Stanford student exhibit reveals a legacy of engagement and stewardship
Thousands of Chinese immigrant workers helped to build Leland Stanford’s Central Pacific Railroad and the wealth that became Stanford University. Still more worked throughout the West as cooks, caretakers and groundskeepers.
Leland and Jane Stanford employed scores of Chinese domestic workers on their several properties, including their Palo Alto farm. The Palo Alto workers lived on the grounds, first as employees of the Stanfords’ farm, then of their new university.
These workers left artifacts, stories and a legacy of Chinese-American engagement and stewardship that continues to instruct and to inspire, said Bright Zhou, ’16, curator of a small exhibit at the Stanford Archaeology Center that displays the Stanford workers’ artifacts for the first time.
“It’s a history that still lives today,” said Zhou, curator of Chinese American at Stanford: A Reflexive Archaeology. Created under the direction of Christina Hodge, academic curator and collections manager of the Stanford University Archaeology Collections, it is on display with other student exhibits through May 15, 2017.
“At first, Chinese-Americans came to Stanford as cooks and gardeners,” Zhou said. “Today, they’re here as students and faculty, as athletes, artists and activists.
“But all of them, past and present, are caretakers of the Stanford legacy.”
Curating a thoughtful exhibit is just one opportunity that Stanford’s interdisciplinary Archaeology Center offers students like Zhou, an archaeology major whose exhibit was a capstone project. Majors and others do fieldwork across the globe, from Mauritius to Peru, as well as at sites on the 8,100-acre Stanford campus under the auspices of Heritage Services. They also conduct research in Stanford’s archaeology collections. In looking through the world through the lens of material culture, Stanford students create new interpretations of that world and their place in it.
Zhou said his exhibit invites viewers of all backgrounds to see the humanity behind the humble workers’ artifacts, and to draw connections between past generations and today.
The butler didn’t do it
As many as 150 Chinese workers lived in a separate Chinese Quarters in what is now the Arboretum on campus. Zhou’s exhibit is the first public display of artifacts from this site, including a small pottery fragment and Chinese coins.
The fragment bears the character for “double happiness,” a familiar sight today at Chinese-American weddings.
The coins, Zhou believes, were souvenirs, carried to remind their owner of a land to which he or she hoped one day to return.
Unfortunately, few documents have been preserved that tell these workers’ stories in their own words. One exception is the account of Ah Wing, a Stanford family butler who briefly came under suspicion after Jane Stanford’s death in 1905, possibly by poisoning.
In the racist press of the era, Ah Wing was demonized. A San Francisco Chronicle clipping in the exhibit depicts the butler silhouetted against bars in stereotypical shadow, even while asserting he was free to move about the city until investigators cleared his name. His memoir in the University Archives, displayed in replica in the exhibit, reveals him as melancholy but loyal. Employed by the Stanford Museum on campus after the 1906 earthquake and fire, Ah Wing found that little remained to link him to America.
“My former employers were gone,” he wrote. “Their house at San Francisco was completely burned. … All these were too great a blow to me. I could not stay here in this country any longer to entertain such awful thoughts.”
Before returning to China, he placed on Jane Stanford’s tomb a bouquet of flowers and offered this wish:
“May the university be prosperous; the trustees be guided with wisdom and strength, that the name of Stanford may live forever throughout the world. May the Stanfords find everlasting pleasures and gladness in heaven.”
A legacy for generations
Zhou’s exhibit also invites reflection on the Asian and Asian-American students who enrolled at Stanford from the start. A 1924 photo of Stanford’s Chinese Student Club is juxtaposed with one of its 2016 counterpart, the Undergraduate Chinese American Association.
“Why are the people in the first photo all male?” Zhou asked. “Why aren’t they smiling?
“I want people to ask themselves what’s changed in society, as well as finding commonalities.”
His exhibit offers space for viewers to post their own reflections.
To learn more about early Chinese workers, go to the Chinese Railroad Workers in North America Project, a Stanford-led research initiative to tell the workers’ history from both the U.S. and Chinese perspectives.