Mission and History
Symbolically housed in the oldest and last surviving structure of Los Angeles’ original Chinatown, the 7,200 square foot Chinese American Museum (CAM) embodies a cultural and physical link to the past, as well as a promising point of entry for the city’s multicultural future. Opened on December 18, 2003 after 20 years of dedicated community and civic leadership and support, CAM’s presence at El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument—a 44-acre public park honored as Los Angeles’ “birthplace” and the site of its original Chinatown—reflects the vibrant development of an immigrant history that began over 150 years ago when the first major Chinese settlement was documented in Los Angeles. CAM is dedicated to researching, preserving, and sharing the experiences and contributions of Chinese Americans in the United States through quality exhibitions, programs, events, publications, and workshops. In addition to its role in the community as an active-learning institution, CAM is also proud to serve as a visual symbol of new and emerging traditions.
The mission of the Chinese American Museum (CAM) is to foster a deeper understanding of, and appreciation for, America’s diverse heritage by researching, preserving, and sharing the history, rich cultural legacy, and continued contributions of Chinese Americans.
The Chinese American Museum (CAM) is the first museum in Southern California dedicated to the Chinese American experience and history in this region.
CAM initially began as a discussion between the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California (CHSSC) and El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, a department of the city of Los Angeles. In October of 1984, a committee was formed to discuss the preservation of the historic Garnier Building in downtown Los Angeles, which had been placed on the National Register of Historic Places 12 years prior as part of the Los Angeles Plaza Historic District . Due to the strong efforts of Dr. Munson Kwok and Mr. Howard Quon, a Founding Donors program was established in December of 1985 with the intent of housing the then-titled Museum of Chinese American History within the Garnier Building. In 1987, under the leadership of Charter President Dr. Dan Louie, Jr., local historians, educators, community volunteers, and descendants of Chinese American pioneer families formed the Friends of the Chinese American Museum—a volunteer support group committed to generating community interest and support for the museum, acquiring artifacts, conducting research, and raising funds.
The El Pueblo Commission initially budgeted $170,000 for CAM’s development. However, CHSSC was able to collect $82,000 with a special community fundraiser. Additionally, El Pueblo staff won a California State Preservation Grant of $61,000 in 1987 for the museum project.
The Chinese American community convinced the city of Los Angeles to allocate 2,500 square feet of the Garnier Building to serve as the museum site. In 1995, the allotted museum size was increased to 7,200 square feet. Though the space in this long-since vacant building was dilapidated, CAM at last had a home. Shortly after, the Los Angeles Recreation and Parks Commission allocated $500,000 for seismic stabilization and increased accessibility throughout the entire building.
During the following years, Chinese American families and businesses donated their cherished possessions to the museum. CAM received artifacts ranging from antique furniture and children’s toys, to herbal store furnishings and supplies, to traditional wedding gowns. Museum staff were entrusted with delicate, faded photographs and yellowing letters from loved ones in China. Elderly Chinese Americans shared their memories of growing up in Old Chinatown, which were recorded on audio tapes.
The lack of prepared museum space did not keep CAM from sharing these rare stories with fellow Angelenos. The Friends of the Chinese American Museum, working together with El Pueblo staff, developed a series of portable exhibits in 1992. These portable CAM exhibits were set up in public libraries, malls, parks, banks, and schools all over Los Angeles County.
In 2003, after nearly 20 years of community dedication and activism, CAM finally celebrated its highly-anticipated Grand Opening on December 18, with nearly a thousand people in attendance. This historic event was made possible thanks to strong leadership and generous support from the City of Los Angeles, the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument, community-based organizations, public and private grantors, and countless donors, contributors and volunteers.
Today, CAM proudly stands as Southern California’s first and only museum dedicated to sharing the history of the Chinese American experience in Los Angeles. Furthermore, its prime location within the El Pueblo Monument allows visitors the opportunity to learn about the Chinese American experience in the context of a larger multicultural mosaic of individuals who have contributed to the development of Los Angeles and Southern California. El Pueblo’s cluster of 24 historic buildings not only showcases a restored Chinese American presence, but also a more ethnically diverse and accurate Southern California heritage.