Stanford student exhibit reveals a legacy of Chinese-American engagement

Bright Zhou
Bright Zhou (Image credit: L. A. Cicero)

Thousands of Chinese immigrant workers helped to build Leland Stanford’s Central Pacific Railroad and the wealth that became Stanford University. Still more worked throughout the West as cooks, caretakers and groundskeepers.

Leland and Jane Stanford employed scores of Chinese domestic workers on their several properties, including their Palo Alto farm. The Palo Alto workers lived on the grounds, first as employees of the Stanfords’ farm, then of their new university.

These workers left artifacts, stories and a legacy of Chinese-American engagement and stewardship that continues to instruct and to inspire, said BRIGHT ZHOU, ’16, curator of a small exhibit at the Stanford Archaeology Center that displays the Stanford workers’ artifacts for the first time.

“It’s a history that still lives today,” said Zhou, curator of Chinese American at Stanford: A Reflexive Archaeology. Created under the direction of CHRISTINA HODGE, academic curator and collections manager of the Stanford University Archaeology Collections, it is on display with other student exhibits through May 15, 2017.

“At first, Chinese-Americans came to Stanford as cooks and gardeners,” Zhou said. “Today, they’re here as students and faculty, as athletes, artists and activists.

“But all of them, past and present, are caretakers of the Stanford legacy.”

Curating a thoughtful exhibit is just one opportunity that Stanford’s interdisciplinary Archaeology Center offers students like Zhou, an archaeology major whose exhibit was a capstone project. Majors and others do fieldwork across the globe, from Mauritius to Peru, as well as at sites on the 8,100-acre Stanford campus under the auspices of Heritage Services. They also conduct research in Stanford’s archaeology collections. In looking through the world through the lens of material culture, Stanford students create new interpretations of that world and their place in it.

Zhou said his exhibit invites viewers of all backgrounds to see the humanity behind the humble workers’ artifacts, and to draw connections between past generations and today.

Read the full story on the Stanford 125 website.