Photo by Kathy Tran.

When do you think the first person of Asian descent was listed in a Dallas city directory?

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Stephanie Drenka opens with this question at speaking engagements, usually fielding answers anywhere from the 1950s to the ‘80s. The answer is 1873, when J.L. Chow of Chinese descent opened Chow Chow Laundry on Elm and Main Street. In fact, 1873 is the first year that a Dallas city directory was made.

It’s Dallas history, but not the type taught to a young Drenka in grade school. She was born to Korean parents, then adopted as an infant by a family in Southlake. There, she went through the Carroll ISD school system, noticing a lack of representation in textbooks and extracurriculars.

“My mom was a children’s librarian, so I grew up reading, writing and in theater performing other people’s stories,” Drenka says. “At some point you just realize … I didn’t see myself in any of them.”

Eager to learn, Drenka minored in Asian American studies at DePaul University and began to research Dallas Asian American history after graduating. She discovered the story of J.L. Chow, and learned that he inspired Chinese immigrants Austin and Sam Shong to open their own laundromat in 1878, followed by a third in downtown Dallas owned by Sam Choi.

As multiple Chinese business owners began to succeed in a concentrated area, their white competitors responded with a smear campaign through the Dallas Daily Times Herald. A headline read “Danger In Inferior Laundries” and claimed that white customers of Chinese laundromats would run a risk of contracting diseases by allowing Chinese workers to handle their clothing.

The hellbent drive to push out Chinese businesses wasn’t exclusive to Dallas. In 1882, President Chester A. Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act, banning Chinese laborers from immigrating to the U.S. for the following 10 years. A decade later, California representative Thomas J. Geary proposed the Geary Act to Congress, intending to make the Chinese Exclusion Act permanent. It passed, and wasn’t officially repealed until 1943, when Congress removed all Chinese discriminatory laws and promised a yearly immigration quota of 105 work visas for Chinese immigrants.

“For Asian Americans, we grew up not seeing ourselves reflected anywhere,” Drenka says. “In the media, I think it’s slowly changing, but definitely not in textbooks and curriculum.”

Drenka sought to enact as much change as she could herself. She previously served as the communications director for Dallas Truth, Racial Healing and Transformation and founded her own online magazine, Visible, dedicated to highlighting underrepresented voices in the media.

In 2022, she co-founded the nonprofit Asian American Historical Society alongside designer Denise Johnson with the intent of growing a collection of Dallas Asian American artifacts and cultural relics to preserve and display their untold stories.

“We chose ‘Asian American’ intentionally based on its historic and political context,” Drenka says. “Asian American was coined in the 1960s by an organization at Berkeley who called themselves the Asian American Political Alliance. Prior to that usage, Asian Americans were known by their individual groups, or it was whatever label non-Asians would give us. ‘Asian American’ has a really powerful reclamation aspect.”

The Asian American Historical Society’s collection can be viewed online at their website, but currently resides unceremoniously in a storage unit. Drenka and Johnson’s top priority is to start a campaign to secure a physical location for the city to visit.

“It will be a community archive and storytelling studio,” Drenka says. “We want the community to be able to bring in their photos or videos and we can help preserve the items and add them to our online collection.”

Once a broad enough collection is built, the organization has bigger plans.

“The idea is that we would have a multipurpose or exhibition space to show our permanent collection and any temporary ones that we have, with the hope that someday it expands, potentially to a museum. Then further down the road, a full arts and cultural center,” Drenka says.

Dallas doesn’t have an arts and culture center dedicated to Asian American culture, and Drenka takes exception to the way the city and country at large celebrate it.

“This kind of hyper focus on what is different about Asian culture and an exotic vacation, it contributes to this idea that Asians are perpetual foreigners, that we don’t belong,” she says. “Our uniqueness is celebrated in a way but it also ostracizes us and keeps us excluded in other ways.”

Outside of culture, Drenka wants to make a change in the way the history of the city is understood.

“In this city, a lot of people appreciate Asian culture, but don’t recognize the contributions that Asians have made,” she says. “When the city did their racial equity plan, they had a timeline about the women changing Dallas history. The only reference they had to an Asian American was 2022 when Stephanie Drenka and Denise Johnson founded the Asian American Historical Society.”

Dallas is only one of countless American cities that have a similar disparity in Asian American representation. Drenka hopes that her mission could inspire others in different environments to attempt the same.

“If we can make the case that Asian American history is significant to Dallas history, I think this is something that can be replicated by other communities and led by people that are from it,” she says. “It’s not that we think we can accomplish all of this in our lifetime. It’s that we do as much as we can to set a good foundation for others in the future.”

Drenka and Johnson are joined only by their director of community engagement, Amy Tran-Calhoun and their youth engagement specialist, Jo Lew. The four-person team are the only recurring creative trust, tasked with commemorating centuries of untold history. It’d be a steep workload for any group, let alone one so young and made up of so few people. But for Drenka, the difficulty doesn’t matter.

“I have moments where I feel physically tired or exhausted,” Drenka says. “But emotionally, I feel grounded in my purpose.”