Museum of Chinese in America opens in New York
The exhibits, which narrate 200 years of struggle for the Chinese in the United States, puncture old stereotypes and some that still lurk.
New York boasts a brand-new museum, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which is noticeably different from others. Many of the artifacts were salvaged from the detritus of Chinatown: straw sandals from Mott Street, an eight-foot sign advertising a Chinese laundry, and shelves from a general store being dismantled on the Bowery. Forget bidding at auction for precious items like jade and lacquer. Dumpster diving was one tactic to assemble the collection. "We don't have spectacular pieces that fetch a lot of money at Christie's," says S. Alice Mong, MOCA's director, "but letters and things that are memories, stories, and histories."Skip to next paragraph
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MOCA began 30 years ago as a grassroots organization founded by Charles Lai, a community activist who grew up in Chinatown, and historian John Kuo Wei Tchen. "When Charlie and I started," Mr. Tchen says, "there was no place to find true stories of the Chinese in New York, although there were plenty of places to find stereotypes."
The Tony Award-winning playwright David Henry Hwang agrees. When researching Chinese history for his plays like the 1988 hit "M. Butterfly," the lack of documentation, he says, showed "a vacuum of information about this important group and important piece of the American story."
The facts to fill in the blanks resided in old-timers' memories. The two founders conducted oral history interviews with elderly residents of Chinatown. Now the relics and stories are housed in a handsome space designed by famed architect Maya Lin. In an opening ceremony Sept. 22 featuring a traditional lion dance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg "dotted the eye" of the lion with a red mark, symbolically awakening it and bringing the new facility to life.
What brings the collection to life are the stories collected by Mr. Lai and Tchen. It's a narrative of hardship and struggle that includes 200 years of history of Chinese in the United States. It is not, for the most part, a pretty story.
Chinese began arriving in large numbers in California during the gold rush of the 1850s, then played a major role in building the transcontinental railroad in the 1860s. Yet by 1870, these "rice-eaters" were vilified. A New York newspaper claimed Chinese workers "will work for half price, and live upon a mouse or a rat, and call it a dainty morsel." Labor leader Denis Kearney appealed to xenophobia when he labeled Chinese "almond-eyed lepers."
The Naturalization Act of 1870 specifically excluded Chinese residents from becoming US citizens, and in 1882 the Chinese Exclusion Act forbade Chinese laborers from immigrating to America, the first federal law to restrict immigration based on nationality. Prior to this, an open-door policy had welcomed a flood of immigrants, with only "prostitutes, lepers, and morons" excluded, a roster of undesirables to which the Chinese were added.