Retelling the story of St. Louis' Chinatown through the experience of those who lived there
When Peter Tao decided to write about St. Louis’ former Chinatown, often referred to as Hop Alley, he wanted to challenge the harmful and limiting stereotypes that have often surrounded the district, particularly in older news stories.
“They were trying to represent it as a bad story. You know, crime, drugs, lowlifes, undocumented — because remember, this is a society where you had to be undocumented because you were not admitted,” the St. Louis architect and community leader told St. Louis on the Air. “It eliminates all the other people and community and businesses that were very much a part of people's lives.”
Tao’s article on St. Louis’ Chinatown district, which was razed to make way for Busch Memorial Stadium in 1965, is the first in his blog series focused on Chinese American history in the region. The articles are one aspect of the Missouri Historical Society’s newly formed Chinese American Collecting Initiative.
The idea for the initiative started in 2017, when Tao began writing a biography of his parents.
“As I started researching and writing, I was also talking to some elders here in St. Louis, who were younger than him, but also had certain memories, and then they started putting things down to paper,” he said. “As I was writing, I was realizing … that I was learning things it seemed like no one was knowing. Then I was realizing also, because of their age, that it was going to be lost.”
For Tao, the stories of early Chinese American immigrants are applicable today, to readers of all backgrounds.
“That's the purpose of the blog,” he said. “We want you to read the blog and understand the human first — and the situations and the lessons — versus just knowing that it's a Chinese story.”
Tao joined St. Louis on the Air to talk about the initiative’s focus on collecting and telling stories about Chinese American contributions to St. Louis. Janet Leong of the Leong family, whose members were active in the community and whose restaurant Asia Cafe (later called Asia Food) was the last business standing in Hop Alley, joined the conversation.
“Peter, through his research, unearthed information that led him to connect with me … [and] it really has made me realize that I have only seen a slice of [this history] through the eyes of a fairly young child who had, you know, memories of one restaurant, and interacting with her family,” Leong said. “It makes one appreciate that there was a bigger story, and that there was community.”
Those interested in contributing to the Chinese American Collecting Initiative can contact Missouri History Museum’s Library and Collections Director Christopher Gordon at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
What: Organization of Chinese Americans St. Louis 50th anniversary gala
When: 6:30 p.m. May 6
Where: Missouri History Museum (5700 Lindell Blvd., St. Louis, MO 63112)
“St. Louis on the Air” brings you the stories of St. Louis and the people who live, work and create in our region. The show is produced by Miya Norfleet, Emily Woodbury, Danny Wicentowski, Elaine Cha and Alex Heuer. Avery Rogers is our production assistant. The audio engineer is Aaron Doerr. Send questions and comments about this story to email@example.com.