Immigrant Stories Told Through Everyday Objects 

Some of the objects collected by the Chinese-American Planning Council for “Your Story, Our Story.” (Screen shot of the exhibition’s CPC page)

A wok or a watch, they may look like everyday objects. But after a long period of time, these ordinary objects may carry life stories about immigrant families. It is these stories that compose the American history of immigration. “Your Story, Our Story,” an exhibition organized jointly by the Lower East Side Tenement Museum and the Chinese American Planning Council, presents viewers with everyday objects such as videotapes, watches and toys, and matches each item with the story behind it to show the lives of immigrants. The viewers can easily find themselves in the stories and realize that all families have had ordinary objects like these and we all indeed share the same story. 

The exhibition, which focuses on stories of immigrants who lived on the Lower East Side in the 19th and the 20th centuries, collects items like photos, everyday necessities, clothes and food to show the history of immigrant families from different angles. For example, a double boiler pot provided by Lois Lee tells how Lee’s mother York Gee Wong got married when she was 16 and what happened after she moved to the Lower East Side from Toishan, China. 

“…Mom didn’t know how to cut the chicken or know how to cook. (…) She learned how to make chicken soup with Chinese herbs in this pot. She claimed that the soup was good for our health. Whenever my sisters and I came home, she insisted we drink a bowl,” Lee writes in the introduction of the object. “My mother was a simmering double pot, an immigrant slowly cooking into an independent, modern woman.”

Vanessa Chiu provides some items Chinese women used for maternity care in the month after giving birth. Chiu recalls that when she delivered her children she had to be confined for a whole month without doing much more than resting. “To me, it’s a tradition that my grandmothers and aunts talked about when I was growing up and emphasized as the most important time for a new mom. It’s wisdom from women who survived war and famine, followed their children to this country, and persevered,” she writes. “I ate a special and delicious diet of ginger chicken, pigs feet and Chinese soups, avoided cold drinks and limited visitors to allow myself to rest and my baby to thrive. For the record, I was allowed to do a sponge bath with ginger water. My 88-year-old ah-ngan (grandmother) peeled 60 lbs. of ginger and dried the peels for me. I used ah-paw’s (grandmother) tea kettle to boil water and felt her strength and presence even though she wasn’t alive.”

XiaoLing Wu, who provides a watch, writes in the introduction: “When I was kid, I always saw my dad wearing an old watch. I asked him about the watch when I grow up. Then he told me that this watch is the gift of his father, and this watch will always be his mark in his life and it will be his kids because his father used this watch to encourage him to be admitted by college in Guangzhou. In their village, the life is hard and no one can go to college except my father, and my father deserves it, so my father sees this watch as the force to help him to go to college. He [stays] in Guangzhou nowadays, he still takes out this watch and cleans this carefully and keeps it safe. I think at this moment, he must miss his hometown and this past.”

The Tenement Museum is located at 103 Orchard St. in Manhattan. For details on the exhibition and visiting hours, go to the website of the museum or check the objects and their stories here. Those who are interested in providing exhibition objects and sharing their stories can also upload photos and text on the website. 

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