Thomas Nast published his political cartoon “Throwing Down the Ladder by Which They Rose” nearly a century and a half ago, in 1870. On the summit of a huge partition, labeled “The ‘Chinese Wall’ Around the United States of America,” angry citizens of European extraction gather to topple a ladder reaching up to them, leaving a handful of pigtailed Chinese people stranded perhaps 20 feet below. A copy of the drawing hangs near the beginning of the exhibition Chinese Americans in New Mexico at the Maxwell Museum of Anthropology on the University of New Mexico campus in Albuquerque, a show that offers historical and sociological insight into a minority population that rarely figures in conversations about our multicultural state. “The attitudes displayed in this cartoon,” reads an accompanying panel, “foreshadow passage of the federal Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.” Right. Yet the image seems so strangely contemporary. As George Santayana famously put it, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Various laws were passed in the late 19th century to prevent Asian immigrants from taking American jobs and ostensibly depressing wages for other workers. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the most far-reaching. Signed by President Chester A. Arthur (who may have been born in Canada), that law was supposed to last only 10 years, but it kept getting extended or incorporated into succeeding legislation, and it remained essentially in force until it was finally repealed in 1943. By the time it went into effect, Chinese workers were already part of the New Mexico scene. Many worked as laborers constructing the Southern Pacific railroad. After that transcontinental line was fully established in 1881, some of the Chinese workers found employment as miners. Others set up businesses such as laundries and ethnic restaurants that didn’t compete with existing Anglo establishments or shops specializing in imported Asian merchandise. Sometimes they met with hostility, as was the case with some Chinese immigrants who hoped to make a real-estate purchase in Deming, according to a story reported by the Deming Headlight. “In 1888, for example,” an exhibition panel explains of the incident, “an Anglo beat two Chinese men with a club for trying to obtain a city lot — and the local newspaper approved of his actions.” 

Nonetheless, the Chinese presence persisted. The Maxwell’s team, headed by Devorah Romanek, its curator of exhibits, has brought together a modest but fascinating assemblage of newspaper clippings, photographs (portraits and town views), and legal documents that testify to the increasingly visible niche the community occupied. A photograph from 1890-95 looks down East San Francisco Street in Santa Fe. The view culminates at the familiar façade of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi, but sharp eyes can make out a shingle marking the Sang Kee laundry, one of the first Chinese establishments in the capital city and a testament to the truism that cleanliness is next to godliness. Other photos document the Chinese presence in other parts of the state, including Kingston and Hillsboro (where mining booms offered good job prospects), Socorro, Las Vegas, Albuquerque, and Deming. A 1902 map of Silver City, produced by the Sanborn Map Company, identifies by profession the businesses in two of the city’s blocks: cobbler, jeweler, gunsmith, and so on — with several other lots labeled just “Chinese.” “Sanborn made these maps for insurance purposes,” Romanek explained to Pasatiempo, “and, as I understand it, the implication was that if the block caught fire, the firefighters wouldn’t need to worry about the places marked ‘Chinese.’ ”

Some of the immigrants flourished. We see an identity document for Sam Kee, wearing traditional Chinese garb in his photo. In 1903, an article in the Albuquerque Citizen said he had arrived in the U.S. about 30 years earlier. He was apparently prospering at his shop on South Second Street in Albuquerque, where he dealt in Chinese and Japanese foods and goods. An adjoining document bears the likeness of his young son, Sam Ho Kee, and guarantees his re-entry to the United States following a period he spent going to school in China, because “the said Sam Ho Kee is a citizen of the United States, having been born in the City of Albuquerque, County of Bernalillo, and Territory of New Mexico.” We catch up with Sam Ho Kee again in 1906; at the age of sixteen, he is graduating from Albuquerque High School as valedictorian of his class of 10 students — an achievement considered so remarkable that it earned national press coverage. From there, he would go on to attend the University of Michigan. 

The exhibition gives a nod to modern times by displaying a number of teapots and cups lent by Albuquerque families. “Throughout my childhood,” said Dr. Siu Wong of the heirlooms she provided for the display, “these tea cups were never used; they were too fragile for everyday life. Instead they were a reminder of my family’s affluent lifestyle prior to the Japanese occupation of China in the late 1930s and early 1940s.” Although these pieces boast neither great antiquity nor exceptional monetary value, they are cherished as testaments to a family heritage that led from a past in distant China to a future in the American Southwest.

As Chinese Americans in New Mexico is a small show, visitors will have plenty of energy left to spend at its much-larger companion exhibition, Earth, Fire, and Life: Six Thousand Years of Chinese Ceramics. The starting point for Earth, Fire, and Life was a collection of some 250 examples of ancient and modern Chinese ceramics amassed by the Albuquerque artist and retired curator Eason Eige and then donated to the Maxwell. These works, about a hundred of which are included in the show, reach back approximately 6,000 years to the Neolithic period, from which we see a set of red earthenware animal effigies. From there, the collection moves through Bronze Age jars and vessels, mingqi (tomb sculptures) from the Han Dynasty, extravagant effigies and more mingqi from the Tang Dynasty, and increasingly elaborate decorated pottery from later dynastic periods. These pieces would make an entirely satisfying exhibition on their own, but the Maxwell has shown creativity by intermixing them with modern ceramic works that draw inspiration from the styles of the historic pieces. The show was curated by David Phillips, the Maxwell’s curator of archaeology, along with Romanek.

Some of the new artworks are overtly political. To create his T.A.M. Square Garniture, Paul Mathieu (who teaches at Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver but has studied extensively in Jingdezhen, China) bought standard “blank” porcelain forms, commissioned a decorator in Jingdezhen to paint them with traditional designs, and superimposed photographic images from the Tiananmen Square protest of 1989. The piece on display, created in 2005, is comforting in the familiarity of its shape and the general flavor of its ornamentation, but this initial impression is countermanded by the iconic photograph of a lone, unarmed protester facing down a pair of tanks. 

Quite a few of these works reflect the current Chinese fascination with international commerce, imported luxury, and foreign brands. The blue-and-white painted ceramic style of the Ming and Qing dynasties is instantly recognizable, but artist Li Lihong gives it a modern spin in his 2007 McDonald’s, Gorilla Coming From the Mountain. Here, the form is that of the ultra-familiar golden arches of hamburger notoriety, overpainted with elegant flowers and fearsome warriors more typical of antique pieces. The work interlocks tensions between art and commerce, as well as between what is specifically Chinese and what is unabashedly globalized. The blue-and-white aesthetic is also put to use by Wan Liya in his Thousands of Kilometers of Landscape, a glazed porcelain assemblage from 2011. The piece comprises 21 separate vessels, all crowded together into a single line. But where historic pieces would adhere to a relatively limited repertoire of jars and pots, Wan Liya’s containers take modern forms: soda can, soap pump, milk carton, Windex sprayer, and so on. A similar displacement inhabits Taikkun Li’s 2009 Blue and White Coca Cola Bottle with Mountainscape. A caption offers his explanation: “The sutra ‘Emptiness is the form, form is the emptiness,’ has been inspiring me to think about handicraft art as my ‘vehicle’ to transcend conceptual art. If I tell you, this work is not handicraft, this is actually John Cage’s body, landscape painting is his ‘chi’ or ‘energy,’ how will you feel? Coke as the 20th century’s most popular beverage is my favorite symbol to express pleasure and optimism, and that’s my salute to Andy Warhol.”

The most imposing example of intercultural commercial fertilization is TemptationLife of Goods No. 2, a 2010 entry in the Eden series of Sin-ying Ho, a Hong Kong native now residing in New York who gives a gallery talk at the museum on Sept. 15. The pot is taller than she is. “The size of the vessel is a reference to the human form,” she writes. “I began treating the surfaces with hand painted cobalt pigment, traditional Chinese Flowers painting integrated with a silhouette of ‘Adam and Eve’ as a reference to Renaissance paintings. Inside the silhouette of ‘Adam and Eve’ are the symbols, signs, charts and language of the free market, tracing complex human traits of greed, materialistic desires, hopes and technological transformations.” Indeed, close inspection of what at first appear to be abstracted decorative red medallions reveals that they are actually brand logos: MasterCard, Starbucks, Chanel, Disney, Nike, and others. She continues: “Referencing my own history being a Hong Kong Chinese in New York, Eden speaks to the potent nature of these cross-cultural intersections and hopes that these collisions bear meaningful fruit.” ◀