Yoland Skeete Research Files on Newark Chinatown

Newark014Date Range: 19992009
Survey Conducted: Fri, 2011-05-06
Creator: Sumei Multidisciplinary Center

History: Founded in 1993 by a group of artists, musicians, and writers, the Sumei Multidisciplinary Arts Center (permanently closed as of 2021) aims to support emerging and established artists through exhibitions, lectures, seminars, workshops, and residencies. Sumei serves as a platform for artists around the world to connect with communities in Newark, and provides educational programming and art workshops for elementary to college age youth throughout the area. The organization aims to be a space for community building and engagement through art, writing, video, and performance.

The organization’s first exhibit, “Havana/Newark,” exposed its audiences to the work of Cuban artists living in Havana and sought to foster discussion between Cuban and Cuban American artists. Now an annual exhibition, “Havana/Newark”, is accompanied with a lecture and meeting series. Sumei takes a similar approach with its African Art initiative, organizing panel discussions as well as music and dance performances to celebrate an annual exhibition. Established in 1999, Sumei’s Print Biennial “presents the works of master printers and emerging print artists printing in the traditional style.” All of these initiatives include materials from Sumei’s permanent collections. Of most relevance to the Asian/Pacific/American archives survey project, is Sumei’s Newark Chinatown History project. After noticing the faded Chinese name “Leong On” inscribed on a building’s cement facade in her jewelry district neighborhood, Yoland Skeete, one of the founders of Sumei, began investigating the history of the area. She discovered that Newark had once had a thriving Chinatown (at its peak, there were 3,000 residents), and embarked on an ambitious archival and archaeological research project to recover the largely forgotten history of the neighborhood and the people who once lived there.

She began what came to be called the Newark Chinatown History project by visiting local Newark churches, which were hesitant to grant her access to their records. She visited Newark’s public libraries and the National Archives and Records Administration next, where she was able to compile and examine house deed records to create a profile of the area’s population. As she discovered documents relating to Newark’s Chinatown, she xeroxed or photographed them and began to build a collection. It was at the New Jersey Historical Society that Yoland came upon a report about the Chinese community in nearby Bellville, New Jersey, whose members began moving to Newark in 1857. Betty Lee Sung’s work on Chinese American East Coast history and an archival database that Sung created to keep track of related primary sources and archival records at the National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) in New York, were also incredibly valuable to Yoland’s process. As she identified materials relating to the Chinese Exclusion, Yoland made copies of all the documents that mentioned Newark.

When the building of Newark’s Prudential Center threatened to destroy the jewelry district, Yoland spearheaded an archeological dig of the area. She had heard that in the 19th century, Chinatown residents had constructed a series of underground tunnels to escape the police opium and immigration raids and wanted to recover some of their artifacts before they were destroyed. What began as a dig in her back yard led Yoland to the basements and yards of other homes that were slated for demolition. She found privies and other objects from Newark’s Chinatown, some of which are included in the collection. Yoland also wanted to collect oral histories of former residents and their descendants. She scoured newspapers for family names, and her friend Robert Lee, founding director of the Asian American Arts Centre, who was born in Newark, connected her with some of the area’s families. During these interviews, Yoland heard about the discrimination the early Chinese migrants faced in schools and churches, and learnt about the institutions they created to serve their own community. By the 1950s, Newark’s Chinatown community had dispersed, and many families moved into New Jersey’s suburbs.

The Newark Chinatown History project was funded by the New Jersey Performing Arts Center – Mellon Fund, New Jersey Council on the Humanities, and Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation. Since building the collection, Sumei has organized various programming efforts including lectures, exhibits, and reunions of Newark Chinatown residents to raise awareness about these valuable materials.

Sources: Skeete, Yoland. 2010. Interview by Amita Manghnani and Nancy Ng Tam. Newark, NJ, April, 27.

Sumei Multidisciplinary Arts Center. “About Us,” Sumei Arts.

Summary: The Newark Chinatown History collection of Yoland Skeete totals 9.5 linear feet. The collection encompasses historical research materials, photographic compilations, oral history documentation and artifacts. All items within the collection reflect Skeete’s extensive effort to reconstruct the history of a once thriving Chinatown community that existed in Newark from the 1870’s – 1970’s.

A significant portion of the collection comprises of individual immigrant files from the Chinese Exclusion Era obtained from research conducted at the National Archives, measuring 3 linear feet. Organized alphabetically by last names, these files contain immigrant interrogations of over 100 merchants and working professionals in the Newark area from the early 1900’s to 1930’s. Some files also have copies of birth certificates and resident certificates. These files can provide important research threads for tracking store locations, business operations, familial growth and development during the Chinese Exclusion Era. Skeete retrieved all of the immigrant files from a list generated by Professor Betty Lee Sung and her students, a copy of which is included in the collection.

Similarly large is a photographic collection of Chinatown residents in the 1920’s – 1960’s, measuring 3 linear feet, majority of which are organized in large 3-ring binders (4” wide and 11.5” in height). As these images come primarily from family collections, Skeete was granted permission to re-document the images with professional photographic equipment. Of the photographic collection, a handful are original photographs. Majority of these photos are of Chinatown residents in their own homes, restaurants or landmarks in Newark Chinatown. About 1.5 binder’s worth of photographs are Skeete’s original photography of streetscapes prior to the demolition of Newark Chinatown. This includes the main thoroughfare of Mulberry Street, the Mulberry Arcade and other primary streets of Newark Chinatown, such as Lafayette, Green and Columbia Street. Most recent photos are of former Chinatown residents at Newark Chinatown reunions in 2003, 2005 and 2006.

Additional research materials, measuring a total of 1.5 linear feet, consist of Skeete’s scholarly research in reconstructing the history of Newark Chinatown and Chinese American history in New Jersey. These include copies of rare master thesis papers and articles that are not widely disseminated or easily accessible to the public. (Of importance amongst the compiled articles are: a Columbia University Master’s thesis from 1924, and Eric Heacock’s ‘Lost Chinatown of Newark.’) Part of the collection also includes scholarly notes and outlines recorded during Skeete’s research process, drafts of Newark Chinatown’s historical timelines constructed from various sources and rough drafts of Skeete’s book, ‘When Newark Had A Chinatown.’ The research collection also includes copies of maps, census data of Newark, directories of Chinese laundries and restaurants all obtained from Newark Public Library. About .5 linear feet of research material pertain to the founding history of Newark, with a focus on the Baldwin and Seymour family as well as the Chinese Laundry in Belleville, New Jersey. Many materials in these files are copies of original documents from university archives and churches. Approximately .3 linear feet are personal files of Chinatown residents that are a mixture of original and scanned documents, such as wedding certificates, funeral pamphlets, food rationing tickets, family genealogical trees and deeds certifying Chinese ownership of buildings in Chinatown (in particular, the Mulberry Arcade). Of significant research importance are 2 full binders of newspaper articles from 1869-1960, extracted from local papers such as the Newark Evening News, Newark Daily Advertiser and New York Times. Organized by year, these articles provide a chronological history of events pertaining to the Chinese community in the Newark area and local vicinity. The articles are copies from microfiche research at New York Public Library. The articles, totaling in .75 linear feet, are accompanied by a master index of articles produced by Skeete.

Audio and visual media files measure 1.5 linear feet and consist of oral history documentation of former Chinatown residents from 2001-2011. Formats in which these were recorded: audio cassette tapes, mini-cassette tapes, DAT tapes, VHS tapes, DVCam tapes and Hi 8 Videotapes. .4 linear feet of the media files are in cassette tape form, the content consisting of Chinatown residents sharing personal histories as restaurant owners, grocery shop keepers and relationships with family members who settled and worked in Newark’s Chinatown. Majority of the cassette tapes are one-to one interviews, while a small amount are interviews conducted in a group setting. Approximately .6 linear feet of material are visual media files, which documents public lectures on Newark Chinatown and oral history interviews with former Newark Chinatown residents. Accompanying these files are 5 written transcriptions of the oral history interviews conducted in 2000 – 2002. In both binder and folder formats, these transcripts total approximately .3 linear feet. There are also rough drafts of oral history transcripts.

Total Size: 9.5 linear feet
APA-related Size: 9.5 linear feet
Languages of materials: English, Chinese, and Cantonese
Arrangement: other
Location: Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University
Bibliographic Control: finding aid
Finding Aid Link: http://dlib.nyu.edu/findingaids/html/tamwag/tam_614/
Conditions Governing Access: Contact repository for detailed information on conditions governing access.

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