HomeAsian AmericansNew Mexico to erect a sculpture commemorating historic case of Yee Shun

New Mexico to erect a sculpture commemorating historic case of Yee Shun

By Ed Diokno
Views From The Edge

Commissioners of New Mexico’s Bernalillo County have approved the purchase of a public art sculpture that will recognize a landmark Chinese American civil rights case, reports the Albuquerque Journal.

The commissioners voted unanimously, 4-0, on March 27th in support of a motion authorizing the county manager to approve the purchase of a monument commemorating the Yee Shun case of 1882.

“The sculpture will inform the public about the contributions that Asian Americans have made to advance civil rights through use of the judicial system,” says Commissioner Maggie Hart Stebbins, sponsor of the measure. “This Asian American Monument will honor of the landmark civil rights ruling from Territory of New Mexico versus Yee Shun (1882) which granted Chinese Americans the right to testify in court and have their testimony accepted.”

Funded with a combination of local and state sources, the project has been in the works for a few years.

According to the county news release, Dr. Siu Wong initiated the project and raised $275,000: $100,000 from legislative appropriations in 2015, $155,000 in 2016, and $20,000 from the City of Albuquerque. Cheryll Leo-Gwin and Stewart Wong’s statue design was chosen from a national call for artists by the Asian American Monument Committee of New Mexico.

The piece is named “View from Gold Mountain” and will be installed near the state district courthouse in downtown Albuquerque. “The project uses symbols and metaphors that refer to not only Chinese culture and honor the Territory of New Mexico v Yee Shun case but are also universally understood by cultures around the globe,” the county said.

“As a visual artist, I use narrative imagery to bring forgotten history to the forefront. The histories I am interested in have to do with issues of social justice and celebration of the human spirit,” says artist Leo-Gwin.

Who was Yee Shun?

Yee Shun was not a civil rights hero fighting for justice but it was his name attached to a precedent-setting case that recognized Asian Americans as human beings whose testimony was equal to the testimony of White people.

John Wunder of the University of Nebraska-Lincoln wrote an article about the details of the historic case. Shun was accused of killing Jim Lee, owner of a Chinatown laundry in Las Vegas, New Mexico.

Among the witnesses was “Jo Chinaman” (as named in court documents), who identified Shun as the killer. His testimony led to Shun’s conviction despite the testimony of two other Chinese witnesses contradicting Chinaman’s testimony.

As Wunder’s review of the transcript and other evidence make clear, the trial was a classic case of poor man’s justice and Shun was convicted of second-degree murder and given a life sentence.

In his appeal, Shun’s attorney tried to disqualify Chinaman’s testimony, saying that because Chinaman was “of the Chinese religion,” he could not take an oath acceptable to a U.S. court and thus could not testify against Shun.

The territorial Supreme Court ruled that Chinaman’s testimony was admissible and Shun lost his appeal. In so ruling, the courts set a precedent allowing Asian Americans’ testimony in the judicial system.

Tragically, when informed of the verdict denying his appeal, Shun hanged himself in 1884 using bed linens in his jail cell in Leavenworth (Kansas) prison.

In subsequent years, Territory of New Mexico vs. Yee Shun was used to allow Asian Americans full participation in the justice system.

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