By Gary W. Libby
I was born and raised in Portland and have had an interest in Portland’s history since I was a child. I became a Trustee of the Maine Historical Society in the 1990s and tried to interest the Society in expanding its focus to include non-white ethnic groups.
In 2000 I saw a Community Voices column in the Portland Press Herald entitled “Are there any Chinese in Maine?” As I read the article it became clear to me that the title was rhetorical since the author was Fenggang Yang, a Chinese man who was a sociology professor at the University of Southern Maine.
In essence, that article asked if there had been any historical antecedents for the contemporary Chinese community to which Professor Yang belonged. That question caught my interest. I met Professor Yang for lunch to discuss the possibility of working together to try to answer his question. We found that we liked each other on a personal level and agreed to work together.
Over the next year our efforts yielded surprising results. We found that there had been a small, but vibrant, Chinese presence in Maine beginning before the Civil War. We made contact with some members of Chinese families who had been in Maine since before World War II and began conducting oral history interviews with them and collecting their family photographs.
We then arranged to have the Maine Historical Society create what we called the “Maine Chinese Archive” to house these oral history interviews, photographs, and artifacts and to make them available to the general public.
About this time Professor Yang introduced me to the CAFAM Board which expressed interest in and support for our project. Soon thereafter I joined the CAFAM Board of Directors.
Within a year of when we began our research, Professor Yang left the University of Southern Maine to accept a position at Purdue University. By then I had made many friends in the Chinese community and become hooked on this research project.
In 2001, the Maine Historical Society sponsored a day long conference devoted to the history of Maine’s Chinese community which drew interest from the Boston area as well as Maine.
As I learned more about the history of Chinese Americans nationally I found that there was quite a lot of information on the Chinese communities on the west coast, particularly in California. I also learned that there was research done on the Chinese communities in big city Chinatowns. There was some research available on the Chinese of the Mississippi Delta.
But there was almost no research available on the history of Chinese people who lived in the rest of America. I became determined to try to fill some of that gap. As my research progressed, I began to publish articles in Portland Magazine, as well as scholarly journals, detailing my findings.
With CAFAM’s help, I have begun placing historical markers on buildings in Portland which have connections to the Chinese community. With financial assistance from the Maine Humanities Council, CAFAM has made professionally framed and matted copies of photographs in the Maine Chinese Archive and placed them on display in local Chinese restaurants to bring them to the attention of the wider community.