Attendees at a Passage to China are encouraged to participate in a survey documenting letters sent to or received from the families of Chinese immigrants from 1850 to 1970.
"Very few archives hold letters that describe the lives of immigrants or their families in China," according to Donna Gabaccia, director of the Immigration History Research Center (IHRC) and Rudolph J. Vecoli Chair in Immigration History at the University of Minnesota.
Many Chinese immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th centuries wrote brief letters to accompany remittances sent to support family members who remained in China, but longer letters with details of American or Chinese life during that time are rare.
The IHRC recently surveyed Minnesota archives and historical societies to learn which institutions hold immigrant letters and is now turning its attention to Chinese letters still held by the families of immigrants.
A survey of existing letters is an important step toward including Chinese-American experiences in the IHRC's Digitizing Immigrant Letters Project and in helping to preserve the precious correspondence held by families. Staff and volunteers of the IHRC will guide letter owners in recording information about correspondence that is vital to future generations.
The Digitizing Immigrant Letters Project currently includes several European languages but aims to add Chinese materials as the first Asian language. The project provides online access to images, translations and transcriptions of selected letters that show the emotional connections among friends and families separated by distance and immigration.
With analysis and translation, the IHRC's online collection provides access by scholars, educators and the general public to materials in languages other than English. The current project includes selected materials from the IHRC’s archival collections, but the Center plans to expand the collection to include letters by community members willing to provide online access to family correspondence from years ago.
“Our vision is to create access to resources for a diverse group of scholars, students and general readers who want to understand and compare migration across traditional scholarly boundaries,” said Dr. Gabaccia.
The ultimate goal of the Digitizing Immigrant Letters project is to expand into a multi-institutional digital archive and to add community letters, thus becoming an international resource to connect university researchers to materials currently only available onsite in repositories in Asia, Europe and other North American historical institutions.