A day trip to New York’s Chinatown – as much as I enjoy it – always leaves me feeling like I’ve missed something important. Maybe it’s a guilty conscience: I love the trinkets, and impulse shopping always takes over. But I’ve often wondered: if I curbed my fascination for lanterns and Buddhas just once and set out for a deeper experience of Chinatown, how would I go about it? There seems to be an invisible wall between the tourist and the residents – it’s not exactly a place where you can ask a shopkeeper or the man bringing you your Dim Sum “Hey, what’s your story?”
Going to the new Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is to slip magically behind the invisible wall. It’s more an immersion into the Chinese American experience than a museum of relics — and a place where stories, even more than objects, are curated.
Designed by Maya Lin, of Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial fame, the heart of the facility is a small space dedicated to oral histories that’s wrapped around a sky-lit courtyard. Short, biographic films tell the rich and moving stories of Chinese who forged lives in the new world.
Sheila Chin Morris (b. 1946) tells about her father, laundry man Tung Funn Horn, who left a wife and daughter behind in China and started a new family in America, while Hazel Ying Lee (1912-1944), a member of the Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASPs) during WWII, remembers accidentally landing in a corn field in Kansas during training and being confronted by a pitch fork-wielding farmer, who saw her and started screaming that the Japanese were invading. “I said ‘I am a Chinese American for the U.S. military – you put that thing down!’”
Film actress Anna May Wong (1905 – 1961) tells about the challenges of being an ethnic leading lady: “… all I could play were roles where there were no kisses.”
Because this part of the museum is small, you can hear parts of other films being played near you. Turning your head, catching different frequencies and bits of people’s lives, you can feel unmoored – in an exciting way – inside the Chinese American wave of history.
A timeline threads delicately along the wall, helping put these personal accounts into the context of events like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Chinese Communist Revolution and the 1953 Refugee Relief Act. An extremely comfortable upholstered chair (why don’t more museums do this?) is planted in front of a1950’s-era TV that broadcasts The Chinatown Files, a documentary about the suspicion that Chinese Americans might have been communist spies during the Cold War.
There’s a lot of information here, but it’s put on tap in such creative ways that it’s easy to explore and make connections.
Other displays include a life-sized re-creation of an historic Chinatown general store that you can actually walk into, and a collection of antique irons that explains how Chinese Americans came to corner the hand-laundry service market. (The visitor is invited to pick up an 8 lb. display iron and imagine working days, months and years with this heavy implement.)
As a devotee of things Chinese, one of my favorite objects is a set of old wooden Chinese characters for a printing press. You can also see a hand scale used by Chinese miners to weigh gold in the 1850’s and a “Chinese Must Go” novelty cap pistol, ca. 1879 – 1890. According to the display copy, when the trigger is pulled, the man on top of the pistol kicks the other (Chinese) man and the cap explodes.
Finally, the museum acknowledges – with photos and short, snappy bios – Chinese Americans who have made their marks on American society. Many names are familiar: film director Ang Lee, cellist Yo-Yo Ma, figure skater Michelle Kwan, fashion designer Vera Wang. Others less so, but they have had small and large effects on your life, among them Ah Bing, who cultivated the Bing cherry, and Steven Chen, co-founder of YouTube.
MOCA’s gift store offers an outstanding selection of books. But if you crave the same kind of Asian tokens and paper ephemera that I do, the real treasures are outside in the shops . . . but that’s another story.
One good book: The Chinese in America: A Narrative History