A research team from the San Francisco Bay Area is in town this week working inside The Bakersfield Californian Foundation Research Center at the Kern County Museum.
Their primary task is to digitally identify and scan every document and paper artifact — many going back a century or more — including letters, photographs, legal documents, minutes of meetings, and hundreds of other items related to the historic Chinese community that made Bakersfield its home beginning in the 1870s.
But the PasNow project is bigger than just Bakersfield.
“It involves a number of West Coast museums and the Sun Yay Sen Library in Guangzhou, China,” Museum Director Mike McCoy said in an email.
In addition to the painstaking work, McCoy hosted a dinner Tuesday night at the Rice Bowl for the research team and members of the local Chinese community.
On Tuesday, at the center, several researchers and volunteers worked for hours scanning and identifying paper artifacts of all sorts. The research team was led by historian Anna Eng, a lecturer at UC Berkeley and San Francisco State.
“I think what’s really valuable about digitizing this material is, as researchers and historians right now, we would physically have to come to Bakersfield,” Eng said. “The research facility would have to be open and available to us, a staff member would have to sit with us.
“Once we digitize these materials, these things can be put online,” she said. “Then anyone can access them.”
Once researchers gain a better idea of what is available, then they can make the decision about whether a trip to the physical location is warranted.
“It would make the collections here phenomenally more, exponentially more, accessible,” Eng said.
According to McCoy, Chinese immigrants to America were first based in San Francisco then the gold fields in the late 1840s and 1950s.
They moved to the Central Valley in the 1870s to work on farms and the railroad. Sacramento, Stockton, Modesto, Fresno and Bakersfield had large Chinatowns, he said.
“Those immigrants left journals, letters, store ledgers, secret society (tongs) minutes and their own newspapers,” McCoy said. “We have a stunning collection of these items in our research center.”
David Lei, a retired businessman who has nurtured a decades-long interest in Asian history, said the value he brings to the team is helping them gain access.
“We’re all volunteers here,” Lei said. “This history should be made available to researchers.”
But researching Chinese and Chinese American history can be littered with pitfalls.
Before May 4, 1919, everything was written in classical Chinese, Lei said, noting the difference between classical and colloquial Chinese is similar to the broad gap between Shakespearean and modern English.
And there were two distinct dialects in Cantonese that could be quite different.
But Lei said he believes once these archives are published in China, many more researchers will want access to the Kern County Museum’s archives as well as the archives in other museums the team has visited.
Mary Ng Dooley, a seventh-generation Chinese American who lived for many years in Houston before moving to the Bay Area, said Thomas Jefferson and John Adams were still alive when their ancestors first landed in California, which wouldn’t become a territory of the United States until many years later.
The archives in Bakersfield and many other museums are collected and protected, but they are seldom seen, she said.
By volunteering to assist with the PasNow project, maybe she and the other team members will play a crucial part in bringing this treasury of history and information out into the light.
Reporter Steven Mayer can be reached at 661-395-7353. Follow him on Facebook and on Twitter: @semayerTBC.