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Museum of Chinese in America Explores the Immigrant Life

A room called the General Store has objects from old stores in Chinatowns across the U.S.
A room called the General Store has objects from old stores in Chinatowns across the U.S.

Exhibits in New York show history and culture of Chinese-American communities.

BOB DOUGHTY: I’m Bob Doughty.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus with EXPLORATIONS in VOA Special English. Today we go to New York City to visit the Museum of Chinese in America. Last year, MOCA reopened in a new and much larger building in the city’s Chinatown neighborhood.

The museum’s exhibits teach visitors about the art, culture and history of Chinese-Americans. MOCA says its aim is to show both the many layers of their experience and America’s development as a nation of immigrants.


BOB DOUGHTY: The Museum of Chinese in America may be in a newly restored building, but its roots go back thirty years. It began in nineteen eighty as a community organization called the New York Chinatown History Project. Activist Charles Lai and historian Jack Tchen were its creators. They realized that the memories and experiences of older generations of Chinese people in America were slowly disappearing. So, they decided to document these experiences by recording stories, taking pictures and collecting objects.

Jack Tchen has said that when he and Charles Lai started, there was no place to find true stories of Chinese people in New York. But he said there were many places to find stereotypes. A stereotype is a simplified and generalized idea about a group of people.

FAITH LAPIDUS: Ting-Chi Wang is exhibitions manager at MOCA. She took us on a guided visit of the museum. She leads us to a two-level room in the middle of the museum.

Courtyard of the Museum of Chinese in America
Courtyard of the Museum of Chinese in America

TING-CHI WANG: “This is really the heart of the museum in many ways. First of all architecturally, this is the center of the museum. Secondly, conceptually this is what we call a courtyard. What a courtyard does in a traditional Chinese house is really it connects all the rooms.”

BOB DOUGHTY: Maya Lin is a Chinese-American building designer and artist. She is best known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C. MOCA hired Maya Lin to design their new building. She turned an old industrial machine repair shop into a warm and inviting space for exhibitions, offices and classrooms.

TING-CHI WANG: “Maya Lin knew that history is very important for us, while we also want to emphasize the importance of looking forward.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: With this in mind, Maya Lin designed the building so that it has two entrances. They represent past and present, old and new. The main entrance faces the traditions of Chinatown. The other entrance faces the modernity of the neighborhood called SOHO.

The main exhibit wraps around the central courtyard. The courtyard walls contain several glass openings where videos are shown. They represent different periods of Chinese-American history.

As you go through the rooms of the exhibit, you can listen to the videos and see back into the courtyard through the glass.

BOB DOUGHTY: Ting-Chi Wang leads us to the permanent exhibition called “With a Single Step.” She says that the exhibition about Chinese immigrants in America was based on the idea of a hero’s travels.

TING-CHI WANG: “The concept of journey works out very well. In the sense that it’s literally, of course, a journey that the immigrants have taken, but also it’s the journey of America as country.”

FAITH LAPIDUS: The exhibit begins in the late seventeen hundreds and eighteen hundreds. It tells about the exchange of goods and people between China and western countries. And it tells about the role Chinese workers played in helping to build America into an industrial power.

The exhibit discusses the Opium Wars that took place in the middle of the nineteenth century. These trade disputes between China and Britain resulted in China being forced to open more of its ports to trade with western countries.

BOB DOUGHTY: The exhibit also tells about the many Chinese workers who came to the United States starting in eighteen forty-eight. They tried their luck in California’s Gold Rush. By the eighteen sixties, the Central Pacific Railroad was hiring Chinese workers in huge numbers. They helped build part of a railroad that would cross the United States. The Chinese workers became known for their skill and hard work. But they soon faced discrimination and political oppression.

By eighteen eighty-two, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Exclusion Act suspended the immigration of Chinese workers into the United States. This was the first law in American history to put restrictions on immigration targeting one nationality. Chinese people trying to enter the United States would say they were related to families already in America by using false documents. These immigrants who tried to prove their family history to American officials this way were called “paper sons.”

Immigration was not completely reopened until the Immigration Act of nineteen sixty-five.


FAITH LAPIDUS: The museum tells about this history with personal photographs, documents, objects and videos. For example, a toy from the nineteenth century has two forms, a man in western clothing and a Chinese man. When you press the toy gun’s trigger, the western man kicks the Chinese man in the back. The racism represented by this object is hard to believe today. But it tells a great deal about social and political tensions during the late eighteen hundreds.

Another area has a collection of irons and other devices used for cleaning and pressing clothes in Chinese laundries. Working in such a laundry was known as the “eight-pound livelihood” because a person had to lift an iron weighing almost four kilograms all day.


BOB DOUGHTY: The museum explores the complex situation of Chinese-Americans and how it has changed over time. For example, China became an ally of the United States during World War Two. But this alliance ended when China became a communist country in the nineteen fifties. And, the countries’ relationship changed again as China became a major trading partner.

FAITH LAPIDUS: One room in the museum is called the General Store. It includes thrown away objects collected from old stores in Chinatowns across the United States. Chinese-Americans formed strong communities in Chinatown neighborhoods within many cities. These include San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago. The exhibit shows the importance of such stores in these communities. Chinese-Americans could buy goods, mail letters and money home, get news about the community and meet with friends. Here is a nineteen eighty-eight recording of a man’s memories of his local general store.

LUNG CHIN: “The workers would come into this store at seven o’clock in the morning and work until twelve o’clock at night. Eighteen hours a day was nothing. And they slept there, they ate there, they had their lunch there. Their whole life was in that store, making money: saving it to go home, giving up money to send it back annually.”

BOB DOUGHTY: Many areas of the museum celebrate the successes of individuals.

TING-CHI WANG: “And on the inner wall close to the courtyard actually what you see are some glittering tiles, that’s what we call the luminary wall.”

BOB DOUGHTY: Each lit rectangle tells about a Chinese-American who has been important in American or world history. For example, you can learn about Ah Bing. This plant expert helped develop a new version of a fruit that now carries his name, the Bing cherry. Or, you can learn about Chien-Shiung Wu. She was a top nuclear physicist who made many important discoveries. She won the National Science Medal in nineteen seventy-five.

FAITH LAPIDUS: But MOCA is not just interested in the past. It wants to look at what it means to be Chinese-American today and what it will mean looking forward.

One of its projects is called the MOCA StoryMap. This online project allows Chinese-Americans across the country to tell about their history and experiences. Google technology allows each person who tells a story to show where he or she lives on a map of the United States.

TING-CHI WANG: “And once again, it’s about the journey. It’s about locality. So we want people to pinpoint where they are now and to tell a story related to their own immigrant experience.”

BOB DOUGHTY: One woman in Indianapolis, Indiana wrote about feeling very un-American while celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday with her parents.

Another man in Seattle, Washington writes about his family’s terrible experience fleeing first from China, then from Cambodia and Vietnam before arriving in the United States.

Ting-Chi Wang says the online stories are part of the MOCA collection that she hopes will become part of the permanent exhibit.

FAITH LAPIDUS: The Museum of Chinese in America also has temporary shows. Its current exhibit includes the work of twelve artists of Chinese ancestry who live in New York. The show is one of MOCA’s many efforts to move beyond generational, geographical and cultural boundaries in exploring Chinese-American identity.


BOB DOUGHTY: This program was written and produced by Dana Demange. I’m Bob Doughty.

FAITH LAPIDUS: And I’m Faith Lapidus. For a link to MOCA’s StoryMap project, visit our Web site, Join us again next week for Explorations in VOA Special English.