Austin Revealed is an oral history project sharing the stories of Austin’s past and present to encourage discussion and thought around the city’s future. In this series of Austin Revealed, Pioneers From the East, we profile three of the first families of Chinese origin to settle in the Austin area – the Sing family, the Wong family and the Lung family. In addition, Austin Revealed takes you inside Austin’s Asian American Resource Center, a community center focusing on celebrating Austin’s unique Asian community.
We sat down with filmmaker Tim Tsai, who partnered with KLRU on the project, to talk about his passion for Asian American history, why it’s important to Austin and why he got involved with this project.
What initially attracted you to this project, and what made you decide to get involved?
As a filmmaker, I’ve always had an interest in exploring Asian American identities as well as an interest in history. When the funding came through for this project, [KLRU] thought of me as a potential partner. I was completely on board. I didn’t know that much about these particular families’ history, but just knowing how long they’ve been here in Austin was already a surprise to me, and I definitely was curious to find out more, to find out what these families’ experiences were like as immigrants. I was very excited to take on this project and to be able to profile these families.
Why do you think it’s important to tell these stories?
I think these stories, particularly minority history, is overlooked. When you look at history textbooks and the curriculum in schools, the non-majority history is often barely mentioned. I bet if you ask Austinites today when the first Asians settled in Austin, they would maybe think since the ‘40s, ‘50s, ‘60s. Not a lot of people know about the earliest Asian immigrants here. Because of the Chinese Exclusion Act (a United States federal law signed in1882 which prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers), the Chinese population here, most of whom came to work on the railroads, that population was not allowed to grow. We were a small minority here. But a few of these families did come here, did decide to make Austin their home, and so their stories are very much visible when you talk about Texas history in general. Texans love their history, but certain parts of it are often overlooked.
What did you learn from this project?
I had kind of assumed when there’s such a small number of Chinese Americans here, I would have thought they would band together and be very close. Some of these families did know each other for multiple generations, but really, these three families we profiled, one of them ran a laundry, the other one ran a restaurant, the other one ran a grocery store. They were in different businesses. They lived in different parts of town. They had to integrate. There was no way they could survive if they just kept to their own community, so they all integrated very well into Austin.
What’s also very fascinating is that all these different families have a different connection to their Chinese ancestry. I thought it was fantastic that the Sing family, they identify as Hispanic today, and they’re very proud of their heritage. The Lung family, today, you cannot really identify them just by looking at them that they’re Chinese American. The Wong family, who looks Chinese because subsequent generations did marry Chinese, but what’s interesting is that Dr. Mitchel Wong, he married a first-generation immigrant from Taiwan. There was a cultural difference there. Being first-generation versus third-generation is a big difference.
I came into it expecting some of these episodes to maybe be repetitive, that their stories may be very similar, but I found the opposite, that their stories are actually very different, very unique. They all had different ways of integrating into this community and making their lives here.
What do you think people should take away from this project?
Asian American history and Chinese American history is very diverse. We have very different stories. These communities are not all homogeneous. Each family has their own story to tell. And their story is important. The story of how Chinese Texans came here and how they’ve contributed to our community here is important to document and remember and celebrate.