By Emily Dodi

A beautiful 19th-century Rose Medallion tea set sits under glass, as carefully protected now as it must have been when Sing Hing and his family carried it from China to Santa Paula more than a hundred years ago. They went to work for the Nathan Weston Blanchard family and traded the tea set in exchange for housing. A photograph shows the Hing family wearing traditional Chinese dress, seemingly on the cusp between their old lives and their new lives in the great unknown of America.

The display sets the tone for I Want the Wide American Earth, a traveling Smithsonian exhibit that will be at the Museum of Ventura County until August 28. The exhibit chronicles the vast and varied history of Americans with ancestral roots in East Asia, South Asia, Southeast Asia, the Pacific Islands and Polynesia. It also tells a deeply personal story of Ventura County. Artwork and artifacts from local artists and families breathe life into the Smithsonian’s 30 8-foot banners documenting major events in the Asian Pacific American experience.

A large-scale installation by Tiger Huang — nearly 2 miles of calligraphy-inscribed rice paper sculpted into the shape of a wave — was on display at the exhibit’s opening ceremony. At 2,500 square feet, it was too big for the museum’s galleries, so it was shown for one night only in the museum’s pavilion.

Four Seasons Portraits and several other works by local artist and former Ventura College art teacher, Hiroko Yoshimoto, are included in the exhibit. So are a few of Yoshimoto’s family heirlooms, including a 20th-century Japanese quiver. Featured works by Katherine Chang Liu include paintings from her Paper Window Series. Artists Virgil Cardinez and BiJian Fan are also represented, as is Cornelis Botke, whose watercolor of the Point Mugu Fish Camp celebrates the bygone hotspot founded by Frank Kubota.

Many different chapters in the Asian Pacific American experience are captured by the personal belongings in the exhibit. Some are heartbreaking, like the suitcases the Inoshita family carried with them to the Gila River Internment Camp. Others are joyful, like the photographs of Mari Holden, one of the most decorated female cyclists in U.S. history. Some tell the story of a community in transition, like the photographs and mementoes belonging to the late William D. Soo Hoo and his family. Elected mayor of Oxnard in 1966, just 23 years after the Chinese Exclusion Acts were repealed, Soo Hoo was the first mayor of Asian descent in California.

Meanwhile, the banners from the Smithsonian document the larger scope of Asian Pacific American history. Curator and Smithsonian Asian Pacific American Center Initiative coordinator Lawrence-Ming Bùi Davis describes them as “a moving, dramatic and evocative narrative of Asian Pacific American history and culture.” The narrative reaches as far back as the 15th century, when the preoccupation with Asia spurred Christopher Columbus to search for a trade route to the East. Other major events include the building of the Transcontinental Railroad, fighting in the American Civil War, planting crops in California and the Asian Pacific civil rights movement.

Bùi Davis emphasizes that the banners portray only one version of the Asian Pacific American story. There are countless stories, influenced by myriad cultures, histories and experiences. He says, however, “They all wanted the same thing: the promise of America.” Hence the title of the exhibit. Taken from the poem by Filipino American writer Carlos Bulosan, I Want the Wide American Earth evokes the courage, dreams and determination of Asian Pacific immigrants and the powerful impact they’ve had in shaping the destiny of their adopted country.

Accompanying the exhibit is a free mobile tour app (available on iTunes) that includes interviews with prominent Asian Pacific Americans like author Maxine Hong Kingston, activist Deepa Iyer, and retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba. Also worth looking at is the I Want the Wide American Earth e-comic, featuring the work of Jef Castro, Ming Doyle, Yasmin Liang, Krishna Sadasivam and others. 

I Want the Wide American Earth will be shown through August 28 at the Museum of Ventura County, 100 E. Main St., Ventura. For museum information, call 653-0323 or visit venturamuseum.org. For exhibit information, visit www.sites.si.edu/exhibitions/exhibits/asianPacificAmericans/.