Japanese migrants’ experiences in Texas celebrated in award-winning exhibit

Fondren Fellows project overseen by Rice’s Sidney Lu recognized as trailblazing by Texas Digital Library

History of Japanese farmers
History of Japanese Farmers in Texas

When professor Sidney Lu joined Rice University’s faculty, he brought with him a passion for uncovering the hidden histories of Japanese migration. His 2019 book, “The Making of Japanese Settler Colonialism: Malthusianism and Trans-Pacific Migration, 1868-1961,” dug deep into the stories of Japanese migrants on the West Coast.

“Initially, I focused on California, but the more sources I read, the more I realized there was actually an untold story about Japanese migrants in Texas,” said Lu, now the Annette and Hugh Gragg Associate Professor of Transnational Asian Studies.

After accepting his position at Rice, Lu was introduced to the local Japanese American community by Rice alumna Anne Chao '05, '09, adjunct lecturer in the humanities and member of the School of Humanities Advisory Board. Lu specifically thanked George Hirasaki, the A.J. Hartsook Professor Emeritus in chemical and biomolecular engineering, and the Japanese American Citizens League’s Houston Chapter, which generously shared the information of local Japanese American families that it collected for its own website.

“They kindly shared with me sources about their families’ stories,” Lu said, adding that those stories bolstered his previous research, which primarily focused on published sources. “I was able to interact with the local people who still have the memories. The Houston Asian American Archive (HAAA) had also already conducted interviews, which I listened to and substantially enriched my understanding of the whole picture.”

Equipped with new connections and knowledge, Lu started putting together a digital exhibition for Rice’s HAAA about Japanese farmers in Texas. Around the same time, he learned about the Fondren Fellows program.

“Fondren Fellows is a program that enables undergraduate and graduate students to work on projects that are inquiry-based,” said Lisa Spiro, assistant university librarian for digital scholarship and organizational development at Rice’s Fondren Library. “They’re open-ended, they’re exploratory and they have some tie to the library, whether that be library collections, services, skills or spaces.”

Spiro founded and directs the program with help from program coordinator Alec Brown and a steering committee. The goal of Fondren Fellows is to demonstrate that the library is not just a place where you go to do research but can itself be the focus of research. The projects can be mentored by library staff members or faculty members and allow fellows to work individually or in teams to develop the projects over the course of an academic year.

“The idea is to provide the spark, structure and support but then allow the fellows to take off and go with these projects,” Spiro said. “It’s really exciting to see what they come up with. They bring their own insights and skills.”

History of Japanese Farmers in Texas
Completed in time to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May 2023, Fondren Fellows project “History of Japanese Farmers in Texas” recently won the 2024 Texas Digital Library’s Trailblazer Award. (Image courtesy Texas Digital Library)

Lu’s proposal to have Fonden Fellows work on his project was approved for fall 2022. Fifteen students applied for the opportunity, which Lu narrowed down to Loïc Duggal, now a Will Rice senior, and Hoang Nguyen, who graduated this year.

“Our task was to reorganize the website and design a new one, so that it looked better and was more accessible to the general public,” said Nguyen, who triple-majored in political science, history and Asian studies. “We also wrote some of our own essays and blog posts, synthesizing some of the most important themes that we found throughout these letters and materials.”

Nguyen’s studies in humanities combined with Duggal’s experience majoring in mechanical engineering helped the pair develop what became HAAA’s permanent exhibit “History of Japanese Farmers in Texas,” which illustrates the hardship and perseverance of early Japanese immigrants in Texas, while highlighting their contributions to the state. Throughout the academic year, Nguyen, Duggal and Lu met every two weeks to discuss the best approach for presenting each story featured in the project.

“In the end, our roles blended together, and I thought that was a very nice thing to happen because we came from these different backgrounds,” said Duggal, who is also majoring in Asian studies.

Completed in time to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Month in May 2023, the exhibit recently won the 2024 Texas Digital Library’s Trailblazer Award.

“This work is getting attention,” Spiro said. “It demonstrates the value of student research, that it can really have a public impact.”

“This exhibition challenges the conventional, West Coast-centered, narrative in Asian American History and brings the stories of Asian Americans in Texas to the center,” the award notice read. “It illustrates the hardship and perseverance of early Japanese immigrants in Texas and highlights their contributions to the state. It gives voice to the largely forgotten early Japanese American immigrants in Texas and recognizes the great contributions they made to the economic growth and cultural development of the state.”

“It was fantastic to see that it was still valued as a wonderful piece, and it made me very happy to hear that,” Duggal said.

Lu said he viewed the award as recognition of the work that went into the exhibition but also the potential presented by the Fondren Fellows program.

“It was such a great opportunity to build this long-term relationship between faculty and students,” Lu said.

The call for Fondren Fellow project mentors for the 2024-25 academic year is now open. The deadline to submit applications is noon July 19. Learn more about the opportunity here.