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The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) presents its next featured MOCA TALKS speaker, Mark T. Johnson, associate professor with the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives and author of The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana.

From the earliest days of non-Native settlement of Montana, when Chinese immigrants made up more than 10 percent of the territory’s population, Chinese pioneers played a key role in the region’s development. But this population, so crucial to Montana’s history, remains underrepresented in historical accounts, and popular attention to the Chinese in Montana tends to focus on sensational elements—exoticizing Chinese Montanans and distancing their experiences from our modern understanding. The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky recovers the stories of Montana’s Chinese population in their own words and deepens understanding of Chinese experiences in Montana with a global lens.

Prof. Johnson has mined several large collections of primary documents left by Chinese pioneers, translated into English for the first time. These collections, spanning the 1880s-1950s, provide insight into the pressures the Chinese community faced—from family members back in China and from non-Chinese Montanans—as economic and cultural disturbances complicated acceptance of Chinese residents in the state. Through their own voices Prof. Johnson reveals the agency of Chinese Montanans in the history of the American West and China.

This program is moderated by Nancy Yao, MOCA President. We look forward to your participation, and to sharing this and many more exemplary stories of the Chinese in America.

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Selected Chapter Previews

Chapter 2: “Your hands are covered in gold”: Pressures on Butte, Montana’s Chinese Residents, 1880s-1920s

Chinese Collection. File, acc 87-5.31, Montana Historical Society Research Center Archives, Helena, Montana

This chapter examines connections between Butte, Montana’s Chinese community and relatives in southern China, a region beset by natural disasters and political upheavals that caused many people to seek opportunities abroad. Through translation and interpretation of close to one hundred letters from the 1880s to the 1920s, the pressures, motivations, and goals of Montana’s Chinese community become clear. Certain that their relative in Montana was earning great wealth, family members wrote that “your hands are covered in gold, urging him to send more money, become involved in various investment schemes, and to care for extended family members with his earnings. With these pressures from home combined with restrictions in Montana from certain professions, life was not easy for this Chinese Montanan.

Chapter 8: “Brother, I beg you to help me, I am in a dire situation”: Cold War Fears and Chinese Communities, 1930s-1950s

Wing Hong Hum Papers, 89-30.194, Montana Historical Society Research Center Archives, Helena, Montana

The experiences of Wing Hong Hum, who lived in Butte, Montana from 1933-1958, illustrate the complex status of Chinese America during the Cold War. One of the first workers of Chinese ethnicity to labor in the city’s mining industry in more than sixty years, Wing Hong Hum became thoroughly Montanan, hunting, fishing, and joining the miner’s union. Upon his arrival to America in 1933 he was recognized as a citizen through derivative citizenship. Due to changing geopolitical tensions, his brother, with an identical claim to citizenship, was barred entry due to fears of communist infiltration. Through the translation of more than 200 letters, the struggle of the brothers to reunite shows the changing nature of the Chinese American experience through the first decades of the Cold War.

About Mark T. Johnson

Mark T. Johnson is an associate professor with the University of Notre Dame’s Institute for Educational Initiatives. Author of the recent book The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana (University of Nebraska Press, 2022), Johnson’s research focuses on telling the history of Chinese communities in Montana in their own words and through a global lens.

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September 14, 2022
5:00 pm – 6:00 pm

This program is brought to you by MOCA friends and partners, including Bloomberg Philanthropies.

This program is also supported, in part, by public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, in partnership with the City Council.