By Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer Published Nov 08, 2008 at 5:35 AM

If you're a regular reader of OnMilwaukee.com, you know by now that Arcadia Publishing's "Images of America" series of paperback books packed with historical photos has included a number of books about various ethnicities and neighborhoods in and around Milwaukee.

The latest installment is "Chinese Milwaukee" ($19.99), by David B. Holmes and Wenbin Yuan, the co-founders of the Wauwatosa-based Milwaukee Chinese Historical Society.

Although the city is dotted with Chinese restaurants, local government has gone on trade missions to Chine and we were happy to welcome YI Jinlian to the Bucks -- however briefly -- Chinese-Americans in Milwaukee seem to have a pretty low profile.

"I think that there is probably a more vibrant Chinese-American community in Milwaukee today than has existed at any time in the past," says Holmes, explaining that its lack of visibility might be due to the fact that the community, "is also probably more dispersed and better integrated than at any time."

We talked to Holmes about the Milwaukee Chinese Historical Society, about the book, about his co-author and about the Chinese in Milwaukee.

OnMilwaukee.com: Can you tell us a bit about the birth of the book and how you came to be involved?

David Holmes: The original inspiration for the book can probably be traced to an article I read in the Milwaukee newspaper several years ago which described efforts by a group of Milwaukee area businessmen to create a Chinatown District in Milwaukee. The article made me wonder about exactly had been the history of the Chinese community in Milwaukee and how far back did this history go.

Out of curiosity, I spent a few hours researching the Milwaukee Chinese community on the internet, performing Google searches using "Milwaukee" in combination with other key words such as "Chinese," "China," "Chinatown," etc. I was somewhat surprised when this initial research revealed that not only that a Chinese community had existed in Milwaukee for more than 100 years, but that it had apparently been exceptional in several ways.

OMC: How do you hook up with Arcadia, then?

DH: During this initial research, I happened to visit a local bookstore and noticed a series of books published by Arcadia Publishing on various ethnic communities of Milwaukee. It occurred to me that the Chinese community of Milwaukee might be an interesting subject for a similar book. On a whim, I called Arcadia Publishing and requested an informational packet with instructions on how to submit a book proposal.

I recruited, Wenbin Yuan, a long-time friend of mine with an interest in history, to be the coauthor for the book. At this point the real work on the project began. It took us nearly six months to collect enough materials (example photographs, newspaper illustrations, etc.) to complete the proposal, and an additional 18 months to complete the book once we had a contract in place with the publisher.

OMC: How difficult was it to assemble the photos?

DH: I would like to note that there were many people besides Wenbin and I who contributed to the book. There were at least 15 volunteers from the Chinese community who contributed numerous hours researching and writing portions of the book. In addition, there were more than 25 individuals and organizations that donated photographs and other images to be used as illustrations in the book.

The volunteers included Dr. Maurine Huang, who had completed her Ph.D. dissertation in 1988 at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee on a study of the Milwaukee Chinese community titled "Chinese without a Chinatown."

OMC: You and your collaborator on the book are co-founders of the Milwaukee Chinese Historical Society, right?

DH: You are correct in that we are two of the founders of the Milwaukee Chinese Historical Society (MCHS). The MCHS was modeled on a similar organization in Chicago, and was established in anticipation that the publication of the book would likely to spur additional and continuing interest in the history of the Chinese community of Milwaukee.

The Society is somewhat informally organized at present, although we do have a Web site, as well as a display area and office space at the Mercan Chinese Language Institute in the South Bank Tower at Mayfair Mall. Now that the book is published, we hope to work on several projects during the next year, including a Chinese language version of the book as well as English and Chinese language television documentaries on the Milwaukee Chinese community (subject to raising some additional funding). We are looking for volunteers with an interest in Chinese history or Milwaukee Chinese history who would like to play a role in the organization and in these future projects.

OMC: How did you meet?

DH: I have known Wenbin Yuan, my coauthor, for about 15 years. We are both trained as geologists, and working as professionals in the environmental industry. Wenbin came from mainland China to the United States as a student in the mid-1980s and had the opportunity to stay in the United States and to become a citizen. Since moving to the Milwaukee area in the early 1990s, Wenbin has been active in the Chinese community, helping to found or serve as a board member for several Chinese community or professional organizations. He is the President and principal owner of an environmental construction and contracting company named Dakota Intertek Corp.

OMC: Is Milwaukee's Chinese heritage overlooked?

DH: I believe so, and this was definitely one motivating factor in writing the book. When we started the project, an updated edition of prominent local historian John Gurda's book "The Making of Milwaukee" had just been published as well as screening of the four-hour television documentary of the same title. I bought the book and watched the television series expecting to gain some additional insights into the history of the Milwaukee Chinese community, but was disappointed to find barely a single word of mention for the Chinese community.

The neglect of the history of the Milwaukee Chinese community also appears to extend to general studies of Chinese American history. For example, I own three books on the history of Chinese Americans throughout the United States as a whole and have found not a single reference in any of the books to either Chinese in Milwaukee or in Wisconsin.

OMC: It seems that like the Italians in Milwaukee, many Chinese immigrants came, earned some money and went home, barely leaving a trace. Is that true?

DH: That was definitely true for many of the early immigrants, for whom the over-riding motive for migrating to the United States was typically to support and sustain their extended family in China. They generally expected to make occasional trips home to marry and have children, and to eventually return permanently to China to retire in comfort. This was especially true of the Chinese who arrived in Milwaukee prior to 1900.

Interestingly, as far as the early immigrants "barely leaving a trace," this was true even after death as it was the custom prior to mid or late 1940s for a national organization (the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association) to, every 15 years, gather the remains of deceased Chinese throughout the United States and ship the bones back to China for permanent burial. When a grave was exhumed, the inscription on the headstone was cut off and the headstone then used for another Chinese, leaving literally not a trace of even Chinese immigrants who died and were buried in Milwaukee.

The history of these earliest Chinese immigrants to Milwaukee is fascinating and an area where we hope to perform future detailed study.

OMC: You hear a lot about other ethnicities here but maybe not as many people know about the history of the Chinese community here, why is that?

DH: I think there are a number of factors, including the relatively small size of the early community, which likely did not exceed 100 members until the mid or late 1920s. Another factor was that the community was dispersed to a greater degree than in many other American cities and had no "Chinatown" area that might have attracted a greater level of attention by historians. A cultural characteristic that may have been a factor in the past was a preference by many of the earlier generations of Milwaukee Chinese to maintain a low profile and avoid actions that would attract attention to either themselves or to the Chinese community as a whole.

OMC: Is there still a vibrant Chinese-American community in the city or has it dispersed and integrated and been replaced by new immigrants?

DH: I think that there is probably a more vibrant Chinese-American community in Milwaukee today than has existed at any time in the past, although it is also probably more dispersed and better integrated than at any time. Reportedly, the population of the Chinese community of Milwaukee is growing more rapidly than that of many better-known Chinese-American communities such as Chicago or Houston. I don't think that the Chinese community has been displaced by other immigrants as much as supplemented by new types of Chinese immigrants, such as large numbers of immigrants from mainland China after the re-establishment by the Carter Administration in 1979 of diplomatic relations between the United States and China.

OMC: Does the book try to create a comprehensive history of that community?

DH: Yes -- we definitely tried to present a comprehensive history of the Chinese community of Milwaukee from its beginnings in 1874 to the present day. We also did our best to include representation of the various subgroups that exist within the Milwaukee Chinese community. There is significant diversity within the Chinese community, which includes groups with diverse backgrounds, such as those descended from the early immigrants who spoke Cantonese and arrived from South China in the late 19th and early 20th century, later immigrants (many of whom were university educated professionals) who arrived from Taiwan, Southeastern Asian countries and Hong Kong in the 1960s through 1980s, and recent immigrants from mainland China and other parts of southeast Asia (including the Hmong, who are primarily from Laos but whose ancestors immigrated from Southeast China to Laos and other areas in southeast Asia during the late 19th century).

OMC: What are some of your favorite photos in the book?

DH: Some of my favorite photographs were taken of the Toy family during the 1920s. Charlie Toy, who is featured on the cover of the book, was one of the most successful Chinese American businessmen of the early 20th century, and was the patriarch of a large family that are the subject of many photographs in chapters covering the period 1900 to 1949. One of my favorite images of the Toy family is dated 1929 and shows 14 of Charlie Toy's grandchildren and one daughter in their dress cloths and arranged in a line from shortest to tallest in front of the family home on North 29th Street.

The photograph on the cover of the book is also a favorite of mine and shows a farewell dinner given to Charlie Toy in 1946 at Toy's Chinatown Restaurant on the corner of North Third Street and West Wisconsin Avenue. The dinner was given in honor of Toy's planned departure for China where, at age 86, he planned to finally fulfill a long time dream to retire and live out his remaining years in comfort in his home near Canton. The photograph is more meaningful, knowing that an earlier attempt by Toy to retire to China during the mid-1930s had been cut short by the Japanese invasion of China.

After the invasion, Toy had to flee for his life, lost his home and businesses in China, and returned to Milwaukee to wait nearly 10 more years for the end of World War II. Other favorite photographs are of the Toy Building, a six-story Chinese pagoda style building which was constructed in downtown Milwaukee in 1912-1913 and was reported at the time to be the largest and most luxurious Chinese restaurant building in the world (something which is still hard to believe existed in Milwaukee during this early era).

OMC: The book includes some Yi Jianlian photos, was his arrival important to the community here?

DH: I think his arrival generated a lot of excitement and resulted in some increased business opportunities for the Milwaukee Chinese community as a result of Milwaukee becoming one of the better known American cities in China. His arrival was at least partially responsible for the launch of a Chinese language newspaper in Milwaukee (The Milwaukee Chinese Times). I believe that the arrival of Yi Jianlian was symbolic in many ways of the profound changes in the perception of Chinese since the arrival of the first immigrants to Milwaukee.

I found it significant that Yi was actually from the same approximate area of China as most of the early immigrants. While these early immigrants struggled and endured many hardships, occasional hostility, and general anonymity, Yi's arrival was an international news event, and during his stay in Milwaukee he was arguably the most widely known and recognized Milwaukeean in the world. Quite a change to say the least.

OMC: How has his departure affected Milwaukee's Chinese?

DH: I think his departure after only one year was a disappointment, but I think that the excitement over the Beijing Olympics helped somewhat to temper this disappointment. 

Bobby Tanzilo Senior Editor/Writer

Born in Brooklyn, N.Y., where he lived until he was 17, Bobby received his BA-Mass Communications from UWM in 1989 and has lived in Walker's Point, Bay View, Enderis Park, South Milwaukee and on the East Side.

He has published three non-fiction books in Italy – including one about an event in Milwaukee history, which was published in the U.S. in autumn 2010. Four more books, all about Milwaukee, have been published by The History Press.

With his most recent band, The Yell Leaders, Bobby released four LPs and had a songs featured in episodes of TV's "Party of Five" and "Dawson's Creek," and films in Japan, South America and the U.S. The Yell Leaders were named the best unsigned band in their region by VH-1 as part of its Rock Across America 1998 Tour. Most recently, the band contributed tracks to a UK vinyl/CD tribute to the Redskins and collaborated on a track with Italian novelist Enrico Remmert.

He's produced three installments of the "OMCD" series of local music compilations for OnMilwaukee.com and in 2007 produced a CD of Italian music and poetry.

In 2005, he was awarded the City of Asti's (Italy) Journalism Prize for his work focusing on that area.

He can be heard weekly on 88Nine Radio Milwaukee talking about his "Urban Spelunking" series of stories.