“Hidden in the Documents:” Reconstructing the Story of the Hum Family
Student Madison Boll’s film on the process of translation used to tell the story of Wing Hong Hum
Helena Independent Record’s “Project Aims to Bring Stories of Chinese in Montana to Light“
As part of an on-going collaborative research relationship between Concordia and the Montana Historical Society (MHS), Concordia researchers have uncovered and worked to translate large collections of documents from Montana’s historic Chinese community. At the end of the 19th century, Montana had several large Chinese communities, with the residents working as miners, building the railroads, and running restaurants and laundries. Much is known about the Chinese in the American West, however, most studies have been conducted through English-language only sources. The discovery of the large cache of never before translated documents, all in Chinese, presents an exciting opportunity to add a significant contribution to the broader understanding of the Chinese experience in America. While the documents are known by the research staff at the Montana Historical Society, the language barrier has prevented a thorough understanding of the collection’s contents. Montana’s State Archivist Jodie Foley commented “What would be fascinating for us is to learn what cultural discussions may have taken place between the two brothers. By interpreting the letters, we might learn about the individual family history and that could be contrasted with other ethnic groups.” This project continues Concordia’s unique contribution to the historic record by emphasizing researching Chinese language source.
The next phase of this collaboration is underway with a community-wide effort to research a large collection of letters detailing the ordeals of the Hum family. The eldest brother, Wing Hong Hum, having made it to Montana in the early 1930s, worked to support family members and facilitate the family’s reunion safe in America. However, due to the chaos engulfing China in the 1930s and 1940s, the younger brother, Wing Goon Hum becomes stranded in Hong Kong. His repeated attempts to secure proper paperwork to enter the U.S. were unsuccessful. With the context of radical political changes in China and the growing fear of communist infiltration influencing American immigration officials, the Hum family struggled to navigate constantly changing immigration policies. The collection documents Wing Hong Hum’s desperate attempts to advocate for his brother’s case.
Concordia community volunteers translated documents. One of the most exciting aspects of the project is the cross-generational, and multidisciplinary approach, with students working with parents and grandparents to use their language abilities to help tell the story. After the letters have been translated, students then apply historical thinking skills to interpret primary and secondary sources that deepen our understanding of the context and significance of the collection.
In addition to the Shanghai-based translation team, a team of student researchers also traveled to Montana, working in residence at the Montana Historical Society to digitize the letters and research the broader context of the collection.
Concordia students and alumni who worked on these many projects found their work challenging, yet rewarding. Madeline Crispell, current History major at George Washington University, commented that “It is exceedingly rare to be in school and doing this kind of research. I feel very lucky to part of a project where I’m doing hands-on work to tell a story I actually care about.” Madison Boll, who created several documentary films about the various projects commented, “I widened my skills as a filmmaker by taking on such an enormous challenge. The story was hidden in the documents and it was our job to discover it.”
The project has two very important goals. Initially, through the first-ever thorough translation and interpretation of the extensive Wing Hong Hum Papers, we seek to add to the historic record a more complete understanding of the issues facing Chinese-American communities during the tumultuous period of the mid-twentieth century. Next, students gain authentic application of historical thinking skills while gaining field experience and building upon this rare research opportunity.
See the excerpts below for samples from the letters.
Brother Wing Hong,
. . . Nowadays, the war is intensifying. The fighting has reached Ongyuan, near Lechang. The north of Guangdong is now a battlefield. Communist troops have reached Yingde county and intend to cut off the Guangdong-Wuhan railway. From this, Guangzhou, Lechang, and Shaoguan are soon to lose infrastructure. You see the situation is so desperate! If you don’t fear theft, then you fear the draft. For example, now in Guangzhou, they are drafting “piglet soldiers” (child soldiers)—it’s insane! . . .
Sincerely, Younger brother, Yinxuan, Sept. 15, 1949
Dear Brother Wing Hong,
. . . Please send the passport to me once the procedures have been finished, so that I can go to America as soon as possible. The political situation of our country is very uncertain. It would be better to take action as quickly as possible to avoid any unpredictable changes.
Sincerely, brother Wing Goon, Oct. 20, 1949
Brother Wing Hong,
We have received your letter from America. We are all happy with your job mining. Under these circumstances working, though, one has to be very careful. Is your health good? We send you our best wishes. Has Uncle Guangyan in New York found work? We are worried because of his family’s burden.
Liberated China is very different from before. Now, life is still difficult, but everything compared to before is improving progressively. We are assured of the transformation to come in the next few years. Have you heard news from the motherland in America? . . .
Younger brother, June 20, 1950
Dear Brother Wing Hong:
After the Hong Kong Ministry transferred my application to the Department of State for further processing, my application was, unfortunately, rejected. I learned that my trip to America was actually approved by the Department of State but it was then discarded due to the corruption within the government. I also have heard nothing back from the Hong Kong ministry. I have again sent my documents to the Department of State, and I hope you could help me with your connections in America . . . the influence of Chinese lawyers and western lawyers must be different, especially in my case with the Department of State. I beg you to find a powerful and renowned westerner, and ask him to be the guarantor of my documents. . . I am in a dire situation in Hong Kong. My present chance is slim. I wish you could help me, brother. . . .
August 10, Respectfully yours, Wing Goon
Download the above podcast: Immigration and Exclusion
Download the above podcast: History 2.0