Chinese immigrants moved to the territory of New Mexico in large numbers in the 1800s. They came, like so many other diaspora groups, in search of work. But legalized discrimination, through laws like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, created profound hurdles for them.
That’s why the little-known case Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun is so significant. On the evening of February 24, 1882, Yee Shun got off the train in East Las Vegas, New Mexico. The 20 year old, who had emigrated to the United States shortly before, was on his way to Albuquerque in search of a job, but decided to make the stop to check in with a friend, Gum Fing. When he walked into a local Chinese laundry to inquire the whereabouts of Fing, gunfire rang out. Shun ran out of the laundry. Inside, a man named Jim Lee (who was also known as Sam Ling King or Frank) had been fatally shot.
When witnesses placed Shun at the scene of the crime, he was arrested. One of the Chinese immigrants who witnessed the shooting, Jo Chinaman, claimed Shun was the killer. Two other Chinese men who also witnessed the shooting contradicted his testimony.
Shun was convicted of second degree murder and sentenced to life in prison. Following an unsuccessful appeal, Shun committed suicide.
The tragedy had an unintended postscript. During his lawyer’s failed appeal, he claimed that Chinaman’s testimony was invalid because he was "of the Chinese religion,” and so his oath could not hold up in court. But New Mexico’s territorial supreme court judge disagreed. He upheld the conviction, and in the process established the precedent that Asian Americans had the right to testify in court.
“The Yee Shun precedent held sway throughout most of the trans-Mississippi West for Chinese litigants, and it was even used to apply to other Asian-American minorities,” write Arif Dirlik and Malcolm Yeung in Chinese on the American Frontier. “In 1909 the Nebraska Supreme Court invoked Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun to determine if a Japanese witness, Jack Naoi, could be disqualified ‘for the alleged reason that Japan is a heathen country.’”
Now, this landmark case will be memorialized with a planned public monument.
As Ollie Reed Jr. reports for Albuquerque Journal, the towering 28-foot-tall, $275,000 public sculpture was approved last month. The project has been in the works for several years.
“[Wong has worked] to give this court case the place in history that it rightfully deserves,” Bernalillo county public art project coordinator Nan Masland tells Smithsonian.com.
Following a national call for artists, the Asian American Monument Committee of New Mexico selected Cheryll Leo-Gwin and Stewart Wong’s design “View from Gold Mountain.”
Gold Mountain is what Chinese laborers called the greater American West during the Gold Rush period that brought so many to the West Coast in the mid-1800s. But as Smithsonian’s Center for Folklife and Cultural Heritage explains, "the vast majority of Chinese who rushed to the West Coast never got rich from gold. Instead, after arriving on these shores, they laid railroad tracks, worked as itinerant farm laborers and factory hands, cooked food, pressed shirts, and performed other tasks that helped build the American West.”
Now in the final design stage, installation should begin around early 2019 with a spring or summer completion according to Masland. It will be installed near the state district courthouse in downtown Albuquerque.
“When Bernalillo County Public Art was approached to manage this project, we saw the opportunity for public art to be the conduit to elevate awareness of this court case and its significance to civil rights,” Masland says. “A sculpture of this scale has the power to educate and inform the public in an accessible manner.”
In an interview with Hyperallergic’s Claire Voon, Leo-Gwin explains the monument's central metal plumb bob is tilted at a 30-degree angle "as a metaphor for tipping the scales of justice." An object in motion, it ultimately “finds stability and balance.” A braid running vertically along the shape is a nod to the queue hairstyle. Three gourds above the plump bob symbolize the U.S.'s three branches of government.
Despite setting a precedent, the case has remained largely unknown in the larger understanding of American civil rights. Officials hope the new monument will draw attention to its importance.
“The sculpture will inform the public about the contributions that Asian Americans have made to advance civil rights through use of the judicial system,” as Bernalillo County district 3 commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins says in the press release.