Places that Matter

Museum of Chinese in America

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Museum of Chinese in America, core exhibit, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Museum of Chinese in America, core exhibit, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Museum of Chinese in America, Journey Wall, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Museum of Chinese in America, recreated Chinatown shop, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Museum of Chinese in America, recreated Chinatown shop, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Museum of Chinese in America, gallery, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Museum of Chinese in America, Centre Street entrance, photo by Molly Garfinkel
Pioneering museum with strong community base
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Place Matters Profile

The Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA) is the first full-time, professionally-staffed museum dedicated to preserving and presenting the history and culture of Chinese and their descendants in the Western Hemisphere. The museum is not just interested in the past, but also in the contemporary lives of Chinese in America. MoCA is distinctive in its commitment and ability to maintain a special dialogue and relationship with local Chinese, while at the same time reaching out to and serving the wider population.

How MoCA Started

John Kuo Wei (Jack) Tchen and Charlie Lai co-founded the museum in 1980, but its original name was the New York Chinatown History Project. Tchen and Lai met a Basement Workshops, the first Asian American cultural organization in New York, and their experience with projects that Basement footed made them want to delve deeper into Chinese American experience in the city. One thing to remember when you tour MoCA is that this is new history. Not that Chinese are new to the Americas; that goes back to the middle of the 19th century; but until MoCA and a few other places around the country started recovering and recounting that history in the 1970s, it remained invisible to most of us. By the end of the decade, twenty percent of the Chinese American population of the United States lived in New York's Chinatown, but the community's history was not yet formally documented. 

Since so little of the history of Chinese Americans had ever been recorded or written, the Tchen and Lai saw it as imperative that they start collecting and preserving the stories, documents, objects, and knowledge that were disappearing everyday as elders died and relatives threw away lifelong possessions that no one could imagine would have value. Tchen and Lai also needed to recruit others to the cause. Even the closing of a longstanding grocery store, restaurant, or hand laundry could mean that rare clues to the past would vanish without a trace. The the New York Chinatown History Project began with salvage expeditions through closets, basements, and dumpsters, which over the years have been a source of many finds, and a shared effort of staff, family and friends of the museum. 

Conducting urban archaeology was straightforward enough, but gaining trust from interviewees who had suffered decades of discrimination proved challenging at first. However, Lai and Tchen made the effort to bring the materials that they salvaged to the senior citizen center, where community members were gently encouraged to talk about the objects and their own histories. The communal aspect of recounting and recording the history of Chinese in New York inspired additional interviews and also prompted community members to contribute their own memorabilia. 

One key moment was an exhibit that Tchen produced at the Chatham Square Branch of the New York Public Library about the work and culture of Chinese in America. He later told an interviewer, "We'd seen seniors climbing three flights of stairs just to look at the exhibit. Some of them brought little flashlights, to look more closely for pictures of mothers or sisters or friends. They'd stand there talking for hours. It started to generate a lot of excitement, and that's when I realized we could use exhibits as an organizing tool to get more history."

In 1984 the New York Chinatown History Project took up residence in four rooms of 70 Mulberry Street. The museum was on the second floor; its gallery space designed by the NYC architects Billie Tsien and Tod Williams. 70 Mulberry Street was formerly Public School 23. The Norman Romanesque Revival building was constructed in 1892, and was one of the first school buildings designed by C.B.J. Snyder, a noted architect and Superintendent of School Buildings for the New York City Board of Education from 1891 to 1923. Schools designed by Snyder in other parts of the city have been landmarked (see the Census listing for P.S. 64/ El Bohio).

Until it closed in 1976, many of Chinatown's children attended school at P.S. 23. The New York Chinatown History Project, which was subsequently named the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA), hosted an exhibit called What Did You Learn In School Today? P.S. 23, 1893-1976. An earlier project had featured a 1930s class photograph, which drew many alumni and their families. MoCA staff recognized that the school was an important element in Chinatown's historical landscape, and thus they developed the larger exhibition in celebration of the institution's legacy.

MoCA organized three reunions for the graduates of P.S. 23. Those around in MoCA's early years still recall the first reunion in 1988 with particular pleasure. Thirty people returned RSVPs but over 300 showed up. The event drew former students from all the ethnic backgrounds that make up the Lower East Side's diverse stew. With memories of P.S. 23 to unite them, the aging graduates gathered amicably and shared their stories, not only increasing their enjoyment of each other and the event-- in some cases probably building cross-ethnic understanding that didn't exist in the schoolyard-- but also giving the staff more oral history material for the museum's archives and future programs.

The explosive growth of Chinatown with the 1965 repeal of restrictive immigration laws, and political and economic changes in both the U.S. and China, has kept MoCA running fast to keep up with the rapid turnover in the district. Through persistent outreach and collaboration, the museum's staff has convinced many community members that their old stuff really is important, and nowadays MoCA often gets calls from people who have things to donate. A recent, extraordinary call came from Marcella Chin Dear, whose family members were longtime Chinatown residents and property owners. As Lai and former V.P. of Exhibits, Programs and Collections Cynthia Less tell it, what awaited them were "dozens of textiles, hundreds of imported books, numerous boxes of old records, posters, game sets, instruments and family photographs, "along with store signs, ceramics, and furniture." It was an amazingly complete record of generations of the family's daily domestic and business activities and their connection to both Chinese and American cultures. It's been through these kinds of relationships with community insiders, and an activist approach to the collecting of oral histories and other types of evidence, that the museum has developed into a nationally respected resource. 

The New York Chinatown History Project was renamed the Chinatown History Museum in 1991, and Museum of Chinese in the Americas in 1995 to include the communities of Chinese that have settled throughout the Western Hemisphere. In 2009, the Museum of Chinese in America moved to 211-215 Centre Street, between Howard and Grand Streets. But 70 Mulberry is hardly abandoned. The Chinatown Senior Citizen Center is always full of active seniors, and the city provided space in the building to a number of non-profits. MoCA's space in the P.S. 23 building has become their archive and library. 

MoCA Today

MoCA's Centre Street facilities were designed by renowned Chinese American architect, Maya Lin. The new building offers 13,200 square feet of space for permanent and rotating exhibits, a research center with space for public programming, a classroom, meeting rooms and a workshop space. The building faces both Centre and Lafayette Streets, with the entrance on Centre Street facing onto historic Chinatown. The first-story facade fuses sumptuous materials like wood and bronze with contemporary elements like concrete and large glass windows. Upon entering the museum through the wooden threshold, visitors encounter the bronze tile "Journey Wall," an elegant solution to recognizing the museum's benefactors and their families' origins.

The core exhibit, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, wraps around the building's historic brick-clad, sky lit courtyard. With a Single Step presents an overview of Chinese immigration to the United States over time, and the narrative develops an exploration of Chinese lives in North and South America for the last century and a half. Early encounters between the United States and China are identified, as well as the significant role that Chinese played in the building of America. The exhibit discusses the American political climate between the 1870s and the 1930s, a period rife with exclusionary and discriminatory legislation. Labor, culture and domestic life in American Chinatowns are explicated through artifacts and photographs related to the hand laundry industry, stories about restaurants in Chinese family and community life, and a general store recreated from salvaged objected and collected memories. The exhibit investigates racial stereotypes, particularly through the lens of early twentieth-century perceptions and representations of Asian entertainers, nightclub singers and dancers. The core exhibit discusses the role of tradition in keeping Chinese communities strong and intact, as well as the role of World War II in changing American attitudes toward Chinese neighbors, a shift that ultimately led the way to Chinese American citizenship and class mobility. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 further leveled the playing field and increased opportunities for Chinese Americans. The 1965 Immigration Act enabled the rapid growth of the Chinese American community, and the discourse surrounding issues of identity, home, the past and the future has likewise expanded. The main exhibit culminates with a video installation featuring the personal histories of twelve Chinese Americans. New interviews are recorded and displayed every year. 

Visitors with more time to spend, who want guided tours of the museum or the nearby Chinatown community, are also welcome, and school and other tour groups come often. In addition to exhibits and tours, the museum also hosts readings, discussions, traditional arts workshops, children's activities, festival celebrations, and other public programs, either connected to specific exhibits or to its larger mission, like the school reunions. Virtual visitors can interact with with museum's prototype 3-D interactive map of New York's "Old Chinatown" district. Mapping Our Heritage Project covers an 8-block area of historic Chinatown, building by building, including in its database images of artifacts, photographs, documents, and oral histories, and welcoming new contributions by online users.

Over two decades ago, Tchen explained to Smithsonian Magazine that he and Lai were founding the museum because "we have generations of social amnesiacs with absolutely no idea of what came before. We're finally realizing that there is a history, that there were people who came before us, and that there's a great deal we can learn from them while they're still around." MoCA continues its original "cultural rescue" mission even as it evolves and develops with the times. 

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