Nearby, a table, a map, and a bulletin board invite guests to visualize their ancestry and share their stories by pushing red pins onto a world map.
The pins are mostly pushed into parts of Europe, the U.S., and China, but a few pins rest in Africa, India, the Philippines, and beyond.
The James poses four questions to museum visitors at the entrance to “From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier,” which runs through Jan. 28.
- What words or questions come to mind as you reflect on your ancestors’—or your own—experiences with immigration or migration?
- How has immigration or migration shaped your family?
- What question would you like to ask your ancestors?
- What traditions, objects, recipes, or other treasures has your family kept over the years, regardless of where you have lived?
“Every New Year's Day, my mother makes pork and sauerkraut,” someone shared in answer to the question on traditions and recipes, “I personally find it gross, but I appreciate the tradition.”
After reflecting upon their immigration stories, guests enter The James’ Special Exhibitions gallery. Mian Situ’s “The Golden Mountain, Arriving San Francisco, 1865” greets them. The painting depicts Chinese migrants on a ship bound for America. They look joyful, exhausted, curious, and ready for adventure.
Situ’s “The Golden Mountain” prompts visitors to think of Chinese immigrants crossing the Pacific Ocean to California in the late 1850s through 1930s. What was their journey like? What sort of life awaited them?
Lui—who said, “We are all from somewhere else”—is one of five contemporary Chinese-American artists with work on display The James. The Chinese-born Liu (1948-2021), who some consider to be the greatest Chinese painter in the U.S., is known for her paintings based on historical Chinese photographs. Like Liu, the additional contemporary Chinese-American artists featured in “Far East to West” immigrated to the U.S. in the 1980s-1990s. They all take inspiration from history and cultural identity.
Together, Mian Situ’s, Jie Wei Zhou, and Benjamin Wu’s paintings depict Chinese immigrants mining for gold and operating trading posts during the California Gold Rush, mingling with tourists, peddling toys, selling newspapers, and celebrating the Lunar New Year in early Chinatowns; practicing medicine; and running the family business.
History comes to life in The James Museum’s “From Far East to West.” As viewers progress through the exhibition, they learn who these migrants were, why they came, what their journey was like, and how they made a life in the U.S.
As visitors circle back to the gallery entrance/exit, they leave with the remainder of Lui’s quote, “We are all from somewhere else. Therefore, we are all refugees of some sort, emigrants or immigrants. We carry ourselves, our ancestors’ ghosts, to wherever we have gone or are going, and we follow them back as far as their images will take us.”
Centuries later, when looking upon this beautiful collection of art depicting the journeys of Chinese immigrants in the mid-1800s, it’s hard not to think of Latin American immigrants crossing the Darien today. Like the Chinese immigrants who came to the U.S. in the mid-1800s, they come seeking better opportunities than their homeland provides. What sort of reception will they receive? How will they shape these United States?
The James Museum of Wildlife & Western Art in St. Petersburg is open on Wednesday-Monday, 10 a.m.-5 p.m. ($23) and 10 a.m.-8 p.m. on Tuesdays ($10. "From Far East to West: The Chinese American Frontier" runs through Jan. 28, 2024.
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