Through research and storytelling, we will illuminate the lives of the early Chinese immigrants of Ypsilanti as a way to spark dialogue about community and belonging in the past and present. We will begin the exploration with a look at the presence of a Chinese laundry in the 1890s (on the site that Riverside Arts Center occupies now). This business was left in ruins by the Ypsilanti Cyclone of 1893. Who were the five Chinese men who owned the business— and what was life like for them as the city’s only Asians? What happened to them? How does it connect to a broader narrative about early immigration, the Chinese Exclusion Act, and how communities across the country were changing?
We believe that this important story deserves unearthing— and no one else has done it to date. The story of this very small minority in the city of Ypsilanti in the 1890s echoes the history of Asian immigrants in small towns across the midwest. At the same time, understanding our city’s past provides essential (and overlooked) context for today’s anti-immigration policies, xenophobia, and anti-Asian racism.
This project, a collaboration between two Ypsilanti neighbors — a historian/educator and a writer/designer— will bring the story alive for the community through the creation of a zine — a handcrafted magazine — a rich and visual story, layered with original sources that have not been previously curated or contextualized—photos, maps and newspaper articles. The zine will provide a tactile and tangible experience for readers of all ages, in Washtenaw County and beyond.
Funded by Ann Arbor, MI (August 2021)