Making History

Most members of CAFAM may be not know about, or vaguely aware, of the existence of the fact that there is an archive related to Maine’s Chinese community that is housed at the Maine Historical Society’s Brown Library on Congress Street in Portland behind the Wadsworth Longfellow House just off Monument Square.

The archive was begun through a collaboration between CAFAM and the MHS in 2001 and has grown to 5.75 linear feet of shelf space. The collection number is 2080. There is also a related collection number 2081 that documents just CAFAM.

Physical Artifacts

Among the physical items in this archive are an actual several foot long sign from the outside of a local Maine Chinese hand laundry created in the early 20th Century. Several pieces of the trousseau created by Portland’s Maine & American 1952 Mother of the Year for her emigration to Portland. Other items of Ms. Goon’s trousseau are part of the collections of the Smithsonian Museum where they have been displayed in exhibits. Jacqueline Field, a local authority on silk, has written a lengthy article about Ms. Goon’s unusual “mud silk” trousseau in the Textile Journal titled “Mud Silk and the Chinese Laundress: From the South China Silk Industry to Mud Silk Suits in Maine.” A pair of “tiger head” baby shoes that were given to the grandfather of a Portland woman by the Chinese community as a thank you for his being the only, or one of a very few, Portland doctors that were willing to treat Chinese patients in the early 20th Century.

Items related to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The archive also includes items related to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first American law that restricted the immigration of a whole ethnic group, including 27 scanned portraits of Maine Chinese men, many with names and other details, who were prosecuted and deported back to China. There are thirteen copies of case files of Maine Chinese men’s cases seeking to deport them, including the entire case transcript of Dogun Goon, the husband of the Mother of the Year.

Oral History of Maine Chinese & Chinese Americans

There are also tape recordings and written transcripts of oral history nearly forty interviews of Maine Chinese and Chinese Americans beginning with people who owned and ran Chinese hand laundries and Chinese restaurants since the 1940s, including the family of the Mother of the Year; Camden resident and New York Times best selling author, Tess Gerritsen; Rockland resident and cartoonist, Chun-Hua (Hanji) Chang; and many members of CAFAM.

Chinese-Owned Businesses

    There are many items related to Maine Chinese restaurants including some menus dating back to the 1940s and many current menus, interior and exterior photographs including some from the 1920s, and matchbook covers.

Genealogy

On a personal level, there are some genealogies including some related to Maine’s first known Chinese resident, Daniel Cough, who came to Mt. Desert Island in 1857. Copies of military records of Maine Chinese men beginning with World War I. A few copies of Petitions for Naturalization filed by Maine Chinese. There are many, nearly a hundred, photographs of Maine Chinese residents going back to the late 1800s, some of which can be seen on mainememory.net using the keyword “Chinese.”

Newspaper Clippings

There are hundreds of newspaper clippings related to Maine Chinese community going back to the 1870s. As well as a Movie Tone Newsreel on Toy Len Goon’s trip to New York City and then to Washington, D.C., where she was given a reception in the White House by First Lady Bess Truman.

An Active Resource

PBS used photographs and information from this archive about the Mother of the Year when they did the five part series on Asian Americans that aired on public television last year. Also, several university professors from as far away as California have come to the MHS and used this archive to do research from primary materials about Chinese Americans. In 2019, students from Colby College used items and information from the archive for an exhibition and pamphlet about Asian Americans at Colby and the Waterville area.

Anyone interested in more details about the items in this archive can view a finding aid for Collection 2080 on the Maine Historical Society Library’s website. All of this material can be seen at the Maine Historical Society’s Brown Research Library. It’s best to give the library staff a heads up if you want to do this so that they can retrieve the material from where it is stored on site.

— Gary Libby