Kalispell Museum Hosting Author of Book on Chinese Experience in Montana

Mark Johnson’s talk at the Northwest Montana History Museum is scheduled to begin at 6 p.m. on Monday, April 10

By Mike Kordenbrock
A certificate of residence for Mar You. Courtesy Northwest Montana History Museum.

Monday, April 10, the Northwest Montana History Museum in Kalispell will host a talk by historian and author Mark T. Johnson about the Chinese experience in Montana.

Johnson, a University of Notre Dame professor who lives in Helena and grew up in Great Falls, is the author of the 2022 history book “Middle Kingdom under the Big Sky: The Chinese Experience in Montana.”

The book’s temporal focus is on the 1880s through the 1950s, and came together with the help of a multigenerational, international team of 60 Chinese-language translators, who helped translate some primary documents into English for the first time.

Northwest Montana History Museum Executive Director Margaret E. Davis is an expert in bookbinding, something she studied in China in the 1990s, owing to the country’s critical role in the history of publishing. In the decades since, Davis, a Mandarin speaker, said she has been a regular visitor to China every two to three years, but has been unable to go back in recent years due to travel restrictions.

Davis credited her predecessor, former executive director Jacob Thomas, for setting up the event with Johnson, and said she’s excited for the discussion.

“I really appreciate the feeling I get that he takes a humanistic view to it, that we all came from somewhere else,” Davis said of Johnson’s book.

She said the book is insightful in depicting the lives of people who at one point made up between 10% and 15% of the population in Montana when it was still a territory, and were important in the labor force and community life, including railroad construction.

“I really feel like the Chinese were perennially undercounted, and underappreciated. That’s a really cool part of this book, is that Johnson’s able to delve deeper,” Davis said, adding that some of the newly translated material shows the pressures and experiences faced by not only Chinese Montanans, but in some cases through the letters they collected, the experiences of their family members elsewhere in the world.

She said that the event with Johnson will be not only educational, but it’ll be a chance for the historian to gather and glean information from the community. Davis said she’s been in contact with Johnson about various aspects of Kalispell’s Chinese history, and that the historian has been eager to see a certificate of residence the museum has from former Chinese Columbia Falls resident Mar You that was issued in the early 20th century.

Davis said that Johnson told her he has only been able to view one other such certificate. It is a historical document associated with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882’s extension, the Geary Act, which was made permanent in 1902, and threatened Chinese residents with deportation if they failed to register and obtain a certificate of residence.

Calling the document heartbreaking, Davis described the story told in its creases.

“Every seam of this document has been taped over, because it was unfolded and folded over so many times over the years.”

Mark Johnson’s talk at the Northwest Montana History Museum is scheduled to go from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. on Monday, April 10. After the talk concludes, the museum will remain open for refreshments and additional conversation. More information on Johnson’s book and Montana’s Chinese history can be found at https://www.bigskychinese.com.

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