Mission and History
Symbolically housed in the oldest and last surviving structure of Los Angeles’ original Chinatown, the 7,200 square foot Chinese American Museum (CAM) embodies both a cultural and physical link to the past and a promising point of entry for the city’s multicultural future. Opened on December 18, 2003 after 20 years of dedicated community and civic leadership and support, CAM’s presence at El Pueblo de Historical Monument-- a 44-acre public park honored as the city's "birthplace" as well as the site of original Chinatown-- heralds a rebirth of an important city architecture and reflects the vibrant development of an immigrant history that began over 150 years ago in America, specifically when the first major Chinese settlement was documented in Los Angeles in the 1860s. As a visual symbol of new and emerging traditions, CAM is proud to serve as an active-learning institution dedicated to researching, preserving and sharing the stories, experiences and contributions of Chinese Americans in the United States through quality exhibitions, programs, events, publications and workshops.
The mission of the Chinese American Museum (CAM) is to foster a deeper understanding and appreciation of America’s diverse heritage by researching, preserving, and sharing the history, rich cultural legacy, and continuing contributions of Chinese Americans.
The Chinese American Museum (CAM) is the first museum in Southern California dedicated to the Chinese American experience and history in this region.
Formerly known as the "Museum of Chinese American History" (MCAH), CAM began as a discussion between El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument (a department of the city of Los Angeles) and the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC). In October 1984, a museum committee formed to lay the foundation and plan for the Garnier Building's preservation. Due to the strong efforts of Dr. Munson Kwok and Mr. Howard Quon, a Founding Donors program was established in December 1985. In 1987, under the leadership of Charter President Dr. Dan Louie, Jr., local historians, educators, community volunteers and descendants of Chinese American pioneer families formed the Friends of the Chinese American Museum, a volunteer support group, to help generate community interest and support, acquire artifacts, conduct research and raise funds.
At the beginning, the El Pueblo Commission set aside $170,000 for the museum. Soon after, the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California held a special fundraiser for CAM, raising $82,000. In 1987, El Pueblo staff won a California State Preservation Grant of $61,000 for the museum project.
The Chinese American community convinced the city of Los Angeles to allocate 2,500 square feet of the historic Garnier Building in downtown Los Angeles as the museum site. In 1995, the museum size would increase to 7,200 square feet. The space in this long vacant building was dilapidated, but for the first time, CAM had a home. Shortly after, the city’s Recreation and Parks Commission allocated half a million dollars for seismic stabilization and disabled access throughout the entire building.
During the following years, Chinese American families and businesses donated their cherished possessions to the museum. CAM received artifacts ranging from antique furniture and herbal store furnishings and supplies to traditional wedding gowns and toddler's toys. Museum staff were entrusted with delicate, faded photographs and yellowing letters from loved ones in China. Elderly Chinese Americans shared their memories of growing up in Old Chinatown which were recorded on audio tapes.
Having no prepared museum space did not keep CAM from sharing these rare stories with other Angelenos. The Friends, working with the El Pueblo staff, hatched the idea of a series of portable exhibits. Starting 1992, portable CAM exhibits traveled to public libraries, malls, parks, banks, and schools all over Los Angeles County. The state of California took over the Garnier Building in the late 1940's and in 1972, it was placed on the National Register of Historic Places as part of the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District.
Finally, after 20 years of community dedication and activism, with strong leadership and support from the City of Los Angeles, El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, community-based organizations, public and private grantors, and countless donors, contributors and volunteers, CAM finally celebrated its highly-anticipated Grand Opening on December 18, 2003, with nearly a thousand people turning out to witness the historic occasion. Today, it proudly stands as Southern California’s first and only Museum dedicated to telling the history and stories of the Chinese American experience here in Los Angeles.
Visitors to El Pueblo Monument now have the opportunity to see a more inclusive picture of America in this "birthplace" of Los Angeles. They will be able to see in El Pueblo's cluster of 24 historic buildings, not only a restored Chinese American presence, but also a more ethnically diverse and accurate Southern California heritage. The museum's prime location among so many other historic buildings will allow children and families to learn about the Chinese American experience in the context of a larger multicultural mosaic of people who have contributed toward the development of Los Angeles and Southern California.