As my time as a history undergraduate I rarely adventured into the area of truly original research. There were times where I explored overlooked or untold portions of a well known story or I even attempted to reinterpret a very well known aspect of history. However, I never ran into the barrier that I have recently found in one of my archival internships this summer. I believe I have found an historical narrative that has not yet been told or given its due consideration. As a very recent student of history, I should find this exciting. This is a scholar’s dream. However, as a new information professional I am equal parts excited, horrified, guilty, and bewildered.
What exactly have I stumbled upon? The mostly untold story of South Asians in the Seattle area especially during the early 20th century. I saw mostly because some historical institutions like the Wing Luke Asian Museum are beginning to correct this oversight. However, every time I try to learn more about the Asian population in Seattle or dig into local repositories I’m hit with an abundance of information on Chinese, Japanese, Filipinos, and the more recent Vietnamese immigrants, but the information on South Asians is minuscule. I feel like I am chasing a ghost. I know they were here and I know they took jobs similar to most Asian immigrants at the beginning of the 20th century, but their memory has not been as fervently preserved as others.
The exercise of trying to dig up historical documents about these men has really driven home how much of a responsibility we as archivists, librarians, and historians have in creating the historical record. Take for example Doug Chin’s book Seattle’s International District: The Making of a Pan-Asian American Community. Chin mentions the anti-Asian riots that took place in Vancouver, British Columbia in the fall of 1907 which were mostly carried out against Chinese and Japanese immigrants. However, Chin does not mention the 1907 Bellingham, Washington riot that expelled the town’s South Asian population. With this small exclusion Chin has solidified the former incident more firmly in the historical narrative of the Pacific Northwest, but has further washed the latter from our memory(67-68).
As the summer progresses I hope to chase down my research ghost and help to build the historical narrative of the experience of South Asians in western Washington at the beginning of the 20th century. This research project will also stick with me as a cautionary reminder of just how powerful not mentioning an aspect of history is as including it.
Update: Before publishing this post I’ve received many responses to my research inquires from local repositories. These responses only back up my initial findings that really no historical narrative exists for these immigrants. My hypothesis is that these men did not form lasting communities so there were no impulses to save or create a lasting community memory. These men either voluntarily left or were pushed out due to anti-Asiatic sentiments. Does this hypothesis seem sound? Could an historian still create a narrative for this group even with so little archival evidence?