The No Place Project is a narrative photography project that documents contemporary locations where anti-Chinese violence took place in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in North America. The photographs are combined with stories about the events that happened at those sites.
From 1850 to 1910 a violent anti-Chinese movement in this country instigated forced removals of entire Chinese communities, major riots against Chinese residents and even horrific massacres of Chinese immigrants. Some of these actions, such the riot in Rock Springs, Wyoming, were among the most violent events in American history, yet few people are aware of this part of our American culture.
Why is this relevant today?
There is a long history of racism and discrimination in this country, and it's important to understand that what we experience today is not a new phenomenon. At the individual, institutional and governmental levels racism is embedded our culture, and we cannot hope to interrupt that dynamic unless we know what drives it.
One of the most important lessons I've learned while working on this project is the people who shamelessly carry out racist acts are sometimes followed by people who think it's best to forget those acts took place.
During the thirteen years I've spent researching and documenting this project I've been repeatedly dismayed to find that, unlike many historical sites, there has been little recognition of the specific places where anti-Chinese events took place. For most sites there are no plaques or markers, no guidebook references—nothing at all to indicate what happened at these places. By sweeping the racism of the past away, those in charge have told us to forget that these things ever happened.
As ugly and frightening as the events of the past were, we cannot forget that some of this same hatred drives the events of today. Those who may be shocked by efforts to ban Muslims from coming to the U.S. should know that for more than 40 years the U.S. banned many Chinese from entering this country. The lessons of what happened during that part of our history may help us strengthen our resolve to resist the racism of today.
I saw the phrase "no place for your kind" in a blurry microfilm copy of the La Grande Gazette [La Grande, Oregon] from 1893. When a mob broke into local homes looking for Chinese workers, one of the leaders told the frightened occupants "there's no place for your kind in our town." The phrase stayed with me, and I've chosen the first words to represent what this project is about.
To me, the phrase "no place" has three different but connected meanings in relation to this project. First, it refers to the anti-Chinese sentiments of the time and the racist attitudes that Chinese immigrants faced in this country for decades. Secondly, it describes the diaspora of the Chinese immigrants who left the home country in search of a better way of life. Lastly, it refers to the lack of recognition of the places where terrible anti-Chinese events took place. For many Chinese-Americans, there still is no place that recognizes this part of their history in our society and our culture.
This project is dedicated to the tens of thousands of early Chinese immigrants to the U.S. They introduced us to Chinese culture, helped build our railroads, toiled in our mines and provided countless services, skills and other benefits to the growing economy of our country. They also endured vicious acts of volence, relentless racism and widespread discrimination for decades.
While much of what they experienced is difficult to imagine today, they did not persevere by accident. They strongly resisted when they could, in person and in the courts, and they relied upon the strength of Chinese culture and its heritage to survive and ultimately thrive in the face of oppression and hardship. My experience in documenting part of this history has renewed my faith in the everlasting power of courage and determination in the face of injustice and inequality.
Above: Two posters from the Chinese expulsion era.
Image above: Vancouver, British Columbia
Featured in The New York Times
The No Place Project, originally called No Place for Your Kind, was featured in The New York Times Lens Blog on August 13, 2012.