In 1882, New Mexico’s territorial supreme court ruled that Asian Americans had the right to testify before a judge. The decision set a major precedent that spread to courts in other states and territories, but it remains an overlooked breakthrough in the history of civil rights. Too often, it’s overshadowed by the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal law from the same year that limited Chinese immigration and influenced decades of xenophobic policies.
Last month, officials in Bernalillo County, Albuquerque decided to commemorate this little-known case, Territory of New Mexico v. Yee Shun, by approving a public sculpture in its honor. Envisioned by Chinese-American artists Cheryll Leo-Gwin and Stewart Wong, the design depicts a giant plumb bob balanced on its tip, to stand outside a district courthouse. It is tilted “as a metaphor for tipping the scales of justice,“ Leo-Gwin told Hyperallergic. “However, the plumb in motion ultimately finds stability and balance.” A braid, meant to represent the queue hairstyle, runs down its surface and separates into three strands. They rise up at the plumb’s top to support three gourds, symbolizing the three branches of government.
Surprisingly, the case first arose after the murder of a Chinese immigrant. A young man named Yee Shun was accused of killing Jim Lee in a laundromat. A third man, Jo Chinaman, testified that he had seen Yee Shun fire the fatal shot. But Yee Shun’s lawyer appealed the verdict and attempted to invalidate Chinaman’s testimony, arguing that Chinese witnesses who were not Christians could not take a binding oath in court. New Mexico’s territorial supreme court disagreed, and Yee Shun went to jail, where he later committed suicide.
“It was a murder case, but something good came from it,” Dr. Siu Wong, a member of the Chinese American Citizen Alliance, the nation’s oldest Asian civil rights group in the country, told Hyperallergic. Dr. Wong, who has lived in Albuquerque for almost four decades, came up with the idea to erect a public monument to commemorate the case. Since 2013, she has been looking for a way to honor the contributions of Chinese-Americans to her city. She learned about Yee Shun’s appeal through local librarian Eileen O’Connell. Intrigued by this largely forgotten history, Dr. Wong began working with Bernalillo County’s Public Art Program and its commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins to revive it through a massive sculpture. They raised $275,000 from the state and city and launched a nation-wide open call for proposals.
Leo-Gwin and Stewart Wong’s design was selected from 65 submissions. Its title, “View from Gold Mountain,” references the name that Chinese immigrants gave to the American West during the Gold Rush. In addition to the plumb bob, the artists also envision inscribing dates into the ground to form a circle, each one marking landmark civil rights achievements from 1882 onwards.
“What was so striking about their project was that each element was deeply symbolic and had historical and cultural importance for Asian Americans as well as to the broader public,” Nan Masland, Bernalillo County’s public art project coordinator, told Hyperallergic. “It was so carefully considered.”
The sculpture is a reminder of the injustices Chinese Americans faced, but is also meant to represent the broader fight for justice for marginalized people. The artists’ vision reflects this intent: the braid is not only symbolic of the queue, but also of braids worn by other groups such as Native Americans. Woven together, the strands “represent the various histories and cultures found in America and are the strength of our country, thus the backbone of the artwork and the rule of law,” Leo-Gwin said.
The artwork will likely be unveiled next year, and will incorporate a stone bench for passersby. Wong hopes that people will sit there, contemplate the sculpture’s symbolism, and “understand that justice is for everybody,” she said. “While we fought for our civil rights, those civil rights were also extended to other people.
“Chinese-Americans are pioneers in civil rights, and this case shows that while we were victims we were not victimized,” she said. “We fought back. We didn’t give up.”