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 Medal finalist Kelly Fong turned an interest in her family's long history in Oakland into an honors thesis on stereotypes of Asian immigrants. (Wendy Edelstein photos)

Anthropology major Kelly Fong reconstructs the Asian immigrant experience

– Like many undergraduates, Medal finalist Kelly Fong was undecided about her major when she came to Berkeley in 2001. She sampled a wide range of classes her first three semesters - physics, math, history, political science, earth and planetary science, ethnic studies, anthropology, and Asian American studies.

The University Medal
Established in 1871 by California Governor Henry Huntly Haight, the University Medal honors UC Berkeley's most distinguished graduating senior. Three to five students finalists are also named.

Three previous winners have returned their medallions, then made of 14-karat gold, to Berkeley as gifts. The last to do so was Clothilde Grunksy Taylor '14, as a 90th birthday present to herself in 1981: "I received so much from the university — I had a wonderful time there — and I wanted to give a little of it back," said Taylor. Having appreciated in value 100 times, the medal was worth $4,000.

The Finalists
By chance, an Introduction to Archaeology course taught by assistant professor of anthropology Laurie Wilkie, which she took the beginning of her sophomore year, struck a chord. Fong ended up choosing anthropology, with an archaeology focus, as her major; given the deep roots her multi-generational Chinese family has in Oakland, Asian American studies seemed a natural choice for a minor. (Her paternal grandmother's grandparents emigrated to America in the 1850s.)

Fong has woven her areas of academic interest together in a groundbreaking honors thesis on a subject close to both her family and her heart: the experience of Asian Americans in Oakland. Wilkie, who has worked with Fong for six semesters, says that Fong's thesis "promises to be a sophisticated and publishable work." Fong graduates later this month with a 3.974 GPA - including 13 A-pluses and three successive years on the Letters and Science Dean's Honor List - and the honor of being selected a finalist for the University Medal.

Hunting for stereotypes

Fong, who was born in Oakland, didn't have to travel far to come to Berkeley. Being able to live at home with her family has been "a bonus," she says, but that's not why she chose Berkeley: it was the top school to which she was accepted, and she notes proudly that her entire education will have been in public institutions. Both Fong's father, a financial analyst, and her mother, a kindergarten teacher, are California natives.

She discovered she was more interested in historical archaeology, in which interpretations of past peoples are pieced together not only from archaeological findings — "the stuff in the ground" — but also from the documentary record and oral histories.

One aspect of the field troubled her, however: the dearth of Asian Americans as archaeologists and as the subject of study. And to Fong, the 19th-century documentary record showed a distinct thread of anti-Asian sentiment. "As an Asian American studies minor, I realized historical archaeology possesses overwhelming potential to augment Asian American history beyond the documentary record," she explains.

For her senior honors thesis, Fong decided to tackle the persistence of 19th-century Oriental stereotypes in contemporary historical archaeology analyses, focusing specifically on the relationship of food to assumptions about Asian immigrants. While the archaeology itself is tied to a specific historical period, some of the stereotypes have persisted, explains Fong; for example, that of the opium-addicted, exotic foreigner who subsists on a diet of rats, cats, and dogs, and is therefore an unassimilable "heathen Chinee," as the documents of the time put it.

In addition to identifying these persistent stereotypes, Fong proposed potential antidotes to their influence, such as interviewing members of the descendant community and referencing the Chinese-language documentary record as an alternative to the English-language accounts, in which the writers "often let their anti-Asian bias come through," she says. "One standard assimilation model based on the European immigrants doesn't apply to all groups. You have to have a context for where a community has come from and what their individual circumstances were."

Ethnic studies assistant professor Michael Omi, a reader for Fong's thesis, emphasizes the novelty and intellectual rigor of his student's approach. "The originality of Kelly's thesis cannot be stressed enough," wrote Omi. "Its interdisciplinary approach and theoretical connections are provocative, as no similar studies exist in either historical archaeology or Asian American studies."

Digging deep into the archives

Fong's thesis benefits from critical training in research that she received her junior year through anthropology graduate student Anna Naruta's investigation of a historic Oakland Chinese community. Naruta sought to prove the archaeological value of a site located at 20th Street and San Pablo Avenue in hopes that the City of Oakland would add it to the National Register.

Fong spent hours researching in the Oakland History Room and the National Archives in San Bruno, poring over archival materials such as musty tax roll records, fire insurance maps, and the Wells, Fargo & Co. "1882 Directory of Chinese Businesses." Her efforts went toward creating maps that would accurately depict the distribution of Chinese businesses in Oakland. The project, which is still ongoing, has garnered public support that is critical for pressuring the City Council and developers to undertake crucial preservation and archaeological work, says Fong.

Fong's work with Naruta also motivated her to establish connections with the contemporary Oakland Chinese community. Some of her research from tax rolls is included in a San Pablo Chinatown exhibit that is currently on display at the Oakland Asian Cultural Center. Fong also hopes to assist with a public walking tour of old Oakland Chinatown sites this summer.

Kelly Fong helps Oakland kindergartners carve a pumpkin at Joaquin Miller Elementary School, where she volunteers for several hours each week.
Such activities appeal to Fong, who has a strong community and family focus. For the past four years she has volunteered several hours each week to help her mother's kindergarten class at Joaquin Miller Elementary School. "I've always had fun with little kids - they're very refreshing," says Fong, who helps out with class projects as well as supervision and lesson plans. Recently, Fong tackled a lesson plan on her own about gorillas and the rain forest, introducing the kindergarteners to the necessities in animals' lives.

Despite her demanding academic, research, and kindergarten duties, Fong has managed to find time for a few more extracurricular activities. She assists with the maintenance and fundraising efforts of the outdoor Woodminster Amphitheater in Oakland's Joaquin Miller Park, inspired by her parents, who are active on the park's board. She is also involved with Berkeley's Golden Key International Honor Society, where as the honorary member chair she has helped organize a speaker series for the campus community.

Fong, who is soft-spoken and modest, downplays her efforts. "You can't stay in your books or in front of the computer or read all the time," she shrugs, with a smile. "Volunteering is work, but it's also fun and something different that takes my mind off of school stuff."

Mapping new ground

In the fall, Fong will pursue a Ph.D. in UCLA's interdisciplinary archaeology program, where she will continue focusing on Asian American historical archaeology.

She will be developing a field that's not entirely mapped out. "It's scary, because there's no one person to run to if I need advice or consultation," admits Fong. But while the prospect of doing doctoral work in a relatively uncharted field may be daunting, "I know that I'm doing something that's important and hasn't been done yet," she explains. "This work really needs to be done, and that drives me to do a good job."

Eventually, Fong sees herself teaching as well as continuing to research Asian American historical archaeology. "I want to let people know that this kind of work is possible," she says.

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