Roy Chan, Oakland Community Historian

Roy Chan, Director of the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project speaks to OMCA Connect.

Roy Chan: Using oral history to make Asian immigrant experiences visible
Thursday, June 12, 2014

Oakland Asian Branch Library. Photo by Sophia Hussain.

The Oakland Asian Branch Library is located in the Pacific Renaissance Center, ​a town center of Chinatown. 

It’s 10:15am on a typical weekday and the Asian Branch Library is packed. For many residents of Oakland’s Chinatown, it is a de facto living room: a place to read one of eight Asian-language newspapers in the morning, a place to use the Internet and find out about job opportunities, and a place to interact with neighbors. It is the busiest library branch in Oakland and a Chinatown landmark.

“It’s a library but it's way more than a library, it’s a community center,” said Roy Chan, Director of the Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project. “It represents a lot of the vibrancy you see in Chinatown.”

This year, Chan and Oakland Chinatown Oral History Project aim to collect stories and memories from throughout the library’s 40-year history.

Chan was one of the many people I talked to earlier this year at the Lunar New Year festival hosted by the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. His table was distinctive: using a large satellite image of Chinatown, Chan created a 3D memory map inviting people in the community to write a memory of a particular place and pin it to a building. Since 2008, the map has accumulated over 200 pins, each placed on a building that you can pop up and put your memory inside. There are over twenty memories just of Lincoln School.

Memory Map at the Oakland Asian Branch Library. Photo by Sophia Hussain.

The memory map invites participants to deposit their stories inside of the map.

Detail of Memory Map. Photo by Sophia Hussain.

Chan, a community historian, believes the map supports the idea that places hold deep meaning for people, especially in a cultural ethnic neighborhood like Chinatown where many immigrants plant roots and raise their families. 

“The idea is that we wanted the history of the neighborhood to come from the people that grew up here, that live here, that go to school here. Places in the neighborhood trigger memories for people, whether it’s Silver Dragon restaurant, the Asian Branch Library, or Lincoln School, or the Oakland Asian Cultural Center,” he said.

For Chan, the Oakland Asian Branch library raises happy memories of childhood.

“I grew up going to the first Asian Branch library in the ‘70s, when my mom took me when I was a toddler, and I have very fond memories of reading children’s books while my mom read novels in Chinese,” he said.

Chan emphasizes that what makes the Asian branch library a “rare treasure” is its multi-Asian language collection. This is an important part of the story for the Oral History project, to represent Chinatown as an immigrant community hosting many different Asian cultures.

Photo by Sophia Hussain.

The periodicals section at the Oakland Asian Branch Library. The library’s multi-language collection makes it a hub for Asian language speakers in the East Bay.

The Oral History project has started interviewing past branch staff, including Judy Young, founding manager, and Janet Chung, the current manager, along with others who have helped build the collection.

“Many folks talk about how the Library reminds them of home, whether it is their own homeland or culture,” Chan said. “Many folks for instance check out cookbooks because they want to cook foods that remind them of home.” 

“We interviewed Vera, who’s been on staff for a long time at the Asian Branch Library, and she mentioned that some immigrants, the day after they arrive they come to the library to start a library card.” 

For Chan, the Oral History project is an important step towards making Asian immigrant experiences in Oakland more visible.

Roy Chan at the Oakland Asian Branch Library. Photo by Sophia Hussain.
Transcripts of previous oral history projects can be found in hte library's stacks.

“When we think of oral history we think of the past, but we also want to think of it as living history,” he said. “History informs what will happen.”

Chan points to the example of eminent domain the ‘60s and the displacement of Chinatown residents to make way for the Lake Merritt BART station.

“We don’t want that to happen again,” he said. “We wanted to use oral history as a way to capture input that you might not find at a public hearing, but you would find embedded in the stories of people and how they live in the neighborhood now, not in the past.”

His dream is not for Chinatown to be preserved exactly as it is, but for it to remain a vibrant cultural center and a hub for recent immigrants.

“I think a dream that I have and many people have here is that it’s a place that continues to be that vibrant gateway for new immigrants to connect to each other and to society, and to feel at home the minute they arrive” 

—by Sophia Hussain, OMCA Community Storyteller