On September 19, 2022 (exactly one year ago to the day), Dallas Morning News published a piece by Claire Ballor about the Dallas Asian American Historical Society’s “quest to uncover the history of Dallas’ Asian restaurants, one matchbox at a time.”
“Uncovering the history of Asian Americans in North Texas, especially the history of bygone restaurants, has proved to be an arduous undertaking. Much of the history of Asian restaurants and their owners was never documented or preserved, so Drenka and Johnson rely on shreds of clues like old restaurant matchboxes and menus found by scouring Ebay when newspaper records run dry. Those items are some of the only remaining fragments of many of the Asian restaurants that used to feed Dallas.”
At the time, we had only a handful of items with minimal breadcrumbs to follow. After the article’s publication, community members began reaching out with stories of their family’s restaurants. My co-founder Denise Johnson and I spent the next several months meeting with them, digitizing their photographs, and preserving more priceless artifacts. Each interview was an important thread, connecting us to other stories and narrators.
Stories that might have been lost to history if not for the care and safeguarding of family members who preserved them. Stories about courageous innovators who were as dedicated to their culinary art form as they were to the larger Dallas community. Stories that we believed deserved to be honored and shared widely, even if we didn’t know then how it might be possible.
In the process of applying for an arts & culture grant, we recruited the brilliant Christina Hahn to be our creative director and help conceptualize a way to bring the artifacts and research to life. Our wonderful partners at Preservation Dallas graciously offered their space in the Wilson Historic District for an exhibition. Upon learning we had not made it to the second round of the grant process, we briefly considered postponing the project until 2024.
However, like the legendary Uncle Buck Jung, we took the obstacle as a dare and accepted the challenge. Through funds we had leftover (pun intended) from last year’s North Texas Giving Day, we set out to present a first-of-its-kind historical exhibition by, for, and about Asian Americans in Dallas.
Christina worked with a team of talented high school art students and SMU interns over the course of two weeks during the summer to create visual installations inspired by history. Community members donated their time, talent, and treasures (food) to help us across the finish line.
On July 7, 2023, Leftover: The Enduring Legacy of Chinese Cuisine in Dallas opened to the public. Since opening night, more than 600 visitors have stepped through the doors of the Wilson House and into history. As the exhibition reaches its conclusion this Friday, September 22nd, a question lingers… “What’s next?”
We were recently awarded a $15,000 grant from Orchid Giving Circle to support our documentary web series, “Hear Me ROAR!” as well as a leadership grant for Denise. There are so many exciting things in the works for the organization, but I can’t stop thinking about the matchbooks and stories that started it all, and the artwork inspired by them.
Where do they go from here? Truth be told, to a storage unit for now. Asian Americans—though the fastest growing population in North Texas—do not have a designated space or resource/cultural center in Dallas. Like the early Chinese immigrants who set up their restaurants here, we are trying to carve out a legacy in a system that was not built to include us.
The mission of any good historical preservation organization should be to leave something behind for future generations. Our vision is to (re)claim a space for Asian Americans to belong. Where exhibitions like Leftover are a permanent fixture and accessible to everyone. With room for community members to preserve their stories, weaving them into our proverbial tapestry.
We hope you can join us on Friday at Preservation Dallas as we celebrate the final moments of our exhibition, which will be open from 2-8pm, with mooncakes and dumplings for Mid-Autumn Festival.
And if you believe, like we believe, that our legacy is here and deserves its rightful place both in history and the city, please consider making a gift on North Texas Giving Day, September 21st.