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During Adams Morgan Day on Sunday, Meeps showed off the latest collection of vintage items in its store window.
However, these items aren’t for sale. In fact, they aren’t even clothes.
Where store owner Cathy Chung normally showcases her latest vintage blouses and pants stands a blue, living room wall covered with vintage photos of Asian American and Pacific Islander families native to the D.C. area. Chung, who immigrated from South Korea when she was 7 years old, teamed up with the 1882 Foundation’s project AAPI in DC to create the display and make a statement.
“It is a very popular window. I keep the lights on 24/7 so we get both daytime and nighttime revelers,” she says. “For me it’s a real point of pride, especially after what happened.”
Chung experienced a hate crime in late July in the doorway of her clothing store. She posted a video of a man to Instagram—who she called “a repeat anti-masker” that exhibited “disrespectful[,] racist[, and] misogynistic” behaviors in the past. While escorting him out of the store, he invaded her personal space, called her an “Asian terrorist” and spit on her before leaving the store. In the post, she said the assault made her feel “terrorized.” It’s part of a larger pattern of hate crimes on the rise in the U.S.
The case is still pending, but it led an organizer of Adams Morgan Day to connect her with AAPI in DC—a partnership of scholars and community leaders dedicated to “ local and national public history and cultural preservation.”
During the festival, a table about AAPI in DC now stood where Chung’s assault took place. Experts handed out flyers and showcased the display of AAPI families in Adams Morgan, Mount Pleasant, and Columbia Heights, turning a racist assault into an opportunity for education.
“That was negative, but it’s just one aspect that’s a very positive outcome that came out of it,” Chung says. “I’m really honored to provide a platform to … add to the AAPI dialogue.”
AAPI in DC is a team of experts started by the 1882 Foundation. It’s named after the Chinese Exclusion Act, which, starting in the namesake year, barred Chinese immigrants from coming to the U.S. and becoming citizens. The foundation helped push legislation through Congress in the early 2010s condemning the laws. Along with national efforts, it raises awareness about the history of AAPI communities in D.C.
“It’s like an intervention on this racist reflex, which is that you see an Asian person and the assumption is they’re foreign. They are new here. They are interlopers, they’re gentrifiers,” says Dr. Sojin Kim, who is a curator for the Smithsonian Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage and an 1882 advisor. She adds that DC’s Chinese American community dates back to the late 1800s.
“Asian Americans have been in D.C. for generations and decades,” she adds. ”Even in a place like Adams Morgan, a small neighborhood, and adjoining communities, there have been Asian Americans making home here… That’s just what we wanted to shine a light on.”
One of the ways they provide that education is by documenting AAPI history through community engagement. They’re actively crowdsourcing firsthand accounts and photos to tell the story of the D.C. community. It also helps with preserving the legacy of D.C.’s buildings, says the executive director of the 1882 Foundation, Ted Gong.
“The idea is to try to find out how can we get as close to the source of where these stories originated,” he says. “Do that in a way to preserve the story, tell the stories, but at the same time preserve that space, right, where the stories occur.”
“That’s why the Meeps exhibit was good for us,” Gong adds. “Mapping out of these spaces is a critical part ultimately of the idea of Asian Americans being invisible. Right, which effects this idea that ‘Are we/are we not part of the American city?’”
Included in the Adams Morgan Day event was an appeal for more stories to help document AAPI history. Anyone with information can submit their stories and AAPI in DC will potentially follow up. Kim says projects like these show that communities “have a stake” in cities like D.C.
“The stake is not just about themselves, but it is about a shared future, a shared involvement, a shared participation in trying to have a city that’s better, and that accepts and can be a place that lots of different people can make a home,” she says.
Meeps owner Chung says the display will stay up until the end of September. Soon to include a slideshow of even more photos from D.C.’s AAPI community. Chung has been a resident in D.C. for almost 20 years and, despite the hate crime she experienced, she feels like she’s part of a strong community with her display window.
“This sort of racism has been going on for a very long time, much longer than I’ve been around. It happens to all of us, even pre-pandemic,” she says. “I’m very honored to lend my voice and show … the very positive side and … elements of the long and rich history within the D.C. community.”
—Bailey Vogt (tips? firstname.lastname@example.org)
This article has been updated to clarify Dr. Kim’s title and to reflect the 1882 Foundation’s national efforts. Additionally, a paraphrase saying the Chinese-American community “helped build D.C. institutions” has been omitted. Dr. Kim says Chinese-Americans were building their own institutions to serve community needs. We regret the error.
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