My first job ever, at age 14, was working as a waitress at a Colonial-themed restaurant called “The Pewter Pot.” I served tourists Patriot Fries and Franklin Burgers, occasionally in a bonnet and some kind of scratchy frock.
It sounds weird, but in my town — Lexington, Massachusetts — this was considered normal. Known as “the birthplace of American Liberty,” Lexington is a tourist town — only instead of black-sand beaches we have, you know, the chair George Washington sat on when he visited Monroe Tavern in 1789.
The real draw, though, takes place every year on what’s called “Patriot's Day,” when thousands flood the Lexington Green to see the first battle of the Revolutionary War brought to life.
When I was in high school, a lot of my friends’ dads took part in the reenactment. But even though my parents have lived in Lexington for over 35 years, we came there as immigrants, and I could never imagine my Dad as a Lexington Minute Man. With their antique guns and tricorn hats, I just assumed the Minute Men were some kind of WASPY, blue-blood, old-boys-club — you know, carrying on the time-honored tradition of keeping outsiders … out.
That’s why I was surprised when I learned about Henry Liu. Henry’s parents were both born in China, but he was born in Massachusetts and has lived in Lexington almost his entire life. For the past 24 years, he’s also been a musket-carrying member of the Lexington Minute Men.
“I remember going to the reenactments,” he tells me. “I’ve gone through photo albums and seen pictures of myself dressed as a young Minute Man.”
Despite being a massive history buff, Henry’s decision to actually join the Minute Men had more to do with his wife. Her brother, her step-father and step-brother were all members of the Minute Men.
“So, the greeting when we got together for family things was always, ‘Oh Hi Linda, how are you? And Henry, when are you joining?’ And I’d always chuckle and say, ‘Oh yeah, right, you really want a Chinese Minute Man in the ranks,’" Henry says.
It turns out that, yeah, they did.
“You know, it is kind of funny, because, you know, a lot of people ask me, they thought you had to be a descendant or a Son of the American Revolution to be a member and it couldn’t be further from the truth.”
Still, given Henry’s initial reservations, it would have been easy to take a backstage role. Out of over 100 members, only 77 Minute Men get onto the field, and a lot of those spend the battle face down, eating grass. Instead, Henry decided to own it. As he explains:
“From 2004 to 2006, I portrayed Captain Parker. And I’ve met people who’ve been to that reenactment, and they would always look at me and go, you were Captain Parker back then? And I’m like, Yeah! That’s somebody who’s standing in front of the company, telling the men what to do. Standing out in front, you know, you’re very visible,” Henry says.
“We’re standing on the ground where the battle actually happened, representing those actual people who were there. And I think the clock turns back, and people don’t see Asians or Blacks or anything. They see people in uniform, in militia outfits and they’re there to reenact history.”
The weird thing actually isn’t that Lexington has a Chinese-American Minute Man, but that there aren’t more of them. Since I graduated high school, the Asian-American population in Lexington has doubled, to 20%.
Henry has noticed the shift, as well.
“Actually, when I walk down the street in my Colonial clothes, and I see an Asian family kind of looking at me, I’m kinda hoping somebody would say, ‘Wait a minute — you don’t have to be, you know, a Son of the American Revolution to join? You can be Chinese and be in this company?’ And sort of spark that conversation.”
In the meantime, Henry’s maintaining the tradition of recruiting from within — his son is already a member of the Fife and Drum Corps, with dreams of portraying William Diamond on the battlefield one day.
I was right about one thing, though — the Minute Men are an old-boys’ club. Or at least a boys’ club. You can be an Asian-American Captain Parker, but you still have to be a US citizen. And you have to be a guy.
When I asked Henry if a woman had ever tried to join the Minute Men, he said no. Well, maybe as this story proves, there’s a first time for everything.
As for my own history, when I visit my parents in Lexington, I still go to The Pewter Pot — only it’s a Thai restaurant now, called Lemon Grass.
And trust me — that’s definitely a sign of progress.