Museum of Chinese in America

Edification value  
Entertainment value  
Should you go?  
Time spent 99 minutes
Best thing I saw or learned Mr. Spock was the first biracial person on American TV.  I’m not 100% sure that’s true but it was mentioned in a brief section on “hapa” (bi- or multi-racial) identity.  As Spock himself might say, “fascinating.”

I wasn’t sure what to expect from the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA for short).  I knew the space would be great — it was designed by Maya Lin.  But having recently been a bit disappointed by El Museo del Barrio, I had some concerns about how they’d program it.

MOCA is indeed a beautifully designed museum.  The space is consists of a series of rooms that surround a central open atrium, which extends from a skylight down to the classrooms, office, and restrooms on the basement level.  Scarred bare brick underscores the age of the building, and its more industrial heritage.  And windows carved into the rooms around the atrium ensure there’s always some natural light filtering in.  The windows aren’t just openings, though: videos projected onto them make them serve a very clever dual purpose — the videos are also visible, of course, from the atrium side of the glass as well.

The educational program succeeds as well as the building does.  MOCA does exactly what you’d expect:  tells the story of the Chinese immigrant experience in the United States. The show is largely chronological, starting with Chinese immigration to build the railroads and the subsequent racist reactions to Chinese immigration in the 19th century, which led to laws that essentially prevented most Chinese immigration, as well as constraining the kinds of work Chinese immigrants could do.

America, the imperfect
Try-it-yourself 8-pound iron; laundry work was called the “8-pound livelihood.”

It explores work that was available, explaining the rise of the Chinese laundry, and the role of Chinese restaurants.

There’s a segment on Chinese portrayals in popular culture, some of which are hilarious and some of which are really painful.  And also a look at the communities Chinese Americans built for themselves, including New Years celebrations, Chinese opera in America, and a great, immersive, reconstructed traditional storefront.

“Better dead than wed” –even a racist poster can sometimes tell the truth.

Along the way there’s a timeline compiling key events in US, Chinese, and Chinese-American history.  And in several rooms, one wall features glowing rectangular boxes that create a hall of fame for Chinese Americans from Ah Bing (who created the Bing cherry in 1875…who knew?) through Michelle Kwan.

Thomas Nast cartoon from Harper’s Weekly, 1871, with Liberty defending a Chinese immigrant. It’s reassuring that Americans weren’t ALL horrible.

The museumology here is terrific.  The amount of information packed in is a little overwhelming, but important and well chosen.  Audio clips as well as video helped balance out the wall texts.

In addition to the main space, there are two areas for temporary exhibitions.  They currently feature an awesome look at Chinese food in the US, featuring about 33 chefs.  Wall projections show video interviews where they speak about their lives and work and their take on “authenticity.”  The museum set up one room like a banquet, with place settings for each chef that includes a short bio.  This is a missed opportunity in our photogenic food-obsessed instagram age: there should be pictures of each chef’s signature dish at their setting.  Still it’s a fun show, including a collection of personally meaningful objects:  cleavers, cutting boards, menus, and such.  Martin Yan’s wok is there, and Danny Bowien’s favorite spoon.

Should you visit the Museum of Chinese in America?  This place succeeds admirably in what it sets out to do.  The building is beautiful. It features a tough, important slice of the American immigrant experience, and a story worth telling.  It is also a particularly timely story as the American government in early 2017 once again seems to be intent on closing the door to immigrants based on who they are and where they come from.  Definitely pay a visit.

For Reference:

Address 215 Centre Street, Manhattan
Cost General Admission:  $10.  Free membership for IDNYC holders
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