Think Out Loud

Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project continues to uncover history

By Elizabeth Castillo (OPB)
July 15, 2022 4:46 p.m.

Broadcast: Friday, July 15

Southern Oregon University archaeologist Keoni Diacamos and an Oregon Archaeology Society volunteer excavate at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site.

Southern Oregon University archaeologist Keoni Diacamos and an Oregon Archaeology Society volunteer excavate at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site.

courtesy of Chelsea Rose


The Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project is an award-winning initiative that explores the lives of Chinese immigrants through archaeology and historical records. Led by the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology, the project is a collaboration that’s partnered with Oregon State Parks, the Oregon Historical Society, the Portland Chinatown Museum and others. The Oregon Historical Society published a special issue of the Oregon Historical Quarterly that delves into this history.

A public archaeology day will take place at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day on Saturday. Chelsea Rose is a historical archaeologist at the university and the director of the lab. Jennifer Fang is the director of Interpretation and Community Engagement at Pittock Mansion and an advisor on the project. They join us with more about how the project is going and what’s been discovered so far.

A public archaeology day will take place at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day.

A public archaeology day will take place at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day.

courtesy of Chelsea Rose

The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer:

Dave Miller: From the Gert Boyle Studio at OPB, this is Think Out Loud. I’m Dave Miller. The Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project is an award-winning initiative that explores the lives of Chinese immigrants in the 19th and early 20th centuries through archaeology and historical records. It’s led by the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology, but it’s a much broader collaboration with federal, state and local agencies. In just six years it’s led to excavations at more than a dozen sites, and it’s deepened our understanding of the profound impact that Chinese immigration has had on Oregon history. Chelsea Rose is a historical archaeologist at Southern Oregon University and a principal investigator for this Oregon Chinese Diaspora Project. Jennifer Fang is the director of Interpretation and Community Engagement at Pittock Mansion and is an advisor on this project. Chelsea Rose and Jennifer Fang, welcome to Think Out Loud.

Chelsea Rose: Thanks for having us.

Jennifer Fang: It’s a pleasure to be here.

Miller: Chelsea first, can you give us a sense just for the scale of this project?

Rose: Yeah. It started out at an archaeology conference kind of over a beer. A couple of us were presenting on various archaeological sites across the state, and we realized: Hey, there’s a lot to learn here, and let’s pool our resources and see what we can do. Six years later it’s become bigger and greater in scope than I ever dared to dream. We now work across the state with, not only SOU, Southern Oregon University, but the Rogue River Siskiyou National Forest, the Malheur National Forest, the Medford District of the Bureau of Land Management… We also work closely as well with the Oregon Historical Society, the Portland Chinatown Museum and other local heritage organizations. And, I don’t know if I mentioned Oregon State Parks: the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site. So we’re doing all this work across the state and each of these different partners and sites are contributing new information and expanding our understanding of Chinese migrants and Chinese Americans in the state. And there’s room to grow. The more we learn, the more we pull these threads, the more there is to explore and the more questions we have.

Miller: What do you see in the big picture as some of the biggest findings so far from these six years of collaborative work?

Rose: I think it’s just that, when I first came into this, I felt like I had a pretty broad understanding of this. Still, I thought about the main way we would see this history represented in our state was through mining and railroad working. And that is just absolutely not true. Not only were Chinese migrants really involved in the early agricultural industries, the fishing industries, but here in John Day… I’m Zooming in from Grant County right now. We’re working at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site, and this is a site that is an amazing park that a lot of people have come to visit. It’s the intact remains of a business – an apothecary and a business. But what most people don’t know, and what we have discovered over these last few years, is that the John Day Chinatown that once surrounded it was home to a group of Chinese cowboys that lived there in the off season. Then during the season when you do ranching stuff, they would go out to all these different ranches across this area and serve as cooks, as ranch hands, sheep herders. These folks were integral to this early economy that still defines this region. Why did we not know that? It’s so fascinating, this history. And so this kind of ties into this erasure that’s happened over time that we are trying to undo in trying to highlight these really incredible stories.

Miller: Jennifer Fang, that reminds me of the title of the introductory essay that you wrote for the Oregon Historical Quarterly issue that was fully devoted to these histories. You coedited that with Chelsea Rose, and your essay was called ‘Erasure and Reclamation.’ What are the kinds of erasure that you were referring to?

Fang: The way that I see it is that the erasure of Chinese people from Oregon’s history and from the nation’s history kind of happened in two stages. On one hand, you have erasure through legislation, through anti-Chinese legislation – immigration restrictions, these types of things – which significantly shrunk or slowed down the growth of this population but also created this economically politically socially marginalized underclass. Then on top of that, there is this additional erasure that happens through the production and reproduction of historical knowledge – how scholarship about this community or this region has developed. I think that that production and reproduction of knowledge, up until recently, oftentimes either just ignored this population, or it diminished the contributions of these individuals, or it misinterpreted these individuals and their experiences through either a Eurocentric or an Orientalist lens. So that’s the erasure part. The reclamation part, I think is really this work that’s taking place right now that’s really making our understanding of these experiences much more complicated and painting a much more, I think accurate and fuller picture of what this population actually did in these early decades.

Miller: You argue, Jennifer Fang, that Chinese immigrants, Chinese migrants, Chinese Americans, in Oregon pre-statehood and post-statehood – so in the middle and all the way to the end of the 19th century – that they, to a great extent, shaped Oregon’s history. What are some of the things that you point to, to give us a deeper understanding and a fuller understanding of Oregon’s history?


Fang: Right. I mean, on one hand, as Chelsea said, there is this diversity in the type of work that these individuals were performing. You have cowboys, but you also have miners and you have railroad workers and you have businessmen, you have entrepreneurs, you have farmers. So these people are engaged in many aspects of the economic development of Oregon. Then on the other hand, when you look at settlement patterns, [what] the Oregon Chinese Diaspora’s work has illuminated is that there were Chinese people settling across the state. It’s not just concentrated in John Day, in Portland, in Jacksonville. It’s everywhere. And that settlement largely mirrors the settlement of non-Indigenous settlers, white settlers as well. Then the third factor that you need to consider is that the census data tells us that in a lot of these places in the state, Chinese people made up a really significant portion of the overall population. Like in Grant County in 1870, the total population of Grant County comprised of 42% Chinese people. In Jackson County it was 12%, Josephine County it’s 19%. In 1880…

Miller: And you note that – because these were largely men who were working, just because of immigration laws at the time and cultural mores in China, that women really weren’t coming – that the working population was skewed even more to Chinese migrants and Chinese Americans. In some of these places, it may have been more than 50%.

Fang: Yeah, absolutely. What is interesting is that this population is… The gender imbalance is very pronounced, and that does play into, I think, the way that this population maintained connections to China, and it plays into the way that this population grew. But then at the same time, there were women coming, and there were children being born, and there were families forming. So on one hand, yeah, the gender, it is skewed heavily male. But then on the other hand, you do have these other experiences of these other other people.

Miller: Chelsea, I’m curious about one of the technologies that your team has been using over the years: lidar, which has, if I understand correctly, given some insight on big chunks of mining complexes and given archaeologists like you a better understanding for what they were like and what they’re like now. What have you learned from these images?

Rose: Yeah. And not only mining but railroad as well. It’s so cool to be an archaeologist in this day and age with all the tools we have access to. But, like a lot of people might have heard some accounts of, ‘They did lidar of our jungle and got rid of the trees and there’s a bunch of pyramids.’ Well, it’s kind of like that for us, but with mining features. Mining, for archaeologists, it’s kind of hard to record and understand these huge landscape-scale sites because on the ground you just can’t really get a sense of the relationship as well. Now we have lidar, which is light imaging detecting and ranging. It’s basically shooting down a laser from an airplane, and you can erase the above layers, and you can map the actual soil level so perfectly that you can see ditches and reservoirs and all these different features that were associated with mining. We’ve been able to map these huge mining complexes out here in the Middle Fork of the John Day River in Grant County and also down in Southern Oregon in the Rogue River-Siskiyou [National] Forest. And we’re seeing the scale of these enterprises, the skill that went into them and the impact that they had, not only the economic impacts – like we can track how many taxes these very rich miners were paying – but also how these different ditches and stuff helped other miners. There’s a huge way that we can see this larger complexity of these sites. We’ve also used the same technology, but handheld lidar, to scan this partially completed railroad tunnel that was built in 1883 as part of the Oregon and California line. In there we can take this industrial sized, basically, artifact – part of the tunnel – and we can recognize the people in there because we can see the specific drill marks and angles. Those represent human decisions on the ground. So it’s another really exciting way to take the story of railroad construction out of the traditional narrative of the rich white people that built it, to the actual people on the ground that the rich white people paid for, the people on the ground that built it. We can look at that human scale of that undertaking, which is another way we’re using technology to get at these stories.

Miller: Jennifer, one of the articles in that Oregon Historical Quarterly issue focused on these histories, is focused on someone named Buckaroo Sam. Who was he?

Fang: Buckaroo Sam was a cowboy who lived – it’s my understanding that he lived in John Day. He worked on some ranches in that area. We don’t actually know that much about Buckaroo Sam’s life. This history comic that was created in this special issue is kind of this composite biography that encompasses the experiences of a lot of Chinese migrants who were coming to John Day and who were working as cowboys.

Miller: Jennifer, I’m curious if you’ve had conversations with Chinese Americans who are in Oregon now, to get a sense for what this broader conception of the many ways that the Chinese immigrants helped shape Oregon 150 years ago… I’m curious what you’ve heard from people today, some of whom, they or their families immigrated much more recently and some of whom may have connections to people who were here a long time ago. We’re talking about real variations in contemporary experience, too. But I’m curious what you’ve heard from Chinese Americans now about what it means that this history is better understood.

Fang: Yeah. You know, I think one of the most wonderful, and sort of funny, stories that I’ve heard is of a person who runs a Chinese American community organization that’s based in the suburbs of Portland. The members of this group are primarily first generation immigrants and first generation like, I would say, white collar immigrants probably. But he and the organization purchased, I think, hundreds of copies of this special issue when it came out, and he told the folks at Oregon Historical Society that every Chinese person in Oregon should have a copy of this. So, in purchasing all these copies, they are literally distributing this volume to Chinese people around the state, which is just so cool. I think for a lot of people, particularly for new immigrants, they might not see themselves reflected in this state’s past. There is this general sense of the way that we remember pioneers, for instance, in the popular memory. We tend to not think of Chinese people. When we think of pioneers, we tend to think of that person as being white. And this puts Chinese people into the very beginnings of the state. I think for new immigrants, particularly for this one organization, they see that connection. They feel that connection. And that might not have been something that they felt before.

Miller: Chelsea Rose, just briefly, there’s going to be a public archaeology day tomorrow [July 16, 2022] at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site. What will people be able to do there?

Rose: That’s right. From 9 to 3, we’re going to have some archaeological excavation happening. People can see some of the artifacts that have come out of the site over the past week. We’ll have some of our other colleagues from different museums and heritage organizations regionally there. We’ll have a talk from 4 to 6 at the community center in Canyon City, and that will have Sam Roxas-Chua Yao, who is the artist in residence at the Portland Chinatown Museum, talking about the way he has been reacting and experiencing the material culture of Chinese history in Oregon.

Miller: Chelsea Rose and Jennifer Fang, thanks so much for joining us today.

Rose: Thank you.

Fang: Thank you.

Miller: Chelsea Rose is a historical archaeologist at Southern Oregon University, director of the Southern Oregon University Laboratory of Anthropology. Jennifer Fang is director of Interpretation and Community Engagement at Pittock Mansion and a consultant and advisor on this project. As a reminder again, there’s going to be a public archaeology day tomorrow [July 16, 2022] at the Kam Wah Chung State Heritage Site in John Day.

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