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A Wash U librarian creates online project to teach St. Louis’ Asian American history

Private James Jewick, a Chinese American, and his family posed in front of Charlie Long "First Class" Laundry in old Chinatown in 1942. This is history along with other images and narrative stories will be available for people to learn more about Asian American history in St. Louis.
Missouri Historical Society
Pvt. James Jewick, a Chinese American, and his family pose in front of Charlie Long "First Class" Laundry in old Chinatown in 1942. Other images and narrative stories will be available for people to learn more about Asian American history in St. Louis.

A librarian at Washington University in St. Louis is leading an online interactive story map project that highlights Asian American history in the region.

The Missouri Humanities Council awarded Joan Wang a $10,000 grant to digitize images, maps, videos and narrative stories of Asian Americans in St. Louis and include them in an online project that will be available in December.

“The project’s purpose is to provide a platform to learn and interact with history and to have a better understanding of the intersections of races and cultures,” said Wang, who specializes in East Asian and Chinese studies.

The story map project, “Asia in St. Louis: A Story Map Dedicated to the Greater St. Louis Community,” was inspired by a Wash U history course that discussed Asian American history with a focus on St. Louis. The students performed research projects on the region's Asian culture and will be included in the story map project.

The interactive map will highlight Asian history up until World War II and the discrimination and forced relocation Asian Americans endured nationwide during the war. It will discuss movements in the area for Asian rights and notable figures that helped build St. Louis infrastructures.

Many people are not aware of Asian Americans who contributed to the St. Louis region. Among them are Gyo Obata, the Japanese American architect who helped design the James S. McDonnell Planetarium at the St. Louis Science Center, said Miranda Rectenwald, curator of local history for Wash U Libraries.

“I think it's important that Asian American history is highlighted,” said Rectenwald, who is also helping with the project. “In St. Louis, we really have a long history of Asian American history … but it's easy to overlook, because it is a smaller percentage of the population.”

Users of the online site also learn more about Hop Alley — St. Louis’ Chinatown from the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s.

“This is not an easy history to understand. It's an area of the city that to developers and city leaders in the 1960s was just seen as old and needing to be just basically bulldozed,” Rectenwald said. “So there wasn't in the 1960s really any concern for cultural history or heritage of the Asian American community or other communities in the area.”

Research for the materials will come from national and local historical societies and interviews with local historians, business owners, scholars and community members.

Wang hopes the project makes younger Asian Americans proud of their heritage.

“The project provides the next generation [a guide to] how they would like to interpret history and how they would like to understand their parents, their grandparents, and how they would share the history with the public,” she said.

Andrea covers race, identity & culture at St. Louis Public Radio.