Welcome! The History Center is requiring that all visitors continue to wear masks inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture. Our visitors include young audiences and others who are unable to be vaccinated. We appreciate your respect and awareness in following our Health & Safety Protocols to keep all our visitors safe. 

In the 19th and early 20th century, Cornell students represented almost all of the people of Asian heritage in Tompkins County.   Cornell’s first Japanese student, Kanaye Nagasawa, studied Natural History in 1870; the first Japanese graduate, Ryokichi Yatabe, graduated in 1876.  After 1900, international students came in increasing numbers. Alfred Sao-ke Sze, the first Chinese student, graduated in 1901. In 1906, the Trustees authorized six scholarships a year for Chinese students. In 1908, funds authorized by President Theodore Roosevelt from the Boxer Indemnity, imposed on China after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900, were used to fund these scholarships. Many Chinese students came to Cornell. The most illustrious was undoubtedly Hu Shih, sometimes called “the father of the Chinese literary renaissance,” who graduated from Cornell in 1914. Six Indian students entered the College of Agriculture in 1905, and considerable numbers followed. The 1908 Alumni Directory lists 53 Japanese alumni, 37 Chinese alumni, 26 Filipinos, 16 Indians, and one Korean. By 1922, students also came from Java, the Malay States (Malaysia), Siam (Thailand), and the Straits Settlements (Singapore). 

Beginning in the 1970s, the Asian population of Tompkins County began to grow, with people from China, Korea, and Japan. People came from India as well as from Southeast Asian countries, especially Vietnam, Thailand, and Indonesia. Tibetan refugees came, and in 1992, they established the Namgyal Monastery of Buddhist Studies, which brought the Dalai Lama to Ithaca. A monastery, Du Khor Choe Ling opened in 2004 in Danby. In the 1990's and 2000's Ithaca became home to a number of refugees from Myanmar (Burma) who re-settled in Ithaca.

President George H. W. Bush designated May as Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month on May 7, 1990, following the passage of Pub. L. 101-283 by Congress. This law also recognized the significance of May 7th and May 10th in the history of Asian and Pacific Islanders. May 7, 1843, is the date on which the first Japanese immigrants arrived in the United States, while on May 10, 1869, the first transcontinental railroad in the United States was completed with significant contributions from Chinese pioneers. In 1992, Congress passed Pub.L.102-450, which permanently designated May of each year as “Asian/Pacific American Heritage Month.

His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama arrives at the Ithaca Airport in 1979 during his first trip to the United States. Picture by Elaine Mansfield.

Pearl Buck worked on the third volume of the trilogy that she had begun with The Good Earth while living in Cayuga Heights in the early 1930s. First edition pictured, published in 1931, cover artist Matthew Louie. 

Learn about the lives of Asian and Pacific Islanders in Tompkins County from the resources on our website, by visiting our Exhibit Hall, and through exploring our Archival Collections





Oral Histories available in our Research Library*

  • Tal Oron Cohen (2019)
  • Ooy & Bonner Herren (2019)
  • Baldev & Kamaldeep Sekhon (2019)
  • Amy Somchanhmavong (2019)
  • Mimi Melegrito (2018)

**Thanks to a two-year (2021–2022) grant from the Institute of Museum & Library Services, The History Center has been funded to make more of its oral history collections available remotely. Part of this project includes expanding virtual access and lesson plans for our Asian Diaspora in Tompkins County Oral History Collection. Contact to learn more. 


      Image by Sol Goldberg of children reading at the library. Taken between 1956–1965 in Ithaca, NY. From the Sol Goldberg Photograph Collection.


      HistoryForge is an innovative digital history project combining maps, archival records, and census data that allows any community to explore its local history through the individuals who lived there and the buildings and neighborhoods they lived in.  

      Ithaca HistoryForge includes over 70,000 digitized census records of Ithacans from 1910–1940, and is in the process of adding tens of thousands of building records to the database. 

      By searching the database using the "Race," "Place of Birth," or "Foreign Born" filters on different census years you can learn about Asian residents of the City of Ithaca between 1900–1940.

      Each red dot indicates an Asian (Indian, Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Hindu, or Korean) household from the City of Ithaca 1930 Census. Learn more about these residents of Tompkins County at

      Learn more about these residents of Tompkins County at


      Karen Mural Project - Part of the "History & Art Walking Tour of Downtown Ithaca" - was completed over the course of a month in 2019 by Karen and Burman teen members of the 4-H Urban Outreach Program at Cornell Cooperative Extension of Tompkins County with help of local artist Dan Burgevin. The mural depicts Karen-Burman refugee families journeying to Ithaca to escape genocide in Myanmar (formerly Burma).

      Dancers from Hula Hut Polynesian Dance perform at the Ithaca Farmers Market on September 20, 2015. The Ithaca-based Hula Hut/halau has been sharing Polynesian dance and culture in the community since 2005. 

      Dancers perform during Tibetan Cultural Day in Ithaca, New York, in 2016. This annual event is organized by the Tibetan Association of Ithaca. 

      A Kid's Eye View - Tibetan flags representing Namgyal Monastery - Part of the "History & Art Walking Tour of Downtown Ithaca"


      His Holiness Tenzin Gyatso the 14th Dalai Lama presents Ithaca College President Emerita Peggy R. Williams with a ceremonial kata scarf in 2008In 2016, His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama selected Ithaca, NY, to be the site of an international center for the study of Buddhism. Ithaca has been home to the Namgyal Monastery, the North American Seat of His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama, since 1992. Namgyal-Ithaca was founded with the mission of offering Western students the opportunity to study authentic Tibetan Buddhism in a monastic setting, and to provide a cultural center for the Tibetan and Buddhist refugee community living in Ithaca, NY.

      Pearl S. Buck (1892–1973), lived in the second-floor apartment at 614 Wyckoff Road in Cayuga Heights while completing a master's degree at Cornell, which she obtained in 1925. Buck received the Pulitzer Prize for The Good Earth in 1932 and began work on A House Divided, the third novel in The House of Earth trilogy, while living in Ithaca. The Good Earth, which was the best-selling novel in the United States in 1931 and 1932, is a work of historic fiction that dramatizes family life in a Chinese village and draws from Buck's own experience of growing up in China as the child of missionaries. She later won the 1938 Nobel Prize for Literature, becoming the first American woman to gain the distinction. Some scholars have credited her novels as laying the groundwork for sympathetic diplomatic relations between China and the United States in the twentieth century. 

      Hu Shih (1891–1962) was a prominent Chinese philosopher, diplomat, and scholar who helped establish the vernacular as the official written language of China in 1922. He also promoted the concept of building a new China through mass education instead of political revolution. Hu Shih enrolled as a student at Cornell University in 1910 to study agriculture, but later changed his major to philosophy, graduating in 1914.

      Hu was the Chinese ambassador to the United States from 1938-1942, the chancellor of Peking University from 1946-48, and the president of the Academica Sinica from 1957-1962. 

      Learn more: The Greatest Cornellian: Hu Shih, Class of 1914 (2015, Cornell University)

      On February 18, 2021, Indian-American Swati Mohan narrated the historic landing of the NASA Perseverance rover on Mars after a 292.5 million-mile journey. Dr. Mohan graduated from the Sibley School of Mechanical and Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University College of Engineering in 2004. As an undergraduate, Mohan studied with Mark Campbell, the John A. Mellowes ’60 Professor in Mechanical Engineering at Cornell. 

      In 1867, Kanaye Nagasawa (birth name Hikosuke Isonaga) was one of the first eight recorded Japanese individuals to come to the United States after having studied in the U.K. for the previous two years. Nagasawa was one of the 'Kagoshima Fifteen,' a group of young Japanese sent to study Western culture in the 1860s. He studied natural history and grape growing at Cornell University for a short period in 1870, and later moved to Santa Rosa, California, where he inherited the Fountain Grove Winery and became the largest winemaker in California. Due to discriminatory Alien Land Laws and President F.D. Roosevelt’s Executive Order 9066 in 1942, Nagasawa’s heirs were unable to inherit Fountain Grove after his death in 1934. He was the first individual of Japanese descent to live in Sonoma County, CA, and his descendants still reside there today. In 2007, a 33-acre park in California was named in his honor


      412 North Aurora Street in downtown Ithaca, the site of Namgyal-Ithaca from the 1990s until the 2010s. Namgyal Monastery moved to a location on East Hill in 2016. 

      Ithaca Dragon Boat Club in 2014 returning to the Cayuga Inlet docks.

      'Spilled (Soy) Milk' is a 2006 documentary directed by Ithaca College professor Changhee Chun exploring the lives of Asian-American residents in Ithaca and Tompkins County. 

      • Namgyal Monastery Institute of Buddhist Studies, located on East Hill, serves as the North American Seat of the Namgyal Monastery located in Dharamsala, India, which is the personal monastery of the 14th Dalai Lama, the spiritual leader of Tibetan Buddhists. Namgyal-Ithaca was founded in 1992 with the mission of offering Western students the opportunity to study authentic Tibetan Buddhism in a monastic setting, and to provide a cultural center for the Tibetan and Buddhist refugee community living in Ithaca, NY. In 2016, Ithaca was selected to become the site of a new international center for Buddhism. “His Holiness the 14th Dalai Lama's Library and Museum” will house the writings, teachings, and artifacts of all 14 Dalai Lamas, and is being built on South Hill. Namgyal also hosts the Tibetan Association of Ithaca, the annual Tibetan Cultural Day, and celebrations and related cultural programs in the community. 

      • Ithaca Asian American Association (IAAA) was co-founded in 1997 by Sivilay Somchanhmavong, who moved to Ithaca from Laos during the aftermath of the Vietnam War, and his wife Amy, who was born in Taiwan and lived in the Dominican Republic and New Jersey before settling in Ithaca. Ithaca Asian American Association was first founded in 1997 as Ithaca Area Asian Association. It was then reconstituted to IAAA in 2003. With the support and efforts of various individuals, IAAA was revived. Since then, IAAA has been developing its vibrant dragon boat program through the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club, and has hosted various community-based events such as the Lunar New Year Celebration and the Finger Lakes International Dragon Boat Festival. For further information please contact Amy Kuo Somchanhmavong ( or Sivilay Somchanhmavong ( IAAA co-hosts and co-sponsors the Ithaca Dragon Boat Club, the Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival, and many other events and community programs throughout the year.
      • Ithaca Dragon Boat Club and the Fingerlakes International Dragon Boat Festival was co-founded by Ithaca residents Amy and Sivilay Somchanhmavong in the early 2000s. The club and festival were established in the community to highlight Asian and Asian-American culture in the region, and to promote community building through this re-interpretation and practice of a traditional Chinese festival commemorating poet and warrior Chu Yuan. The festival is now sponsored and hosted by the Ithaca Asian American Association. 
      • Ithaca Pan Asian American Film Festival (IPAAFF) was created by Ithaca College student Katie Quan (‘15) in collaboration with Ithaca College professors. This student-run, student-led organization is dedicated to promoting AAPI films, video, and media created by, starring, and about Asian-Americans. They are committed to facilitating community engagement with a diversity of Asian-American identities and stories in upstate NY and nationwide. Since 2015, IPAAFF has held an annual showcase at Cinemapolis in Ithaca featuring domestic and international films, shorts, and documentaries in a range of genres and styles by emerging and experienced filmmakers. The festival is co-sponsored by the Ithaca Asian American Association.
      • India Community of Ithaca is a community of people in the Ithaca area with an affiliation to India dedicated to community services, knowledge sharing, social connection, and cultural awareness. 

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      Located inside the Tompkins Center for History & Culture

      110 North Tioga Street

      (On the Ithaca Commons) 

      Ithaca NY, 14850 USA

      Gayogo̱hó:nǫ' Territory


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