Until now, that is.
Mark T. Johnson, a University of Notre Dame professor who lives in Helena, started delving into the stories of some of the Chinese who made the leap to the West when he came across untranslated archives of material at the Montana Historical Society dating from the 1880s to the 1950s.
At the time, Johnson was teaching at a school in Shanghai and had connections to many eager language learners and bilingual readers. Assembling a transnational, multigenerational team, Johnson undertook the supervision of deciphering hundreds of mostly primary documents—typically letters—for English-language audiences.
His book, The Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky: A History of the Chinese Experience in Montana (University of Nebraska Press), details the difficult and sometimes rewarding life of one of our state’s largest classes of immigrants. At one point, Chinese residents accounted for more than a tenth of the state’s population.
Many Montanans know that Chinese labor was instrumental in laying tracks for the railroads on which much of frontier life depended, as well as laundries, restaurants, and other essential services.
On Monday, April 10, Johnson visits the Northwest Montana History Museum to detail his findings and process. He will illuminate the pressures Chinese Montanans felt in their new digs and from their families back home.
Navigating government bureaucracy, frequent racism, and an ever-changing political landscape, Chinese Montanans often advocated for themselves and contributed more than just labor to their communities.
Mark your calendars for a rare glimpse into the lives of many who arrived early in Montana and aided our region’s development.