As debate continues in the news over terms such as “Chinese virus,” I am reminded of a blog post I wrote for HoMA during the 2018 Winter Olympics that mentioned the Chinese Exclusion Act.

This act was a federal law—the first of its kind—intended to prevent immigration of workers from China into the United States. The act was initially temporary, but it was made permanent in 1902. It was augmented in 1924 with the Immigration Act, which further excluded immigrants from other parts of Asia (specifically Japan), and also restricted quotas on immigrants from Eastern Europe. These laws were not fully eliminated until 1965, only fifty-five years ago (and still well within living memory).

The 1882 act reinforced prejudices against the Chinese-American community, leading to two terrible massacres in Wyoming and Oregon. It also resulted in further local discrimination, notably when the bubonic plague spread through San Francisco starting in 1900. These incidents are sadly reminiscent of similar outbursts against Asian-Americans in the past few weeks.

You might be wondering what any of this has to do with HoMA. I have always found it remarkable, at a time when Asians were not only subject to intense racism, but actually legally banned from immigrating to the United States, that the museum’s original mission statement of 1927 (only three years after the Immigration Act) would specifically prioritize representing Hawaii’s Chinese, Japanese and Korean (among other) communities. Admittedly, seen through today’s lens that mission statement is permeated by problematic colonialist perspectives. Nevertheless, from its inception HoMA was intended as a place where, against the prevailing nationalist winds of the time, Hawaii’s diverse cultures could come together, and gain a greater mutual appreciation and understanding.

Recent events have shown that this role of the museum is just as important today as it was over ninety years ago. While our physical galleries are closed to help prevent the spread of COVID-19, you can learn more about our important collection of Chinese paintings online (https://art.honolulumuseum.org). Over the next few weeks, I will continue to introduce a few of my favorites. Meanwhile, the museum staff continue to work from home, preparing future exhibitions and programs that will offer our community opportunities to experience, and learn to value, art and culture from around the world.

Shawn Eichman
Curator of Asian Art

Landscape, Dong Qichang (Chinese, 1555 – 1636),
China, Ming dynasty (early 17th century)
Ink and colors on gold ground
Gift of Mrs. Carter Galt, 1957 (2310.1) 

3.27.2020