Li-Rong “Lilly” Cheng welcomes people to her living room several times a month, that is, virtually. The days when she animates a Presentation Zooming in to the Chinese Historical Museum in San Diego, a wall of faces from across the county fills their computer screen, all connecting to hear different aspects of Chinese history. Of course, these meetings would be better in person, but Cheng says any opportunity to connect is a must these days.
“Being able to create a virtual salon where people can say hello, have a sip of tea and have a sense of community is important right now,” she says. “It creates a space to have a meaningful dialogue; it can be very powerful.
Cheng holds a doctorate in speech therapy, and as chair of the museum’s board and director of the Chinese Cultural Center at San Diego State University (where she also teaches), she has helped preserve the stories of its cultural for over 37 years. It’s a role she says everyone should embrace, no matter where they come from.
“It’s about ‘history’ and ‘its history’; it’s about you and me, ”she said. “We all have our stories to tell. Mine happens to have a culture and a history stretching back thousands of years. My motivation comes from respecting the people who worked and walked before me; the museum is the best place for me to do it.
heng has been instrumental in the museum’s design since its inception, when she was part of a small group that helped move a historic Chinese mission to the official downtown area of the Asia-Pacific Historic Theme District of San Diego, where it now houses the museum.
Over the next 24 years, the museum established itself as a place to learn about the culture’s rich history, hosting countless exhibits on everything from dragon symbolism in Chinese art to heritage and to the contributions of American women of Chinese descent. 2020 was no different, even when the pandemic forced the museum to temporarily close its doors and switch to a digital platform based on SDSU’s Chinese Cultural Center.
“By going virtual, we were able to go beyond just presenting the museum’s content and artefacts,” says Cheng. “We could collaborate with the university to tell personal stories about the Chinese community and celebrate Asian heritage.”
An ongoing Zoom lecture series titled The Sino-American Experience and Beyond is the result of this collaboration. The lectures highlight local and global histories, such as the history of the Chinese School in San Diego, or that of the Jewish community that fled the Third Reich and found refuge in Shanghai during World War II. In honor of Asia-Pacific American Heritage Month in May and the museum’s 25th anniversary, the series will continue with a spotlight on Chinese art, archaeological finds in San Diego’s Chinatown and even lessons from Tai chi.
There is a lot to celebrate, and a lot of important conversations to have. Hate crimes against Asian Americans in some of the country’s largest cities have increased by nearly 150% over the past year, according to an analysis from California State University, San Bernardino. This reality weighed heavily on Lilly Cheng. “There are days when I feel a sense of hopelessness,” she says, “but I immediately think, ‘We have to do more. We want to continue to reach out to others and host more of these living room dialogues. “
She suggests showing her support not only by shopping or ordering takeout from local Asian markets and restaurants, but also by participating in educational spaces like the virtual fair she helped create. People from all walks of life join these conferences, and Cheng says it has been especially beneficial for Asian students, staff and community members to feel a sense of belonging.
“We want people to feel safe; part of it comes from the fear of not being accepted, ”she says. “We are all part of the multicultural, multi-ethnic American fabric, and we create that fabric together.”