Aimee Baldwin, an artist who co-curated a new exhibition on the history of Chinese Americans in Berkeley, photographed in her North Berkeley family home on May 3, 2023. When her great grandparents were in the process of buying a home on McKinley Avenue in the 1920s, white neighbors launched a petition to stop them from moving into the neighborhood. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

Berkeley artist and fifth-generation Chinese Californian Aimee Baldwin had long known of her ancestors’ experiences facing exclusion and discrimination, but until a few years ago, much of what she knew came from her Chinese mother, who grew up in Berkeley in the 1950s. 

Touching Ground, Putting Down Roots: Chinese in Berkeley

The Berkeley Historical Society, 1931 Center St., 510-848-0181, through Sept. 30

Regular hours: 1-4 p.m. Thursday-Saturday

Free admission, donations welcome

Hoping to learn more about what her ancestors’ lives were like, she looked online, but didn’t find many answers. Surprised, she reached out to her aunt, who referred her to a high school friend who had been working with the Berkeley Historical Society on similar research. From there, she became heavily involved, conducting personal interviews with other people of Chinese descent in Berkeley and delving into her own past.

Baldwin’s research, and that of many others, is currently on display at the Berkeley Historical Society’s new show “Touching Ground, Putting Down Roots: Chinese in Berkeley.” 

The show, which opened April 30 and is co-curated by local historian Charles Wollenberg, chronicles some of the contributions of Berkeley residents of Chinese descent — from domestic workers to prominent activists and academics — while also exploring Berkeley’s history of anti-Chinese bigotry.

“We were talking about the fact that the Chinese population of Berkeley is very significant, and we’ve never done an exhibit on Chinese in Berkeley, and to our knowledge, there’s no book about it,” recalled Berkeley Historical Society vice president Jeanine Castello-Lin, who noted that her husband is from China. “We had done an exhibit on Japanese in Berkeley, and we have a book about Japanese in Berkeley, but not about Chinese.”

The Berkeley Historical Society’s new exhibit highlights the contributions of Chinese Americans in Berkeley. Credit: Iris Kwok

Chinese immigrants had been living and working in Berkeley, mostly as day laborers, farmworkers, cooks or servants, even before the city was incorporated. The racist Workingmen’s Party, known for its “The Chinese Must Go!” slogan coined by Irish immigrant Denis Kearney, won Berkeley’s first municipal election in 1878. 

The 1870s were a period of economic hardship and Chinese workers were used as scapegoats, Wollenberg said. 

Resentment against Chinese immigrants, who were paid less than white workers, sparked protests and threats of violence and eventually led to the firing of all Chinese workers at Berkeley’s Standard Soap Works in 1886. 

A tale of resistance emerges from the gallery walls, arranged in rough chronological order and packed with plenty of text. You’ll learn about the Tape family, who sued the San Francisco Board of Education for denying their eldest daughter, Mamie, admission to public school on the basis of race, and later moved to Berkeley. The Tape v. Hurley case made its way to the California Supreme Court, which ruled in the family’s favor, a decision that meant minority children could attend the state’s previously white public schools. 

Poignant self-reflections on race and identity are placed alongside family photos taken at dim sum restaurants and dance recitals. For the food-obsessed, the society brought out many Chinese takeout menus from Berkeley from its vast archives upstairs and several ceramic dishes with traditional Chinese patterns made by Berkeley’s F.S. Louie Restaurant Supply Company. 

The exhibit highlights the biographies of a few prominent Chinese people who came to Berkeley because of the university and stayed long after, including Choh Hao Li, who made significant contributions to the field of experimental biology, and Tung Yuen Lin, the father of prestressed concrete (the first residence built with pre-stressed concrete is his former family home in El Cerrito). 

Also highlighted are the Berkeley roots of the Asian American Movement, with panels devoted to the Asian American Political Alliance, which coined the term “Asian American”; Ying Lee, Berkeley’s first Asian American councilmember, who died in September; and Eastwind Books, which closed last month and has been widely celebrated by fans and supporters

Looking back at the history of people of Chinese descent “is particularly important now because of the extraordinary increase in the number of Asian American people in Berkeley and particularly at the university, [where] a significant majority of those people are of Chinese descent,” Wollenberg said.

For Baldwin, who is multiracial, sharing this history is personal. Her great grandparents moved from San Francisco to Berkeley in 1923, hoping their sons would attend the University of California, and experienced housing discrimination firsthand. 

Aimee Baldwin photographed in her North Berkeley family home on May 3, 2023. Credit: Ximena Natera, Berkeleyside/CatchLight

“When my family was in the process of buying the house on McKinley Ave, and becoming the first Chinese on that block, white neighbors began a petition to prohibit us from moving into the neighborhood,” Baldwin wrote in the exhibit’s text. “However, a white woman who lived on that block had spent time living in China with her missionary family, and spoke up on behalf of my family, saying that Chinese people should be allowed to move in.”

Iris Kwok covers the environment for Berkeleyside through a partnership with Report for America. A former music journalist, her work has appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle, KQED, San Francisco Examiner...