Environmental Scan

1) The current state of your topic on the Web:

The place of New York's Chinatown in the collective American memory is curiously slight and skewed. Even most native New Yorkers know very little about the long and melancholic history of Chinatown and its inhabitants. It does not help that it has a surprisingly limited and skewed presence on the Internet. There are a number of possible contributing factors particular to Chinatown. First, Asian American history has generally been overlooked by professional and amateur historians until fairly recently. Secondly, with rare exceptions, the archiving or preservation of historic materials has not been a priority neither for mainstream archivists nor the Chinese American community. Thirdly, the concept of 'Chinatown' has competing connotations, including, especially the marketing-focused concept of a tourist destination rich with dining and shopping opportunities. Finally, a systemic, historic pattern of exotification, stereotyping and objectification of Asian Americans and Asian culture have contributed to a general environment of mystification and obfuscation on a cultural level, which may translate to a lack of interest in Chinatown as a topic of historical inquiry.

Whatever the case may be, a serious researcher has a difficult time finding very many authoritative resources in the first several pages of search results. The overwhelmingly predominant type of resource a researcher encounters are websites related to tourism and dining. A persistent searcher would eventually find, alongside a Wikipedia entry, some brief, amateur histories of Chinatown. Only one 'serious' website is available: the website of the Museum of Chinese in America, the co-sponsor of Digital Chinatown. However, their digital archive is under development and not yet available for public viewing. Clearly, there is a need for more and more varied online and digital resources.

2) The current state of historical research using your materials:

Careful historical research on New York's Chinatown has been limited, especially in relation to work on Chinatowns in California. Partly due to a lack of collections of primary sources, there have only been a few books in recent years. Peter Kwong, for example, has written histories on Chinatown that focus on labor forces undergirding Chinatown's development, particularly between 1930 and 1950 (1979, 2001). A later book also focuses on the later years of the 20th century. Similarly, with the goal of presenting a more nuanced explanation of the political culture of Chinatown, Lin (1998)focuses on globalization's role. Perhaps the one major standout is John K.W. Tchen's history of the political and cultural context of Chinese lives in New York well before the existence of a recognizable Chinatown. Starting from the mid-1800s, Tchen shows that Chinatown emerged as a byproduct of racist discrimination and violence against Chinese immigrants. Not only did stereotypes and fear-mongering lead to the long-lasting Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, but the Chinese were exploited and victimized in countless ways. Living together and creating a self-sufficient economy was, in other words, a survival measure.

3) How have other history websites dealt with the problems inherent in the type of materials that you are using.

The central problem for this collection is a general lack of public access and communication, and Digital Chinatown seeks to address these multiple problems of access and communication inherent to these materials. To do this, Digital Chinatown will approach the access of materials in unconventional, highly interactive and site specific ways. Recognizing the rapidly growing popularity of mobile computing and the exponential growth of mobile-specific applications, Digital Chinatown will create a mobile application that brings archival materials together with GIS technology, smartphone "apps" (applications), and Web 2.0 features. As such, this project represents a relatively new combination of approaches to digital public history, and, as such, has a relatively limited pool of similar examples to draw from. There are, however, a few current projects that share some thematic similarities in part and can be usefully examined.


There are many examples of online resources that incorporate GIS data with archival materials. While historical in nature, the data can be focused on statistics or demographics. An example - albeit at the highest level of comprehensiveness and execution - is an online research tool called Social Explorer (http://www.socialexplorer.com). A subscription service (via Oxford University Press), it contains "data from the entire US Census from 1790 to 2000, all annual updates from the American Community Survey to 2008, original Census tract-level estimates fro 2006 and 2007, the Religious Congregations and Membership Study from 1980 to 2000, and 2002 Carbon Emissions Data from the Vulcan Project." Well designed and easy-to-use, users can quickly navigate across time, space, and demographic categories.

In other sites, GIS is used to enhance traditional functions of teaching historical narratives to students of different levels. In this vein, 'GIS for History' (http://www.gisforhistory.org/), which was funded by the NEH, includes learning materials on social issues alongside demographics enriched maps. The unit on slavery, for example, shows the changes in patterns of slave ownership across the US over many years and provides materials such as eye-witness testimonials and the so-called "Slave Laws." In this way, students are given additional dimensions of learning like broad pattern changes that might otherwise be difficult to impart using only traditional methods.

Web 2.0

As a project based on a dialogic and participatory vision of public history, another goal is to create opportunities for users to participate with the collection. To this end, technologies and strategies that engage users as social beings and encourages them to add secondary, additional text, or to upload their own materials will be explored. Loosely termed 'Web 2.0,' this category of technologies has become increasingly utilized by archives, libraries and museums as a way to encourage dissemination, participation and collective problem-solving (or 'crowdsourcing'), particularly in cases where institutional resources are limited (http://www.dlib.org/dlib/march10/holley/03holley.html). A good example of an institution utilizing social media to expand the audience and relationship connected to its communications is the New York Public Library's YouTube channel (http://www.youtube.com/user/NewYorkPublicLibrary), which brings together video footage of high profile events held at the NYPL. Of course, this is also a good reminder that a given technology may not automatically be effective for all institutions. In this specific case, YouTube works for the NYPL because it hosts an array of events featuring singers, actors, writers and other celebrities (e.g., Lou Reed, Toni Morrison, Patti Smith, and Keith Richards).

Initially a target of suspicion, over the last few years, the use of Web 2.0 tools has become commonplace and examples are ubiquitous. Even the usually cautious National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has implemented a startling range of Web 2.0 tools across its many platforms: blogs, Facebook, flickr, foursquare, HootSuite, IdeaScale, RSS Feeds, Scribd, Twitter, Wikispaces, and YouTube. According to their statement on 'Social Media Strategy,' through the enthusiastic adoption of these social media, NARA hopes to increase collaboration, leadership, initiative, diversity, community and openness. Illustrating the potential of crowdsourcing, the Library of Congress is using Flickr (http://www.flickr.com/photos/library_of_congress), the picture-sharing social network, to encourage and receive inputs from users like facts and other information, which will help enrich the archive.

Mobile Apps

The newest and least common solution is the use of software applications designed for smartphones and other mobile computing devices. As mobile computing devices have become more compact and smartphones have become more sophisticated, there is greater interest in the potential for providing rich user experiences through mobile devices. Once again, even federal agencies have wholeheartedly embraced this technology. As of April 2011, it was reported that at least 31 different federal agencies had their own apps (Lipowicz, 2011, April 08). The Transportation Security Administration (TSA), for example, has an app called MyTSA (http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/mobile/index.shtm), which allows quick answers to pressing questions. The Department of Agriculture has the unfortunately named MyFood-a-pedia (http://apps.usa.gov/myfood-a-pedia/), which provides nutritional information, while the IRS offers IRS2GO, which lets people check on the status of their tax returns. Interestingly, NARA (National) has two mobile apps: an app called 'Today's Document' (http://go.usa.gov/rnm), which presents the user with a different document each day, and a customized Foursquare app that promises to provide enriched experiences for tourists. However, a closer look reveals a much more modest endeavor: when people "check in" (i.e., notify the Foursquare server that they are at a given location) at a small number of specially selected museums and presidential sites, a text containing a link to a website is received.

On the whole, however, the overall impression is that archives and other cultural institutions have just started to understand the potential of mobile apps. Although the Foursquare app does make use of the user's mobility, it doesn't really make significant use of any of the other technical features of a smartphone. In contrast, a few digital historians have begun working on apps that create immersive experiences that features of smartphones like GPS capability in a seamless and automatic way. The city archives of Philadelphia have created a mobile app that works with www.phillyhistory.org, their online digital archive of historic photographs. Not only can a user search for an address or a corner, but there is a feature that automatically searches for images geotagged to the user's positioning (http://cordis.europa.eu/ictresults/index.cfm section=news&tpl=article&BrowsingType=Features&ID=90808).

There are other apps that use still other features of smartphones like the Museum of London's Streetmuseum app (http://www.museumoflondon.org.uk/Resources/app/you-are-here-app/index.html). When you point your smarthpone camera at a tagged location and view it through the screen, the app overlays historical photographs over the real image. Although the aim is solely at engaging tourists, the iTacitus (Intelligent Tourism and Cultural Information Through Ubiquitous Services), with funding provided by the European Union, inserts archival photographs into the 'real' world of the app user and also permits the addition of text, audio and video. Having said all this, it is not clear that either of these 'Augmented Reality' (AR) applications have been fully realized as of yet. Both Streetmuseum and iTacitus seem to have a limited number of demonstrations available. It is not difficult to guess that the perfectly overlaid images are not yet the products of automated software functions and probably required a considerable amount of manual, skilled labor to achieve perfect overlays.

If AR is going to be useful and practical for Digital Chinatown, its features must be more manageable and cost-effective.


Chan, W-H. (2008, March 24). Library of Congress tests Web 2.0 Photo Archive. Accessed on April 15, 2011. Federal Computer Week.

Kwong, P. (2001). Chinatown, NY: Labor and Politics, 1930-1950. New York: New Press .

Kwong, P. (1996). The New Chinatown. New York: Hill and Wang.

Lin, J. (1998). Reconstructing Chinatown: Ethnic Enclave, Global Change. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.

Lipowicz, A. (2011, April 8) Gov 2.0 on the Go. Agencies Hit it Big with Mobile Apps." Accessed on April 15, 2011. Federal Computer Week.

Tchen, J. K.W. (2001). New York before Chinatown: Orientalism and the Shaping of American Culture, 1776-1882. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University Press.

Tchen, J.K.W. (1987). 'New York Chinatown History Project,' History Workshop Journal, 24 (1), 158-161.

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