Personal and family photos from our local Chinese American families are an important part of our permanent collections at the Museum. As historical sources, they help give shape to the collective memories of a community that has been connected to Portland’s Old Town for over a century, and illuminate the important events and experiences featured in the Museum’s permanent exhibition, Beyond the Gate: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns.
The short videos featured below illustrate how historical photos can help bring oral histories to life through personal connection and meaning. Mary and Bertha’s stories are very different, but equally compelling.
To learn more about our collections, visit our collections page.
Community Through Cultural Expression
Read the transcript for Mary's video:
“Last Saturday was the graduation day of the Chinese Language School. One young girl came up to me and she says, “Oh, Auntie Mary, do you remember me? I used to be one of the ducks in your dancing program.” I said, “Oh yes, I remember you.” And, about 1979 or 1980 I had class about 30 children at the age of 16 down to age 6. We hired a teacher to teach them the dance. And I designed all the costumes. I would make the very the first one. I would buy the material. And the children would perform the dances. Some of them took the girls, the younger ones with me, to the large towns and different cities to perform. This was about the only Chinese dance that they had. I still have a lot of costumes I made for my daughter. I was also in several of the dances and a mother says, “Aren’t you a little bit too old to dance?” And I said, “Oh no, there were several other ladies who would dance with me.” One was Jenny Kim who also was the principal at that time of the Chinese Language School and several elderly ladies, and I call them elderly because they were not teenagers. And I still have quite a few photographs. We would perform down on the water front. And a lot of times I would do fashion shows. I got the costumes from the Republic of China and I would get the information about the different costumes because they were copies of the empresses of China and I would describe the costumes. And I would get the young girls, about teenagers at the Chinese Language School and we would perform and they would do it at different functions and they enjoyed it. Oh what little girl doesn’t like to dress up.”
Finding New Possibilities and Potential
Read the transcript for Bertha's video:
“Prior to WWII, [for] many Chinese men and women jobs were limited. Men with college degrees in science, engineering, and pharmacy had a hard time finding paying jobs [where they were] respected because of the racial discrimination. Chinese women were at the low profile jobs. They were in stock rooms and elevators, or cashiers at Chinese restaurants. A couple of my girlfriends got jobs selling popcorn at the Oriental Theater on Southwest Grand Avenue. And at that job they had to wear a two-piece Chinese outfit to sell popcorn. That was in the 1940s.
So in 1948, I graduated from Oregon State. As it was mentioned, I had a difficult time getting a job because, quote, I was Chinese. Many superintendents say, “Well, we don’t have any Chinese community or the school board…they may not approve.” And at that time, I don’t think there were any…there might have been one or two elementary school teachers, but no secondary teacher. In August of that year, 1948, I got a call from the superintendent of schools in Cathlamet, Washington. I was offered a job at $3,000 a year teaching high school and Washington history at Cathlamet High School. I stayed there four years and left for matrimony. In 1950 I did…I was offered a job at Jefferson High School but I felt like Cathlamet had offered me a chance to [inaudible]. Because of loyalty, I stayed there an extra two years.”
Video clip from PCM’s “Hidden Histories: New Light on Portland’s Old and New Chinatowns: 1851-1950” presentation (05/22/21).
Top image: Mary Nom Lee Leong practicing with student, 1990.
Video images: Photos courtesy of the family of Mary Nom Lee Leong, and Bertha Saiget.