Chinese speakers have learned the simplified script used since the Chinese civil war and Cultural Revolution.
The beauty of involving the students’ parents and grandparents is that some of them know how to read the traditional script and elaborate characters in these documents.
Tale of two brothers
The translations are shedding light on the racism of the time, Johnson said.
They are reading first-hand accounts of the growing chaos in China, but also seeing in the American documents the growing paranoia in the United States over the Red Scare. Caught in the bureaucratic muddle are the Hum brothers.
“There’s a lot of flux due to the civil war,” said Wang. “A lot of the documents give firsthand accounts of how desperate the situation is.”
Wing Goon Hum writes of oppressive drafts of the common people, exorbitant taxes by war lords, and of “piglet soldiers” who are kids pressed into military service: “If you don’t fear the bandits, you fear the draft. The situation is so unstable.”
While the two brothers are each hiring attorneys and filling out endless forms, with constantly changing requirements, one man — Everett Drumright — was behind the scenes as U.S. Consul in Hong Kong.
“He was a (Joseph) McCarthy type of figure,” said Crispell. “Drumright echoes J. Edgar Hoover.”
This is where Crispell’s services have been particularly useful. As a student in Washington, D.C., she’s been able to go to the national archives and dig out the rest of the story.
What’s clear so far, Johnson said, is that Wing Hong Hum was definitely considered an American and was even drafted, Jan. 11, 1941, but was given a Class 3 exemption because he was the sole supporter and continual caretaker of his brother — Wing Goon Hum, the brother stuck in China.
Their father and grandfather were both considered American citizens, he said.
“Continual obstacles are put in front of them,” Johnson said, pointing to one letter where the brothers waited two years or more for a response to one of their letters.
There were demands for items of proof, some of which were impossible to obtain, such as nonexistent photos, or additional requests for information they had already supplied much earlier in the process.
“They were getting nowhere with attorneys,” Johnson said, “so (Wing Hong Hum) approaches (Sen. Mike) Mansfield.” But even his efforts are stymied.
The students have 200 plus documents in Chinese to translate, Johnson said, plus there’s at least 50 documents in English. As yet, they don’t know how the story ends.
But for the first time, “this story will be in their own words,” he said, not just as an “interesting backdrop.”
Their other major project was unfolding Tuesday in the MHS photo archives. There, student Jonathan Tai was researching the Chinese Empire Reform Society.
It formed in 1899, right after the Sino-Japanese War in which China was defeated, Tai said.
In 1896, when Guang Xu was emperor, a group appealed to him, “We have to reform” and advocated adopting Western reforms, as well as building battleships, learning military strategies and changing the political system.
“It lasted 100 days,” Johnson said. The Dowager Empress didn’t appreciate the reformers and had them executed, but two escaped to Vancouver.
Chapters of the Chinese Empire Reform Society formed all over North America, but the strongest chapters were in Montana, said Johnson.
In fact, the Butte Chinese had successfully fought an 1897 Butte boycott of Chinese businesses through the courts and built upon this success by forming the reform society.
“They, as a group, used the American system against the Americans,” said Tai.
In the photos of the Marysville and Butte societies, Johnson and Tai point out the gradual transition of the Chinese leaders to western clothing and hair styles.
The traditional Chinese man’s hairstyle, worn in a queue with shaved forehead and a braid down the back, showed subservience in the Qing Dynasty. The saying went, “If you keep your hair, you lose your head,” Johnson said. So the men in the photos with American hairstyles had made the decision to not return to their homeland.
Some of the reform association members also trained militarily, particularly in Butte, in hopes of taking military reforms back to China.
Benefits on both sides
Johnson’s students, for the first time, are bringing together the two halves of Chinese history in Montana — the U.S. half and the Chinese half, Johnson said. “The key thing is to study it from the Chinese documents — the Chinese in Montana were not passive, but played an active role in the state’s development, fighting for their rights and becoming key in China’s attempt to develop and modernize, as well.”
The project also empowers these young historians, he said, giving them real world experience — in interpretation, analysis and synthesis.
Their gain is also Montana’s.
“(The letters and documents) are here and available right now, but they’re virtually inaccessible at the moment,” said Kruckenberg, which is why she and others at MHS are eager to see the translations.
“The project is fantastic,” she added. “We’re really thrilled with the project because it involves students and young people and getting them involved in history, bringing … 21st century technology and history and students together.” She’s also excited that the project exposes the MHS collection to a new generation, as well as to people across the world.