The Museum of Chinese in America: Continuity and Change

In its 37-year history, the Museum of Chinese in America has evolved from activist-inspired community organization to major cultural institution, even as its staff has maintained the museum's original vision and core values.
Entrance to Museum of Chinese in America, 2009. Courtesy Maya Lin Studio/Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).
Entrance to Museum of Chinese in America, 2009. Courtesy Maya Lin Studio/Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

By Linda Shopes

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which opened in its current space at 215 Centre Street in New York’s Chinatown in 2009, is about ten blocks from 44 East Broadway, where it began as the New York Chinatown History Project (NYCHP) in 1980. In some ways the distance between the two is, at least metaphorically, vast: what began as a small, locally based, activist-inspired community organization with a shoestring budget is now a major cultural institution that is national in scope, housed in a Maya Lin- designed, 15,000-square-foot space, with a $3 million annual budget. In other ways, however, MOCA remains true to NYCHP’s original vision: in its recognition of the complex history and nuanced identity of Chinese Americans; in the seriousness and care with which it documents and represents that experience and identity; and in its continuing effort to create, in the words of MOCA’s cofounder, John Kuo Wei Tchen, a “dialogic museum,” that is, one defined by “a work process where documentation, meaning, and re-presentation are acknowledged to be co-developed with those whom the history is of, for, and about.”[1] ­­Sustaining these values within the context of changing circumstances lies at the core of MOCA’s evolution over its thirty-seven-year history.

Origins: late 1970s—1983

The NYCHP—and hence MOCA—traces its origins to Basement Workshop, an arts-oriented community organization founded in 1970 in New York’s Chinatown as part of the contemporary Asian American movement for recognition, rights, and political power. It was there that Tchen, who worked at Basement’s Asian American Resource Center, and Charles Lai, who was running a youth jobs program and became MOCA’s cofounder, first met. By the late 1970s, influenced by both the then new social history’s focus on ordinary people and the radical pedagogy of Paulo Freire, they were discussing history as a force for social change, that is, how understanding the relationship between past and present can catalyze a powerful realization that we are all historical actors, that we all live in and hence make history. While some activist-historians were also considering these ideas, at the time museums and historical societies were typically focusing on the objects and stories of the powerful and wealthy—nearly no exhibit featured women’s, African American, or working-class history. Working against this tradition, Tchen’s and Lai’s discussions led to grant proposals and some foundation funding, the official incorporation of the New York Chinatown History Project in 1980, and then a National Endowment for the Humanities planning grant to develop an activist-oriented center for community studies.

These were years of change for Chinatown, with important implications for the nascent organization. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which had barred all but a few privileged Chinese from entering the United States, had been repealed in 1943, and though some had managed to elude the act’s strictures, not until the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965 was the eugenics-inspired quota system, which had allowed a mere 105 Chinese legal entry into the United States annually, abolished. By the 1980s then, the older generation of Chinese Americans, who had survived the racism of the exclusion era, was dying, leaving behind decades of mostly unrecorded history, even as thousands of younger Chinese, often ignorant of that history, were moving to the United States. Documenting this history thus became the NYCHP’s driving force. Tchen writes: “On my daily walks through the streets of Chinatown, I’d find amazing items simply tossed in the garbage: a leather case with woven Chinese slippers; letters and photographs dated from the 1930s; Chinese signs of a closing storefront left orphaned; a single photograph of an unknown man; and so much more.”[2] He and others started reclaiming these material traces of the past, sometimes literally dumpster diving to do so, and conducting research that developed a larger context for them.

Yet documentation wasn’t NYCHP’s sole purpose; it was equally committed to leveraging history to support an empowering sense of identity among an increasingly diverse Chinese American community and to making it visible to both that community and the larger public. As Tchen put it, “We sought to bridge the understanding of the experiences of the older generation with the new immigrants and for the new immigrants to look at their own experiences in that historical context.”[3] As with most community-based projects, doing this presented challenges. “The Chinatown History Project,” Lai recounted, “was a bunch of young kids trying to do documentation on people who don’t feel like they have anything to add—like my mother’s perspective, ‘We’re all just poor working-class folks that have nothing to contribute and nothing in my life is worthy enough. You should talk to somebody else, the suits or whatever.’”[4]

Laundry iron from a Brooklyn, New York, laundry, of the type used by thousands of Chinese hand laundry workers. Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

Over time, however, by maintaining a steady presence within Chinatown and patiently developing relationships, including within the intimate setting of oral history interviews, NYCHP gradually deepened its knowledge of Chinatown and earned the community’s trust. Its first exhibit, Eight Pound Livelihood mounted in 1983, about the history of Chinese hand laundries (the title refers to the weight of the irons used to press shirts), was a breakthrough moment: when older Chinese saw the exhibit (which included bilingual labels), they responded, “Oh god, that’s my life.”[5] By recognizing this backbreaking and underappreciated form of labor, one of the few to which the mostly working-class New York Chinese were admitted, as well as the dignity of the laborers, NYCHP encouraged these workers to see the value and historical meaning of their work—and their children and grandchildren to see them in new ways.

Opening of the Eight Pound Livelihood exhibition at the New York State Museum, Albany, 1983. Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

The Middle Years: 1984—2006

Eight Pound Livelihood, its travels both within and beyond New York, and a subsequent video documentary featuring six laundry workers brought considerable favorable attention to the NYCHP. Indicative of its growing presence in the community, in 1984 the project moved into what was previously P.S. 23 at 70 Mulberry Street, occupying four rooms on the second floor that served as exhibit, office, and storage space (and that now house MOCA’s Collections and Research Center). For a quarter century MOCA continued to collect and document Chinese American history; present exhibits and programs; expand its reach beyond New York’s Chinatown, including to groups other than Chinese; develop its institutional identity; and refine its dialogue-driven approach.

Several milestones mark its development. A 1942 photograph of Chinese and Italian American students at P.S. 23 included in NYCHP’s 1987 exhibit Salvaging New York Chinatown: Preserving a Heritage sparked unexpected interest among former students and teachers. Capitalizing on the opportunity, NYCHP organized several workshops and reunions that resulted in additional documentation (interviews and personal papers) and new areas of investigation and that reconnected people with their past and each other. The 1991 long-term exhibit Remembering New York Chinatown included both members of the Chinese American and non-Chinese in the planning process, as well as the usual scholars and museum professionals; the goal was dialogue that went “beyond exchanges of empirical information to deeper discussions of meaning“ that would then inform a broad investigation of individual and community identity formation.[6] The exhibit itself, in which a layering of materials allowed for varying levels of engagement, included opportunities to share memories with staff about themes presented and to add information to databases and displays, all of which then informed ongoing interpretation in a continuous feedback loop. An emphasis on the quotidian, on hardships rooted in racism, and on the humanizing act of remembering itself that characterized both the 1991 exhibit and the permanent exhibit Where is Home? Chinese in the Americas that followed in 1996 all deepened the project’s commitment to working in relationship with the Chinese American community and beyond.

This photograph of the class of 1942, P.S. 23, New York City, displayed in the 1987 Salvaging New York Chinatown exhibit, sparked memories among former students and teachers. leading to a series of reunions at the New York Chinatown History Project. Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).
This photograph of the class of 1942, P.S. 23, New York City, displayed in the 1987 Salvaging New York Chinatown exhibit, sparked memories among former students and teachers. leading to a series of reunions at the New York Chinatown History Project. Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

Not that there weren’t challenges, funding and hence staff shortages being among the most critical, as they made it impossible to follow up on some of the more labor-intensive ways of engaging the community. Indeed, in the early years the project survived largely on a succession of program-oriented grants and considerable sweat equity. Fay Chew Matsuda, a social worker and community organizer who served as executive director for more than a decade beginning in 1989, understood that “part of my mission in coming [to NYCHP] was to help make it into more of a permanent institution. And I knew I had to keep fundraising.”[7] She solicited individual donations from among her extensive list of contacts, initiated a number of high-profile fundraising events, and sought grants for general operating support. In 1992 the NYCHP renamed itself the Chinatown History Museum (CHM), “museum” suggesting greater permanence than “project” and hence more attractive to potential supporters. Arguably, the name change also reflected more accurately what the project had been doing—mounting exhibits and developing programs, the highly visible activities most likely to receive funding. Then in 1995 it changed its name again to the Museum of Chinese in the Americas to reflect an expansive mission rooted in an awareness that the Chinese diaspora was a hemispheric phenomenon and Chinese immigrants were no longer confined primarily to urban Chinatowns.[8]

On to the Present: 2006—Present

In 2006, MOCA announced a capital campaign to support expansion into a much larger space at 215 Centre Street; three years later, on September 22, 2009, it formally opened. Many of the reasons for the move were quite practical: the need for more space for expanding collections, larger exhibits and programs, and offices and meeting rooms; a desire for greater visibility and impact; and first-floor access. But it also reflected the logical next step for a maturing organization. As Matsuda has said: “By the time we were really looking for a new space [in 2004], we already recognized it was time. We were building an organization, an institution. There were all these incremental steps over the years, and it wasn’t like we did these things and it really never occurred to us why we were doing these things.”[9]

But broader contextual reasons also set the stage for MOCA’s expansion. The September 2001 attack on the nearby World Trade Center devastated Chinatown’s economy, and the museum came to play an increasing role in the community’s revival, for example pressing to ensure that Chinatown received a share of funds allocated for rebuilding. Additionally, post-exclusion Chinese Americans are different from earlier generations: unlike the pre-1965 population, which had been primarily from poor rural areas of Guangdong Province in southeast China, newer immigrants are from more diverse points of origin, with diverse identities. They—as well as the descendants of earlier generations—tend to be urbanized, often well-educated professionals with access to the resources to support a larger museum. As important, however, because Chinese in America live within a history of racialization, is the continuing need for MOCA’s work to understand that history, to connect people to it, and to recognize gains over time.

Interior of the famous Tuxedo Restaurant in New York’s Chinatown, ca. 1900. Entrepreneurial Chinese fashioned a version of “Chinese food” and “Chinese décor” to cater to American tastes, thereby helping to make Chinatown an exotic tourist destination. Postcard by J. Koehler, courtesy Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

And MOCA is keeping faith with this need. Fortuitously, prior to 2006 Charles Lai, well grounded in the museum’s original vision, had returned as executive director to help lead the expansion. The core exhibit, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, cocurated by Tchen and Cynthia Lee, vice president of exhibitions, programs, and collections from 1998 to 2009 and in place for the museum’s opening, is organized around nine chronological and thematic sections that cumulatively consider the complicated, often difficult relationship between Chinese Americans and the United States over time. One section, for example, eerily resonant with today’s political climate, considers the context and consequences of the 1882 Exclusion Act; another examines the stereotypes of Chinese and Chinatowns in American popular culture, as well as Chinese Americans’ creative responses to these stereotypes; yet another presents the personal stories of twelve individuals living in the post-exclusion, post-civil rights era. Maya Lin’s interior design for the museum enhances the thoughtful, contemplative mood of the exhibit. It is presented in a series of small rooms arranged around an open courtyard, evoking the intimacy of a Chinese home. Brick and lumber walls, dark floors, and soft lighting complement the exhibit’s often sobering themes. As S. Alice Mong, MOCA’s director when With a Single Step opened, remarked, “Lin sees our history as raw. We shouldn’t cover it up with beautiful walls. . . . What Maya celebrates is our origin. It’s not perfect, but it has character.”[10]

Cultural traditions have sustained Chinese American communities in the face of exclusion and discrimination; from MOCA’s core exhibit, With a Single Step, 2009. Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

Still, the vision of a dialogic museum can be difficult to maintain in a museum that has travelled a long way from its grassroots origins. Indeed, discussion about the desirability of the move to Centre Street took place within the museum itself. Cynthia Lee put it this way:

During this period—it was the late ‘90s—there was a real pressure not just on us, but on a lot of our Asian American community organizations to “professionalize,” to be a “proper” museum. I think that in some ways that was counter to what kept our spirit alive, and part of what was helpful was to feel that we weren’t limited by what a museum was supposed to be . . . I think that was something very liberating. By constantly thinking about limited resources, or that you’ll never be the Met or the American Museum of Natural History, you are limiting your own potential.[11]

MOCA reflected on its own history in the 2014-2015 exhibit Waves of Identity. Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).
MOCA reflected on its own history in the 2014-2015 exhibit Waves of Identity. Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

And Tchen admits that “MOCA is now so driven by the space—by keeping up with exhibits and programming and by fundraising—that it’s quite hard to enact the kind of dialogic approach we had adopted in the past.”[12] Yet it is present in the ways the museum has stayed true to the history of Chinese in America and to its own history. Much of the reason for this lies with the museum staff, whose family histories have often reflected the kind of social history that drove NYCHP and who have found in MOCA a ground for their own identity. Their work helps the museum maintain its integrity. This was especially evident in the temporary exhibit Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving, co-curated by Herb Hoi Chun Tam, curator and director of exhibitions, and Yue Ma, director for collections and research, as part of MOCA’s thirty-fifth anniversary in 2015. The exhibit included more than two hundred objects and stories from the museum’s collection, what Tam calls Chinese Americana,[13] organized around questions that have been central to its work for decades such as What Does It Mean to Be Chinese? Is This What They Really Think of Us? and How Does Memory Become History? Quite simply Waves of Identity was a dialogue with MOCA’s past. Past and present also mingle in the vast networks of people who have connected with MOCA over the decades, who turn inward to the museum to connect with their past, and who turn outward to bring what MOCA has made visible to arenas such as schools, libraries, and other cultural institutions.

A museum as a site for dialogue is no longer the radical notion it was in 1980, when the idea was pioneered by the New York Chinatown History Project. Many cultural institutions now employ various strategies to share interpretive authority with diverse audiences. Yet for MOCA, and likely for other institutions, what it means by dialogue has invariably changed over time. Perhaps, then. it is appropriate to end with Tchen’s recent thoughts on the matter: “Since my initial ideas of dialogue in museums, the questions for me now are, What kinds of spaces are we creating? How are we curating spaces for people to have more in-depth reflection and deliberation, instead of creating a binary of one stark position versus another and asking people to choose one? We’re talking about a more complex, more internal self-reflection, asking, ‘Why do I think this way?’” And, finally, “Why does the society still not recognize the Chinese Exclusion Act as an important part of United States history?”[14]

Linda Shopes is contributing editor for CrossTies.

Thank you to the following individuals, long associated with the Museum of Chinese in America and its antecedents, who spoke with me about their experiences with the institution: Beatrice Chen, Cynthia Lee, Yue Ma, Fay Chew Matsuda, Herb Tam, and especially John Kuo Wei Tchen, whom I have known for many years and who both talked with me at length and put me in touch with his colleagues. My thanks also to Sophie Lo, communications and public programs coordinator at MOCA, who was most helpful in locating and providing copies of photographs from the museum’s collection.

[1] John Kuo Tchen and Liz Šev?enko, “The ‘Dialogic Museum’ Revisited: A Collaborative Reflection,” in Letting Go: Sharing Authority in a User-Generated World, ed. Bill Adair, Benjamin Filene, and Laura Koloski (Philadelphia: The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage, 2011), 82. See also Tchen, “Creating a Dialogic Museum: The Chinatown History Museum Experiment,” in Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture, ed. Ivan Karp, Christine Mullen Kreamer, and Steven D. Lavine (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992), 285-326.

[2] John Kuo Wei Tchen, “An Experience Un-Disappeared: A Counter-Archive to the ‘Master Narrative’,” in Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving (New York: Museum of Chinese in America, 2015), 35.

[3] Tchen, email to the author, February 21, 2017.

[4] Charles Lai and Ryan Wong, “Oral History Charles Lai,” in Waves of Identity, 105.

[5] Ibid., 107.

[6] Tchen, “Creating a Dialogic Museum,” 298.

[7] Fay Chew Matsuda and Ryan Wong, “Oral History Fay Chew Matsuda,” in Waves of Identity, 113.

[8] The name was abbreviated to the Museum of Chinese in America in 2007. According to Matsuda, “‘In the Americas’ . . . was a very awkward name, and a lot of board members couldn’t get it straight—not a good sign.” (ibid., 116). It also proved difficult to amass documents, collect artifacts, and produce programs on a hemispheric scale, given the size of the staff.

[9] Ibid., 118.

[10] Carol Strickland, “Museum of Chinese in America Opens in New York,” Christian Science Monitor, November 16, 2009.

[11] Cynthia Lee and Herb Tam, “Oral History Cynthia Lee,” in Waves of Identity, 123.

[12] Tchen, telephone conversation with the author, December 18, 2015.

[13] Herb Tam, “Chinese Americana,” in Waves of Identity, 9.

[14] Tchen and Šev?enko, “The ‘Dialogic Museum’ Revisited,” 90; Tchen email to author, February 21 2015.