Behind The Scenes

The Celestials: An Interview with Author Karen Shepard

A factory owner’s wife ignites a scandalous love affair with a Chinese worker in Karen Shepard’s newest novel, The Celestials. A bi-racial love child follows. In conjunction with the New-York Historical Society’s ongoing exhibition Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion, we sat down with Chinese-American author Karen Shepard who teaches writing and literature at Williams College to discuss her work of historical fiction, her source of inspiration, and the lives of her characters. She sets the scene for her oeuvre in a 19th-century Massachusetts industrial city amid a divisive union labor strike. Scores of Chinese strikebreakers arrive to fill the emptied assembly line at a local shoe manufacturer. But their entrance does more than maintaining the status quo.

Jake Lee, Laborers Working on Central Pacific Railroad, ca. 1950s. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA). © Chinese Historical Society of America.

During the 19th century, Chinese immigrants became a crucial source of labor on both American coasts. This watercolor is featured in our ongoing exhibition on the subject, Chinese-American: Exclusion/InclusionJake Lee, Laborers Working on Central Pacific Railroad, ca. 1950s. Watercolor on paper. Courtesy of Chinese Historical Society of America (CHSA). © Chinese Historical Society of America.

Who are the Celestials? How can a contemporary audience relate to your 19th-century characters?

The Chinese in America in the 19th century were often referred to as Celestials. One of the translations of the word for “China” was “The Celestial Empire,” thus, “the Celestials,” but there was also the sense that these people were so foreign, so alien, it was as if they were literally other-worldly.  I was interested in how a word like that lumps a whole bunch of individuals together in a way that prevents them from being distinct, that allows their “viewers” to see them as one mass of something very, very different from anything we may have felt comfortable with.

Yes, the book is set in the 19th century, but the emotional desires and needs of any of us flawed humans don’t change all that much, I think. And, more specifically, I was struck, when working on the book, how many of the issues that were relevant then are relevant now: immigration, labor, interracial relations, etc.

Barry Goldstein

A photograph of the author by Barry Goldstein

Where did you first get the idea for this book?

I knew a little about the Chinese living as strikebreakers in North Adams, Massachusetts, but I didn’t know details until I went to a lecture by Anthony W. Lee, an art historian at Mt. Holyoke, who has a non-fiction book on the photograph of the workers that was taken when they first arrived in North Adams.  I didn’t go with the idea of writing a novel in mind, as evidenced by the fact that I didn’t have anything to take notes with in my bag. Lee showed slides of the photographs that the workers took of themselves, and they were really intriguing to me—a window into what these workers wanted, how they wanted to appear to the world, and to themselves. I came home from the lecture and did a couple of years of reading before admitting to myself that I wanted to write a novel based on the event.

The Celestials is a work of historical fiction, so where does the history end and the fiction begin? How do you straddle these two worlds in your text?

For me—and this might be different from project to project—I had to read enough of the history, the facts— to feel confident about making stuff up. I had to feel that I knew how people heated their homes, what time they went to church, what they ate for supper— so that I could imagine their interior emotional lives, and so that I could imagine exterior events that may not have happened, but could have happened. I think of the novel as an alternate universe, an alternate story of the factual event.

Do the struggles immigrants face today differ from those of the Celestials?

I would imagine the answer to this is yes and no. But I would also imagine that today’s immigrants are struggling with many of the same questions that Charlie Sing and the other workers were struggling with when they arrived in North Adams all those years ago: who will I be here in this new and alien place? How will I reinvent myself? What will that reinvention cost me? As many writers have said before me, fiction writers are interested in what their characters want and what they’re willing to do to get it—character and plot.


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“How Long, Not Long:” Celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day

Today the New-York Historical Society’s newest exhibit, Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein opens to the public just in time for Martin Luther King, Jr. Day on Monday, January 19. This exhibition features 46 stunning black and white and color photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March. In 1965, the photographer was a Physics major at City College who, on a whim, headed south to cover the protest for his school’s newspaper. But his images go beyond a comprehensive chronology of the march; they capture its soul, highlighting the people behind it.

Stephen Somerstein, young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer.

Stephen Somerstein, young civil rights marchers with American flags march in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer.

During the five-day, 54-mile demonstration, tens of thousands of Americans risked their lives to fight for their right to vote. They remained peaceful in the face of horrific violence—residents, as well as local and state police turned out in droves to physically stop protesters. Somerstein arrived on the last day of the five-day demonstration: March 25, 1965, to capture King’s famous speech on the steps of the Alabama State Capitol Building at Montgomery, “How Long, Not Long.” The photographer gained access to King—hopping on stage to snap the iconic shot of a King’s blurred silhouette before a sea of protesters listening intently to his words.

Somerstein photographing King from the CBS News Archives.

Somerstein photographing King from the CBS News Archives

In recent months, the image has even inspired the movie poster for Selma, a historical drama about the civil rights march.

Stephen Somerstein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

Stephen Somerstein, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Looks out at crowd in Montgomery, 1965. Courtesy of the photographer

The film’s poster similarly features King’s back, but the demonstrators in the foreground have been replaced by the march’s opposition: an all-white police force. While the movie focuses on the leader behind the protest, Somerstein’s images emphasize the people driving it. “Somerstein turned on his camera not only to the people marching but also to the people sitting quietly on the side of the road or on their porches watching history being made,” explained the exhibit’s curator Marilyn Kushner. So how are you celebrating Martin Luther King, Jr. Day? Come check out the people behind the protest in Freedom Journey 1965: Photographs of the Selma to Montgomery March by Stephen Somerstein.



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New Year’s Day Isn’t January 1st for Everyone: Celebrating Chinese New Year

This post was written by Chennie Huang

Traditionally, Chinese New Year (known as “Lunar New Year” in other Asian countries) is celebrated during the second new moon after the winter solstice.  This year Chinese New Year is on February 19, beginning the Year of the Sheep. Going by the lunar calendar, each month begins on the darkest day, and New Year starts on the first day of the month lasting until the 15th when the moon is brightest. According to a legend, in ancient times Buddha asked all the animals to meet him on Chinese New Year and named a year after each of the twelve animals that came.


The Dragon’s Head, La Fiesta, Los Angeles, California, 1903. Courtesy of the California History Room, California State Library, Sacramento, California.

In the 1880s, a large community of Chinese residents in prosperous Marysville, California acquired an expensive, ceremonial dragon from China. The majestic “Moo Lung” (meaning dancing dragon) graced holiday festivities and civic parades in Marysville and other cities across the nation. Housed at the Bok Kai Temple, a historic Taoist temple in Marysville, the New-York Historical Society arranged for this magnificent piece to be restored. As part of the current exhibition, Chinese American: Exclusion / Inclusion (on view untilApril 19, 2015), visitors have the rare chance to get a close glimpse of this precious work of art and piece of  Chinese American history.

Early Chinese immigrants arrived in the United States during the 19th century, many without their families. For the New Year, they found community and solace through neighborhood associations instead. For years, Chinese American communities across the nation put on parades, often including a dragon dance. The dragon is animated by a team of dancers who mimic the movements of the dragon’s sinuous and undulating manner. The appearance of a dragon is both frightening and bold, but it is said to have a benevolent disposition. A Chinese New Year Parade takes place annually in New York’s Chinatowns. The festivities involve huge street parties, tantalizing treats, and performances for people of all ages to welcome the new year.

But you can certainly celebrate Chinese-American culture any time of year. OnJanuary 10 at 7pm, join us here at the New-York Historical Society for “From China to America,” a musical journey with renowned composer/conductor Tan Dun and guests.

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Sly Santas and Toy Trains: Two Centuries of Holiday Celebrations at New-York Historical

Despite busy schedules, throngs of tourists and cold temperatures, you would be hard-pressed to find a New Yorker who doesn’t find joy in holiday traditions. How would we know it was December without the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree, store windows on Fifth Avenue, street vendors selling chestnuts, and nostalgic subway trains and toy train exhibitions? Thousands have already visited our Holiday Express exhibition this season, and we look forward to sharing these newly-acquired toys and trains from the golden age of toy-making as an annual tradition for years to come.

As you may imagine, the New-York Historical Society has a long tradition of celebrating, collecting, and promoting the holiday spirit. John Pintard, the founder of the New-York Historical Society, took an active role in championing a family holiday, a domestic, cheerful celebration that would offer an alternative to the rowdy winter months (during which employment and spirits were low throughout the city) while also unifying a diverse and growing population.  In 1810, the New-York Historical Society met in Federal Hall to toast “Sancte Claus,” a giver of presents to good children, and to declare the traditional feast day of December 6th, the date of their annual meeting.

 Robert Walter Weir (1803 – 1889), St. Nicholas, 1837. Oil on wood panel. New-York Historical Society, Gift of George A. Zabriskie, 1951.76

One of my favorite holiday treasures is hanging in our second floor gallery (The Works). This depiction of a rather naughty St. Nicholas was painted in 1837 by Robert Weir, an American painter and professor of drawing at West Point.  His beardless, gnome-like Santa Claus, dressed in boots and a cap decorated with a clay pipe, the traditional emblem of a saint, was based on an old Dutch convention. The image of Santa Claus varied and evolved considerably throughout the mid-nineteenth century. In Weir’s St. Nicholas, a modern Santa appears in adolescence, looking back at his religious origin, but also heavily influenced by the secular written depictions of New-York Historical Society members Washington Irving and Clement Clarke Moore (with “a broad face and a little round belly”). Santa’s secular makeover would become complete by the time of the Civil War, as seen in Thomas Nast’s illustrations for Harper’s Weekly.

On behalf of New-York Historical’s staff, happy holidays and best wishes in the coming year!

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Interview With Photographer Stephen Somerstein

Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches

Marchers on the way to Montgomery as families watch from their porches

On January 16, the New-York Historical Society will open The 1965 March: Stephen Somerstein Photographs Freedom’s Journey from Selma to Montgomery. This exhibit features the stunning and historic photographs of Stephen Somerstein, documenting the Selma-to-Montgomery Civil Rights March in January 1965. We spoke to Mr. Somerstein about traveling to the march, the art of photography, and being present at a history-changing event.

What were your initial thoughts when you first became aware of the march?

I was editor of MAIN EVENTS, one of the City College of New York newspapers. Back in March 1965 everyone was watching the news programs on TV as this extraordinary tableau paraded across the screen, where I clearly remembered feeling outraged by the violent police response to the peaceful civil rights protest marchers in Selma, Alabama, who were attempting to march to the state capital in Montgomery. This unprovoked intimidation galvanized many students in our school to action. When Dr. King called on Americans to join him in a massive protest march to Montgomery, many students immediately organized to travel down to Alabama and join him. I knew that important, nation-changing history was unfolding and I wanted to capture its power and meaning with my camera. I immediately got in touch with the local organizers to determine the travel logistics, went home, packed an overnight bag, some sandwiches, my cameras, and all the film I could round up, then told my mother I was heading for a date with history in Alabama.

Are there any moments during the march that particularly stand out to you?

The first time I seriously reflected on the potential impact of the march was when I encountering the multi-generational family arrayed before the smiling lady of the “Things Go Better With Coke” sign, I realized what a beautiful image it was. Yet on seeing the family’s serious faces, in the midst of taking this iconic image, I knew that our march was terribly meaningful for their future and would have profound consequences. We would be gone in the next days, proud that we had come, yet all too safely home.  I worried and hoped that our efforts would bear good fruit and what we left behind would grow into something better for them.
One of the most moving moments etched into my memory was when I stood behind Dr. King to photograph him from the rear as he was speaking before 25,000 marchers. After carefully framing and capturing the image I looked beside him and into the sea of faces. As I concentrated on individuals, I saw how utterly transfixed the people were by his words. Some had put their hands over their eyes so as to focus solely on his message.

What do you feel you learned from participating in the march?

For someone, such as myself, who thoughtfully considers and weighs before committing to action – to have lept into the unknown for this worthy cause is a marvelous and cherished memory.

Why do you think the New-York Historical Society is a fitting venue for the work?

By virtue of its own name the museum is a venue to display the historical contributions of New Yorkers to the City and to the world, who have created works that have had a profound and enduring influence on the rest of the world. From its earliest founding as New Amsterdam, this city has been a constantly churning amalgam of creative, energetic “can-do” spirit, who see tolerance and acceptance as a necessary part of a successful and vibrant business and social culture.

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How Did FDR Serve Four Terms As President?

On November 7, 1944, Franklin D. Roosevelt was elected to an unprecedented fourth term as President. Now we know that Presidents may not seek more than two terms, so what let FDR serve for thirteen years before he died in office in 1945?

President George Washington famously refused to seek a third term in office. His Farewell Address states it was because of his age, but his successors saw it as a necessary defense against monarchy. However, there were no formal laws written about term limits, and thus when WWII broke out in Europe, Roosevelt agreed to run for a third and then fourth term. His race in 1944 earned him 53% of the vote and he carried 36 states.

Toward the end of the 1944 presidential race, New York Governor Thomas Dewey said “Four terms, or sixteen years, is the most dangerous threat to our freedom ever proposed,” and supported the passage of an amendment that would limit future Presidents to two terms. The 22nd Amendment was passed in 1947, and ratified in 1951.


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Check Out These Spooky Halloween Costumes From 1916

I appreciate a good, scary Halloween costume. These days it’s all too easy to go as a celebrity, some sort of pun, or something like Superman, but I’m all for bringing Halloween back to it’s terrifying roots. When else do you have free reign to cover yourself in fake blood and gross makeup and really freak out your neighbors? It is in that spirit that I present you the scariest costumes I’ve ever seen, “photographed for Mrs. Reiser” in 1916.

Unidentified group of people in Halloween costumes, October 31, 1916. Photographed for Mrs. Reiser.  New-York Historical Society Library

Unidentified group of people in Halloween costumes, October 31, 1916. Photographed for Mrs. Reiser. New-York Historical Society Library

These masks are honestly horrifying. What are they even supposed to be, just men and women with blurry faces that will haunt your dreams? And what is with the paper lantern? This has got to be the creepiest tableau I have seen, and I’d like to toast the folks in the photo, who are completely dedicated to keeping Halloween scary. Kudos to you!

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1915: Women March For Suffrage in New York City

On October 23, 1915, over 25,000 women marched up Fifth Avenue in New York City to advocate for women’s suffrage. At that point, the fight had been ongoing for more than 65 years, with the Seneca Falls Convention in 1848 first passing a resolution in favor of women’s suffrage. Unfortunately, they wouldn’t find success for another five years.

Unknown artist, Suffragette Mothers on the March in New York, Silver Gelatin Print 8 ½ x 9 5/16 inches 2.14.12 [PR068, Box 10, Folder: People: Women: Suffrage (1)] New-York Historical Society

Unknown artist, Suffragette Mothers on the March in New York, Silver Gelatin Print 8 ½ x 9 5/16 inches 2.14.12 [PR068, Box 10, Folder: People: Women: Suffrage (1)] New-York Historical Society

New York’s 1915 suffrage parade was the largest held in the city until that time. But many still had reservations. The New York Times ran an article warning that if women get the vote, they will “play havoc for themselves and society,” and that “granted the suffrage, they would demand all the rights that implies. It is not possible to think of women as soldiers and sailors, police patrolmen, or firemen” Heavens, think of the chaos!

Women's Suffrage Parade, PR 068, New-York Historical Society Library

Women’s Suffrage Parade, PR 068, New-York Historical Society Library

In 1917, New York State granted women the right to vote. It was one of the first states to do so, and the domino effect lead to the passage of the 19th Amendment in 1920, which granted women the right to vote across the country. However, that didn’t put an end to the assumptions that women couldn’t be soldiers, or firefighters, or many other things traditionally in the male realm. Women fought, and continue to fight, for the right to be considered equal citizens every day, both in America and across the world.

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What The General Slocum Victims Wore

This may look like an ordinary child’s shoe, but it has a much darker history. The above shoe belonged to the then nearly six year old Helen Liebenow as a baby, sister of the donor, Adella Liebenow Wotherspoon. Wotherspoon was the last survivor of the General Slocum steamer disaster. On June 15, 1904, fire broke out on the ship and 1,021 passengers perished within minutes. Helen’s body was never recovered from the disaster.


General Slocum Disaster – Half-submerged boat, PR 020

The General Slocum disaster was New York’s deadliest disaster until September 11, 2001. The steamer was carrying members of St. Mark’s Evangelical Lutheran Church, mainly German immigrants, to a picnic on Long Island. Most of the nearly 1,400 passengers were women and children living in Manhattan’s Little Germany neighborhood, now the East Village. In fact, there’s a memorial to the disaster in Tompkins Square Park.

Slocum Disaster, placing tags on bodies. Geographic File, PR-020

Slocum Disaster, placing tags on bodies. Geographic File, PR-020

As the steamer traveled up the East River, a fire caught in the Lamp Room. Many lifeboats and life preservers on the ship were in disrepair, and as a result 1,021 passengers died by fire or drowning. The community in Little Germany was devastated, as many victims were members of prominent families. The area’s German population was already in decline, with the influx of Russian, Italian and Jewish immigrants, and after the disaster many of the neighborhood’s Germans moved to Brooklyn or Manhattan’s Upper East Side.


Pair of shoes worn by Anna C. Liebenow, a child who drowned in the General Slocum disaster, ca. 1904. Leather, cotton, metal. New-York Historical Society, Bequest of Adella “Tiby” Liebenow Wotherspoon, 2004.26.2

The above shoes, and more, are currently on view in A Brief History of New York: Selections from A History of New York in 101 Objects.

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What Was In The Time Capsule?

Yesterday, historians and researchers at the New-York Historical Society opened this elegant bronze time capsule, entrusted to the New-York Historical Society by the Lower Wall Street Business Men’s Association in 1914. So 100 years later, what’s in the box?


Crowd gathered for the opening of the time capsule (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)


Opening the capsule (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)


Organizing the contents (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)


The contents displayed (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)


New York Tribune found in the capsule (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)

Given that this was a Wall Street Business association, the contents often reflected that. There was the 25th Annual Report for the Coffee Exchange of the City of New York, records from the Chamber of Commerce, the directory for the New York Stock Exchange, and various trade journals. There were also numerous newspapers, which showed the important headlines of the day (like the latest about the Mexican Civil War).

But that wasn’t all that took place. Our Student Historians also created a time capsule of their own! To be opened in 2114, the capsule is filled with objects that represent life in New York and America today. Objects include a MetroCard, flyers and buttons from the Occupy Wall Street movement, an Amazon Kindle, the box for the iPhone 6, and an MTA Subway map. Tell us, what would you put in a Time Capsule today?


Objects to go in the Student Historians’ time capsule (Seth Newcom/New-York Historical Society)

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