History and stories of Asians in Minnesota date back 130 years


Sesquicentennial reflections reveal interesting stories of Asian history in Minnesota.

As Minnesota begins a year long “Sesquicentennial” celebration to mark 150 years as a state, with events at the State Capitol and throughout the state, this is a good time to pause and reflect on the history and stories of the over 40 different Asian Pacific Minnesotan immigrant and refugee communities. Here are some questions that could guide our search for data and stories:

Who was the first Asian Pacific person to arrive in Minnesota?
What was life like for the first arrivals?
Why did they come? Why did they leave or stay? What did they do?
What have been their contributions to the state of Minnesota?
And what are their hopes and dreams?

Here is a brief note on my preliminary findings on the first question.

The history of the Chinese in Minnesota goes back 133 years.
The first record of an Asian in Minnesota is Mr. Wang See Ling (1875) from China. He was one of the first Chinese entrepreneurs. By 1985 there were who 25 Chinese laundries in St Paul. 14 in Minneapolis, 5 in Duluth and 2 in Stillwater. Chinese entrepreneurs started restaurants, stores, import shops and hotels and businesses not just in the Twin Cities, but in Stillwater, then a lumber town, the Iron Range, Duluth, and ten smaller towns.

The Japanese have been in Minnesota for over 120 years, the Koreans for 100 years
There is a record of one Japanese man here in 1880, two in 1890, and fifty one Japanese railway workers by 1900. Leaders in the Korean community were surprised to learn that the first documented Korean in Minnesota also was in the early 1900s. He was an iron worker employed by the Oliver Mining Company on the Mesabi Iron Range in the early 1900s. Little is known about him. He was over 21, spoke English and had been in the US for five years. By the mid-1920s there were Korean students at Hamline. By the 1940s, there were Korean and Japanese students at Macalester. During WWII, Japanese and Korean interpreters came to Minnesota to train and work as interpreters and linguists at the Military Intelligence Language School.

People from the Philippines have been in Minnesota for over ninety years
Juan C. Orendain arrived in Minnesota from the Philippines in about 1917. A graduate of a missionary school in the Philippines, he came to Minnesota to attend Bethel College and later went to law school. In addition to other early Filipino arrivals such as Eddie Maglaya (1920) and Paul Borge (1928), we have the names of two Filipina. Basilisa Garcia Epperly was here with her husband in 1922. The Epperly family home on 4th Street NE became a welcoming place for students and a hub for social and cultural activities on weekends. Clara Balbuena (1929) was active with the Festival of nations and she and her husband Filemon owned and operated the Balbuena Grocery Store in the Selby Dale area from 1949-1975.

I welcome other efforts to collect and compile information. I am currently researching the Afghan, Indonesian, Thai, the SE Asians, the Tibetan and newer arrivals, the Burmese, Karen and Bhutan. There is good information on the Chinese and Vietnamese collected by the MN Historical Society. Some of this information is being archived by the Minnesota History Society and the Immigration History Center at the U, Hmong Archives, but there are many gaps. A small exhibit on the History of Asians in Minnesota will be on view daily in the State Capitol North Corridor starting May 19-30 with a program and opening ceremony at noon May 19, 2008 in the State Capitol Rotunda. Please join me in an effort to make sure that the recording of history of Minnesotans is inclusive of all its communities. For information on the Mn Sesquicentennial Week kickoff at the Capitol and on the grounds of the capitol visit http://www.mn150years.org.

David Zander is an anthropologist with the Council on Asian Pacific Minnesotans. He can be reached at 651/296-0538