Discover more from Big Sky Chat House
Paul Kim reveals the hidden history of Missoula's Chinese community
Plus: Announcing "The Sit-Down" column in Montana Free Press!!
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Howdy, all! Before we jump into this week’s interview with Paul, I have some exciting news to share with you:
Last week marked the launch of “The Sit-Down,” a new Q&A column I’ll be writing for Montana Free Press every other week. Our maiden voyage features the inimitable author and screenwriter Walter Kirn: we chat about his new, print-only magazine “County Highway,” the allure of “nowhere America” and the ways social media has corrupted young folks.
And now, onwards to our main event!
Two years ago, Paul Kim embarked on a mission to shed light on the Chinese community that lived and thrived in Missoula in the second half of the 19th century and early 20th century. Working in collaboration with the filmmaker Max Cumming, Kim produced a feature-length documentary centered on two forgotten and unmarked Chinese burial grounds in the Lower Rattlesnake neighborhood: one sits under Rattlesnake Elementary School, and the other in a residential area near Mount Jumbo. The trailer for their film, The Bodies Beneath Us, dropped last week.
The film does not dwell exclusively in the past. It also follows Kim’s subsequent efforts to put a joint city/county resolution before the Missoula City Council: the measure seeks to both commemorate the burial grounds, and to address what Kim views as on-going prejudice against Asian-Americans.
The resolution caused a stir of its own. A clause in the initial draft read “Montana politicians across the political spectrum continue to fearmonger and scapegoat Asians and Asian Americans.” Following a heated meeting, the council and Kim amended it to read “People in positions of power continue to practice discrimination and exclusion against Chinese Americans.” The resolution passed by unanimous vote on August 9.
My conversation with Kim delves into the process of making the film and its long-forgotten subject matter, as well as contemporary Sinophobia, and Kim’s approach to “destabilizing” perceptions of Montana’s own identity.
Kim is no stranger to politics—he currently serves as a Policy Associate at ACLU of Montana, and previously worked both on Jon Tester’s 2018 Senate campaign and Mike Cooney’s unsuccessful 2020 run for Governor. In the interview, he offers scathing criticism of what he views as anti-Chinese rhetoric employed by both political parties, and the Montana Democratic Party in particular.
Max: You were arrested at the state Capitol in April while protesting the silencing of Representative Zooey Zephyr, and subsequently helped organize the Pride and Determination rally / festival in Missoula. Do you see any connection between that effort and The Bodies Beneath Us?
Paul Kim: There is this idea that Montana is a state that is white, that is masculine, that is nationalistic, that is afraid of outsiders.
What I hope to do through my political work [in both instances] is inject the idea into the mainstream narrative that Montana could really be anything, to poke holes within this sort of normative understanding of the state and ourselves that we've fallen into.
I think of this essay that was written in the late 20th century by a Montana writer named Mary Clearman Blew, and her phrase, “the myth of Montana has always been male.” “Myth” is an important word, because it's this way of understanding our community and ourselves and our relationships with each other. But this myth doesn't have any inherent authority on its own.
[For example], across Montana, you’ll see folks wearing cowboy hats, regardless of whether they actually participate in ranching or not. The cowboy is the fundamental avatar of what it means to be a man in Montana.
But during the period of the actual settlement of the West, the cowboy was not considered a hero. The cowboy was considered a dirty, working-class ranching figure. A large chunk of cowboys and cowboy culture descended from Mexican settlers that were living in Texas at the time of the Mexican-American war. That's where we get the word vaquero, or buckaroo, from. A lot of lassoing and roping and the staples of rodeo culture come from Mexican origins, which were adapted from Spanish colonial customs. There’s also an element of cowboy culture that’s fundamentally Black as well.
And that's a narrative that you don't think about when you think of the modern image of the cowboy: this country music-augmented idea of the white man. In Montana you have politicians like Ryan Zinke, who famously wears a cowboy hat—as an aside, to cover his bald spot—and performs the symbols of masculinity associated with being a cowboy.
When we talk about the destabilization of what these myths mean, we mean that multitudes can be contained within one thing. Montana can be white and masculine, but it can also foster a variety of other lifestyles and other ways to express yourself, just as someone who believes that they are a cowboy can also be soft and sweet and empathetic.
Let’s talk about The Bodies Beneath Us. What was the impetus behind the project?
I spent about two years writing my dissertation on Montana's political culture. I wanted to answer a question: “When, around election season, you see [ads featuring] a man carrying a gun on horseback and saying, this politician defends our Montana values…what are those Montana values? And who gets to decide? And why is a man on horseback with a gun an authentic arbiter of what it means to be a Montanan?” I wanted to engage with those ideas and see where they came from, but also to push back on them and say that a man with a gun doesn't have to be the only thing that represents us as a state.
[In my research], I came into contact with histories that have been written in the state about genocide against Native people that happened here, and the treaties that were invalidated and desecrated. I also ran into a category which I had not had much experience with, which were Montana's alternative racial histories: the different groups of people who ended up flowing through these western towns who fulfilled roles here. And the main two racial histories that have been studied and written in Montana (and are not Indigenous) are the Black Montanan and the Chinese experience in Montana.
I ran across this one line in a paper written by Kelly Dixon, an archeologist at the University of Montana, titled “'Verily the Road was Built with Chinaman's Bones': Archaeology of Chinese Line Camps in Montana." [In it was] a reference to how railroad workers working in Missoula would've been boarded here. They also would've been buried here. And the final sentence of this section references a cemetery in Missoula that currently lies beneath residential units. And sometimes, when the owners of these units chose to do landscaping or redeveloping, they unearthed bones. That stopped me dead in my tracks.
I had been living in Missoula for about two years and nobody had told me about an unmarked grave where folks dig up bones literally beneath their houses.
I realized if I didn't figure out what happened and bring it to public attention, that it would simply be swept under the rug and not discussed as it has been for the last century.
The trailer came out just a few days ago. Have you received any unexpected feedback?
You work on a project for a long time, and there's no more shock value to it. But after releasing the trailer, what I've realized over and over is that people in Missoula are genuinely shocked to learn this information. I have friends who reached out saying, “I grew up playing on that playground. I used to skate at the ice rink at Pineview Park. My family has a place in the Lower Rattlesnake.”
And so I'm glad to be reminded of just how shocking the true history of the Rattlesnake neighborhood really is for people and how it's landing for them. That [creates] interest in our larger project: a meditation on the politics of memory. Why do we remember some people and not others?
Can you unpack that a bit more?
When you think of Missoula in the 1880’s, do you think about Chinese people? Do you think about how, if you did errands on Front Street in Missoula, you would've seen dozens of Chinese people at your grocery, at your laundry, at gardens downtown? I don't think that that's something that many Missoulians know about their own history. Do we consider these stories to be reflective of ourselves?
Can you tell me about the burials themselves—what were the processionals or rites?
[These cemeteries were] operable from 1860 to 1910; that’s a ballpark date.
There are a number of vivid contemporaneous accounts in the Missoulian of white observations of the Chinese community having these large funeral processions: hundreds of Chinese people marching in the street together. The entire population of Missoula would get out in the streets to watch these processions.
We're talking traditional food. We're talking fireworks. We're talking livestock being spooked across downtown Missoula as they hear these loud noise coming down the streets.
The second thing I want to note is that the bones beneath the Rattlesnake neighborhood are not supposed to be there. I mean that on two levels. First, you should not build houses over unmarked graves, as a general moral concept. But the second thing is that the Chinese observed the traditional practice of exhumation. That’s a large part of why their cemetery was segregated from the white cemetery in the first place; there were fears that the graves of white Missoulians might accidentally be dug up as the Chinese were practicing their quote unquote pagan process of exhumation.
The bones were intended to be dug up after a certain period of time and transported back to Southern China, and laid next to the bones of these people's ancestors.
They never made it back home. There was no one left to remember where they had been buried. There were no Chinese left in Missoula by the 1910s and 1920s [due to] rigid exclusion laws. And then who's left to practice these traditional burial practices? Nobody, at that point.
Let’s talk about the Missoula city/county joint resolution you crafted. What are your goals with it?
The resolution came to be for two fairly practical reasons: first, it represents a formal commitment by the city and the county to fund memorialization efforts.
Second, I wanted to make sure that in the future, a researcher would be able to follow the historical breadcrumbs to find an experience [via city council records] that, for me, was obscured by the historical record. I'm glad that that in turn garnered press attention.
Why was the clause regarding ongoing prejudice vital to the resolution?
That line came from experiences I had working for the Montana Democratic Party in the 2020 elections. At that point I had spent a number of years working for Montana Democrats and was starting to feel some anxiety about certain political messaging decisions that were being made by the party. I remember in the waning days of that election receiving mailer after mailer where both Senate candidates tried to tie the other to China more definitively. And I just remember feeling this helplessness, and also this deep feeling that the lives of Asian-Americans in Montana were not respected. They were the “others,” the opposition that Montanans defined themself against.
As someone who deeply wants to continue living here, it was crippling. And so that resolution was an attempt to use formal political levers to call out that sort of scapegoating which I believe is cheap politics. Others might call it pragmatic.
Where do you see the line—if you think it even exists—between framing China as an adversarial nation, versus scapegoating folks who live here?
Personally, I do not believe that the United States should function its foreign policy based on the construction of an adversary. That's something that this country has consistently done for the last generation that has led to endless wars and a series of adverse effects on America as a nation.
But that personal feeling aside, for politicians who engage in this rhetoric around quote unquote national security, I'd like to push back on some of the factual claims they're making. For instance, [Montana Democratic Senator] Jon Tester has stated specifically that his concerns for China are merely based on state policy. It's hard to square him saying that with his comments that “any Chinese individual buying land in Montana is guilty until proven innocent.” That seems to be directly counter to what he's saying.
If we are to believe that his foreign policy legislation to ban Chinese state ownership of land in America is based on an actual threat, then I think people like Jon Tester and [Montana Senate Pro Tem] Ken Bogner should address a very simple question: Does the Chinese state own a single acre of land in the state of Montana? And the answer is no. [Note: Bogner sponsored a similar bill earlier this year, which Governor Gianforte subsequently signed into law]
These politicians try to stake their credibility on representing an amount of quote unquote Montana authenticity, but they could read the real tea leaves and give Montanans the politics they want, as opposed to these out out-of-state narratives flowing into the state. But Jon Tester and Ken Bogner are openly kow-towing to the Washington DC foreign policy establishment that is rearing for war with China, and they are adding to that fire.
A couple of months ago, Ryan Cooney, the son of former Democratic Lieutenant Governor Cooney, posted a picture on Twitter of GOP Senate candidate Tim Sheehy photoshopped on to the Great Wall of China. The gist seemed to be, Tim Sheehy isn’t present in Montana. Cooney got pushback on it, but he argued that the choice of the Great Wall was arbitrary. Do you think the criticism of his post was warranted?
Something I see consistently in Montana amongst liberals and conservatives—but particularly liberals—is this notion that Montana is a place where we live; outside of Montana is an “other.”
You see that not only in rhetoric around China, but also during [election] season: “This candidate is not from here. He doesn't share our values, he's from out of state.”
Those are two sides of the same coin. There's this attempt to establish an authentic idea that Montana is a place with values, and people from outside do not share these values. But there's no articulation of what these values are. They just become this subconscious heuristic of in-group signaling.
To say that there are Montana values is to say that there are white Montanans who hold a certain way of life that is cherished and must be protected, that people from the outside don't represent or believe in those values. And so right now, there's this conflict, increasingly, to define what is Montana and what does it mean. And I think that the Montana Democratic Party has really leaned into this idea. Of course, all of that is a fantasy.
Why do you think that conflict is increasing?
The desire to define an in-group and an out-group in Montana politics has always existed. In the 1880s, we saw labor unions in Butte, like the Knights of Columbus, saying that if the heathen yellow race and the Chinese come into Butte, it will be over for the white man in Montana. And so that rhetoric is not new.
I think this rhetoric is increasingly being embraced by white liberals in Montana, particularly the Montana Democratic Party, as a way of making themselves competitive in elections again. That's a direct reaction to what happened in 2020, but it was happening for a few cycles before then. As long as the Montana Democratic Party is running its candidates on this notion of Montana authenticity, Montana values, and Montana credibility, then they will always gravitate towards candidates who are either white men or give credence to notions of patriarchy and white masculinity. There is no liberatory Montana Democratic party that represents marginalized people in the state as long as they are embracing and holding onto this anxious false myth of Montana values.
I recently spoke to Rep. Ed Stafman about the thorny line between the real threats, versus the perceived threats, posed by inflammatory rhetoric; in that conversation, as it applied to Jewish people. Do you think a similar distinction is relevant here?
My experience with anti-Asian rhetoric being used politically in Montana and my reaction to it has been a deep feeling of dehumanization.
I don't think that this is a phenomenon that conservatives are exclusively responsible for. It's to sit in these rooms with people working in Montana Democratic politics, and to understand that they do not care if the political rhetoric that they're using is false, racist, dehumanizing, and harmful. What they care about is this imaginary idea of the median voter that they need in order to win elections. And for me personally, I didn't get into politics to win elections. I got into politics to express the ways of life that I believe in, in a place that I want to live in, and I continue to believe that. So I find it a bit cowardly and a bit pitiful when you see white political operatives embrace racist rhetoric in order to further their own careers, or to not speak out about it. That's something that I find morally reprehensible and indefensible.
Before we wrap up—how has your family reacted to your work?
My family immigrated to the United States—to Dallas, Texas—two generations ago. My grandfather's generation is sort of a classic immigrant success story: not being able to go to college and instead working a series of very difficult jobs and struggling being an undocumented immigrant, and slowly clawing out a life for themselves where they could then send their kid off to college to go be a doctor. And then that person could then have another child who goes off to college and is able to think critically about these sorts of things.
And so, the reaction from my family has been a bit of pride, and a lot of apprehension as well, [because of] the idea that successful Korean immigrants stay under the radar. They're not supposed to shake the boat. They're supposed to be respectful, they're supposed to be a model minority. And so when we're talking about destabilizing ideas here, that's an idea that I directly reject. I think that my survival in this town as a human with the same dignities afforded to other Missoulians is predicated on my ability to articulate the conditions of my very existence. And sometimes that requires creating new narratives and new understandings of self. And it's not something I could do alone. It's something that this whole community has to recognize is important to themselves.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
Paul Kim will host a walking tour of the Lower Rattlesnake on Saturday, September 23 at 10 am. Interested parties can meet him at the Mount Jumbo trailhead.
One more thing…
Saturday’s the day! I’ll be MC’ing the inaugural Power Strip Festival at the American Legion, featuring a terrific array of bands including Idaho Green, But I’m a Cheerleader, Cosmic Sans and Rocky Fall. See ya there!
Thanks so much for being here. In the meantime, you can always reach me via email, the comment section below, or on the Elon Machine, @SavageLevenson.