New Location Offers New Opportunity for MOCA

Museum of Chinese in America Relocates But Still Keeps Chinese American Identity Alive



The new MOCA location on Centre Street was designed by the famous Chinese American architect Maya Lin. (Marti Eisenbrandt/The Observer)

Published: October 22, 2009

“What is the floor made of under your bed? You say brick, but your father said dirt. Which is it?” This was one of the questions that greeted me when I visited the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) at its new location between Chinatown and SoHo. The plain wooden chair seemed harmless but strange by itself in a space covered with pictures and colorful propaganda. I wondered aloud whether I was supposed to sit in it while a movie would begin. Then I noticed the sign demurely printed on the wall next to the chair: “Please sit here to begin interrogation.” And then beneath it, “Can you answer these questions? If not, you’ll be deported.” The voice overhead began simply enough with, “What is your name?” and then “What is your date of birth?” He then asked my mother’s birthday and persisted, “Can you give the birthdays of your mother’s brothers and sisters and approximate ages?” My palms actually began to sweat when he asked, “Did your house have two outside doors? Who lived opposite the  small door?” He grew more intrusive still. “Who lived in the third house in the second row of houses in your village?” These were just a few of the questions I sat through, some of which were sporadically repeated to throw off my concentration.

Releasing myself was easy, though, when I realized that I didn’t actually have to answer.  The rest of the museum was significantly less daunting. Designed by renowned artist and architect Maya Lin, the newly renovated space at 215 Centre St. is reminiscent of a Chinese courtyard, with partitions to guide the visitor chronologically through the museum. The partitions form smaller and more intimate cloisters, within which are specific blocks of time detailing the progress of two parallel journeys: the efforts of the Chinese to see themselves as part of American history and the growth in the American perception of the Chinese. As you enter the first cloister, the right side is structured by the timeline, which wraps around the museum at waist level and begins at 1405, with the naval expeditions of fleet admiral Zheng He. His travels marked the beginnings of China’s trade with the West, which for several hundred years was more of a haughty export service on China’s part. An excerpt printed on the wall from a 1793 letter from Emperor Qian Long to King George III reads, “China possesses all things… and has no need for your country’s manufactures.” Less than than 50 years later, Britain’s eagerness to create a Chinese dependence on foreign goods would result in the devastating First Opium War.

The left wall is dedicated to notable Chinese-Americans and their stories, beginning with Ah Bing, who, along with horticulturist Seth Lewelling, developed the Bing cherry. In the center of that first cloister is the terrifying chair designed to give the visitor a taste of the immigration experience at Angel Island.

The “eight pound livelihood” is the focus of the next room, dedicated to laundry, one of the only occupations that early Chinese immigrants were thought suitable to pursue. The nickname comes from the standard iron that laundries used—one of which is on display with several other laundry implements—and which the visitor is invited to try out. It indeed weighs eight pounds, and I struggled to lift it more than a few inches from its stand.

In the next room, two photographs take up the largest wall. They are the same except that one has been doctored to remove a white man from the image. It was taken by Arnold Genthe, a photographer who ventured into Chinese quarters and captured images that he hoped would plant the idea of “little Chinatowns” spreading across America, editing street scenes so that there were no European-Americans in them.

The next few rooms show the early ventures of Chinese-Americans into popular culture, from their place in the entertainment industry—mostly through exploitation of their “exoticism” and supposedly sinister nature—to the introduction of streamlined Chinese food. An excerpt on the wall compares the lives of two magicians of the late 1800s, Ching Ling Foo and Chung Ling Soo. The latter was actually William Ellsworth Robinson, an American stage performer who took many of Foo’s tricks for his own, and scrupulously maintained his successful alter ego, the “Marvelous Chinese Conjurer”— he never spoke on stage, and used an interpreter when interviewed—until his death in 1918. “Better Dead Than Wed” reads a movie poster featuring the now famous super-villain, “the insidious Fu Manchu,” whose eponymous mustache has become a telltale sign of cinema villainy, carrying off a blonde bombshell to his lair, where more damsels in distress await.

An advertisement in an early women’s magazine promises to show “How to Please Your Husband” and details how pleased he will be when his wife uses La Choy’s brand of canned ingredients to create impeccable chop suey. The menus from Chinese restaurants on the wall look much like they do today, and a few are early incarnations of menus from shops in the area. I was disappointed at this point in my visit to see that the museum does not shed much light on the development of New York City’s Chinatown, where opposing gangs once ruled and fought each other between Mott Street and Pell Street. The museum does, however, host walking tours of Chinatown each Saturday.

At the next turn, there is the option to take a peek at an example of a contemporary Chinese herbal shop, the likes of which my mother still visits to pick up monthly bags of mysterious and smelly herbs, teas and various creatures, which have at some point included tiny, dried seahorses. The museum’s supplies are more orthodox and include staples like tins of tea and old-fashioned cold remedies.

Returning to the historical element of the museum, the timeline has reached the 1940s, to WWII. Anti-Japanese sentiment is rampant within the country, and the previous fear of Chinese communism overtaking America is swallowed by wartime propaganda against Japan. An advertisement instructs the reader on “How to tell  Japs from the Chinese,” complete with carefully dissected and labeled pictures, establishing the “good Chinese worker” from the “Japanese warrior.”

Finally, past the beam of sun coming in through the skylight is a long wall honoring notable Chinese-Americans of present day, the most recent addition being Steven Chu, the winner of the 1997 Nobel Prize in Physics who was  appointed to the position of United States Secretary of Energy earlier this year.

On the opposite wall is a map of the world, on which strings are drawn from cities of the world to show the paths of some Chinese American families. Visitors are invited to leave input and tell the journeys of their own families as well as provide information for projects that they think will enhance the museum. This is part of the museum’s current exhibit, “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America,” which will be an ongoing effort to use contributions of visitors to establish the significance of the Chinese in American history. Once, the idea of being Chinese in America meant existing in a world parallel to Americans themselves, but the museum itself represents a change in this perception; its very expansion is proof that the journey from China to America has become the exploration of being Chinese American.