December 26, 2012
Vol: 19 No: 52

News

Wing Luke exhibit focuses on hidden Asian poverty

By Rosette Royale , Assistant Editor

Thirty-five Vietnamese refugees prepare to be taken aboard a United States amphibious command ship. The group was rescued from a 35-foot fishing boat after eight days at sea.

Photo by PH2 Phil Eggman.

A family creates a bedroom using sheets and material hung from a ceiling. Many Asian Americans who experience homelessness often keep their situation secret.

Photo courtesy Wing Luke Museum.

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The Harui family settled on Bainbridge Island in the early 1900s. Japanese immigrants, they were intent on creating a home in the United States. Two family members, a father and brother, established a farm on the island called Bainbridge Gardens, which over the years included a nursery, greenhouses and grocery store.

When World War II stoked xenophobia and Japanese immigrants in the Northwest were targeted for internment, the Harui family fled to Eastern Washington. As they packed, they said goodbye to the garden, but not before the father planted Japanese Red Pine seedlings in a shady spot of the nursery.

When the Harui family returned to the island years later, the nursery was destroyed. But amid the destruction, they discovered the seedlings had survived. Decades later, descendants of the Harui family restored the garden. Today, the red pines still thrive.

The Harui family story is one of many that comes to light in the new exhibit “Uprooted and Invisible: Asian American Homelessness,” on display at Wing Luke Museum until August 2013. The photos, soundscapes and multimedia presentations seek to explore the meaning of home and the impact of homelessness on Asian Pacific Islanders.

The museum’s exhibits developer, Mikala Woodward, said one of the show’s themes is the concept of being uprooted. As immigrants and refugees in the United States, Asian Americans were forced to create new homes. “Chinatown itself is the result of that,” Woodward said.

The exhibit begins with imagery of families in turmoil: a black-and-white photo reproduction of Vietnamese refugees crammed in a boat, another photo reproduction of more Vietnamese refugees aboard a United States aircraft carrier. The reality of refugees packed in a boat often foretold the experience of many Asian immigrants in the U.S., where they lived in overcrowded apartments. Fear of losing that housing or shame about the conditions often kept them quiet. Instead, Woodward said, they worked to recreate what was important from their former lives, such as constructing makeshift altars in small spaces.

Some of those people, she said, become part of the hidden homeless, the countless people tucked away in tiny, substandard boarding houses. But people who lived or still live in such places, as well as on the streets, often don’t share their stories. Woodward said during the year-long process of creating the exhibit, she only conducted three formal interviews with Asian Americans who had experienced homelessness. “And I did five or six informal ones,” she said, “without any name.”

Even so, Woodward fared better than some local human service providers, who often don’t meet homeless Asian Americans. A graphic in the exhibit shows that while Asian Americans accounted for 14 percent of people living in poverty in King County in 2010, they comprised only 5 percent of those who sought homeless services. “The show kind of grew from those statistics,” Woodward said.

As pieces of the show came together, another theme become apparent, this one around the concept of growth. In the center of the exhibit, museum staff created a “tree” crafted from branches attached to a metal I-beam. “It felt like a wonderful symbol of putting down roots despite everything,” Woodward said.

On the east side of the tree sits a bureau with a picture of members of the Harui family. A mirror on top of the bureau displays a slideshow of portraits of homeless or formerly homeless Asian Americans.

Viewers who gaze into the mirror find their own faces superimposed upon those in the slideshow gallery. The artwork is called “Look Me in the Eye.”

A placard on the west side of the tree recounts the story of one of the people who did speak to Woodward: Stella Chao, deputy director of King County Public Health Department. Chao experienced homelessness when she grew up in Queens, New York, with two parents who lived with mental illness.

When her father was institutionalized, her mother buckled under the pressure of raising the young Chao. Between the ages of 7 and 17, Chao was thrown out of the house numerous times, and she lived on the streets alone. Sometimes she’d be homeless for a day. Once, as a teen, she was homeless for six months. The young Chao never told anyone. “In the Chinese way — or at least my parent’s Chinese way — you don’t air the dirty laundry outside the house,” Chao said in a quote replicated in the exhibit.

Chao, the only Asian in an all-white neighborhood, became a target of gangs, so she hid in the upper branches of trees in surrounding parks. “I found sanctuary in trees,” she said.

Through imagery and the stories of the Harui family and Chao, Woodward said museum staff hope to raise awareness about homelessness in the Asian American community.

They also want those who serve homeless people to reflect on the unique nature of their Asian-American clients. “And we want to create a space in the neighborhood where people can experience what’s happening right here,” Woodward said.

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