Hanging Out: A Research Methodology
Pfaelzer, Jean, Legacy: A Journal of American Women Writers
It's not just the hunting and gathering--the methods and challenges of location, identification, collection, and re-representation--but the politics of archives that I faced as I curated my first cyber exhibit, "Chinese American Women: A History of Resilience and Resistance" for the National Women's History Museum. This exhibit, which can be found in its entirety at http://www.nwhm.org/Chinese/1.html, depicts the lives of Chinese American women during their first one hundred years in the United States.(1)
From the research I had done for my book Driven Out: The Forgotten War Against Chinese Americans, I knew that the "archives"--that liminal but highly material space--would likely deliver documents that exposed violence against Chinese women. There, I would find the mass purges of the first Chinese Americans during the late nineteenth and early twentieth century, buttressed by cartoons, photographs, and sensational journalism. I would find representations of a national policy that prevented most Chinese women from entering the United States. And, as I expected, in the archives I uncovered slavery, violence, and burlesque. But within the ships' logs, newspaper accounts, habeas corpus actions, and immigration files, Chinese female immigrants' own telling seemed to be mostly silenced. I was searching for the voices and self-representations of the first Chinese American women. Could I find them within these damaging images and nativist records? How could I locate images of Chinese American women that resisted the legislative and violent logic of ethnic cleansing of the three hundred pogroms?
Some of these first Chinese American women were, in a sense, buried alive in national archives, local county historical societies, medical records, ships' logs, government documents, and clipping files--the usual places. Ultimately, it was by hanging out--talking, sharing resources, telling and retelling this history--that I stumbled upon their stories and found their images. For example, a civil rights lawyer and parent at my daughter's school put me in touch with a police officer who shared his precinct's internal records of early Chinese women and men. At our annual block party, I chatted with a neighbor who sold antique toys; he contacted his cyber colleagues to locate an antique cap gun from the 1880s that mechanically mimed a Chinese purge. The sound engineer at a PBS shoot talked about how his tribe hid Chinese miners during the purge from Eureka, California, and revealed that he was a biracial descendant from that troubled moment.
All of us who dig in the archives are nontraditional detectives. We all believe in informed serendipity in the archives. But as I review my four full file cabinets and my boxes upon boxes of documents, images, short stories, maps, engravings, letters, and photographs, I realize that hanging out has been a very good form of historical methodology.
ALL THE USUAL PLACES
By law Chinese women were not supposed to have even been in the United States. Initially, I was concerned that I would not find documents and representations of early Chinese American women. My goal was to locate records, images, court cases, legislation, and artifacts that were produced at the time when national policy prevented most Chinese American women from entering the United States, when Congress allowed only the wives of Chinese merchants to enter because with little bound feet they could not leave the house and cause trouble at the time when elected officials and vigilantes worked hand in hand to drive Chinese immigrants out of three hundred towns across the Pacific Northwest (Forty-Third Congress). Once I began looking for archives in all the right places, I found the hidden images and photographs of these women. For example, Chinese friends soon shared dozens of studio photographs of their grandmothers that clearly establish Congress's failure to deliver ethnic cleansing. …