“Seasons pursuing each other, the indescribable crowd is gathered….”
This quote from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, one of my favorite quotes of all time, is now part of the Digital Media Wall located at the end of MOCA’s new core exhibitions, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America. I love it because it is so telling of MOCA’s spirit and commitment in the past 30 years and for many more to come. MOCA is a gathering ground and hub, where people of all backgrounds come to reclaim, rediscover, and celebrate the Chinese American experience. Next to Whitman’s quote on the wall, one can find a spread of videos, three of which are equipped with a touch screen. Visitors are encouraged to scroll through a list of twelve individuals and to hear them talk about how Chinese American history is relevant to them. Among the interviewees are John Liu, new comptroller-elect, previously councilman of New York City; Anna Sui, fashion designer; Frank Wu, civil rights lawyer and professor; Jeff Gammage, journalist and father to two Chinese adoptees, and Father Raymond Nobiletti, pastor at Transfiguration Church on Mott St in Chinatown.
These are but twelve highlights. There are many more people who, after visiting MOCA physically or virtually, find themselves spontaneously revisiting their own experience and actively making meaningful connections between the stories told by MOCA and those of their own. Almost always, many of them would immediately share their own stories with us. One soon realizes that people of different backgrounds are more closely related than we think.
This was especially true when I went home to Taiwan for vacation shortly after the new MOCA opened on September 22 last year. Before departing from New York, I knew the trip was going to be a little different from those before. I had scheduled two presentations in Taipei and Kinmen to share MOCA’s experience in building its new home. For those who find themselves unfamiliar with Kinmen, it is a 60-square-mile-short outlying island approximately 6.2 miles off the Southeast shore of China. While it’s geographically closer to the mainland, it is a part of the territory of Taiwan. It is this minuscule island that I am from. Although the audiences of both venues were generally intrigued with MOCA’s commitment to the immigrant experience, they came from rather different stand points and were interested in very diverse topics and issues.
The venue of my presentation in Taipei was the Department of Cultural Affairs of Taipei City Government. In the audience were mainly the employees of the Department who were involved with the project to build a new Taipei City Museum (tentative name). One crowd-member was from The Palace Museum, a museum comparable to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in terms of its prestige in the world of traditional Chinese art. With their affiliations and specific projects in mind, many of them poised questions that had to do with the logistics and statistics of MOCA, from the opening hours, to the visitor demographics, to how the curatorial foci were shaped. What I found interesting was that the approach that the Taipei City Museum is taking for the new museum is very similar to the approach MOCA takes. Like many American cities, they see Taipei as a city of immigrants that make up the fabric of the nation. This is a new reality for many major cities around the world because of globalization. With the increasing interest in people’s displacement and related discussions and issues around the world, MOCA is only going to be progressively relevant over time.
The attendees to my presentation in Kinmen were diverse in their interests. They found themselves connected with MOCA in a different but similarly significant way. The presentation was organized by Professor Chiang Bo-Wei from the Graduate School of Culture and History of Southern Fujian, National Kinmen Institute of Technology. Prof. Chiang was thoughtful in the choice of presentation venue. Initially, Prof Chiang intended to host the lecture at the Graduate School but he announced the change of venue at the last minute to the recently renovated Chen Jing-Lan Villa to better contextualize my lecture. Chen Jing-Lan was a native to Kinmen, who went oversea for better economic opportunities. He returned to Kinmen in 1921 with savings to build one of the most exemplary buildings associated with immigrant culture of the time. Like the early Chinese in the US at the turn of the century, many Kinmenese left home to Japan or South East Asia in search of jobs and opportunities. They would then send money home to support their families, like the bachelors of American Chinatowns. Some of them who did well could even afford to renovate their old home or build brand new houses for the family they left behind as a signifier of success. Chen was one of these successful emigrants. These new houses were oftentimes heavily influenced by Western style and usually reflected the architectural styles of their adoptive country. Such was the case of the Chen Jing-Lan Villa.
Between 1992 and 2005, the Villa was uninhabited and in dilapidation. After a joint effort of the academia and local authorities, the Villa was renovated and restored to its original glamour. The audience at the presentation at the Villa was larger and there was a mix of students, local residents, and people interested in cultural and historical preservation. At the end of the presentation, they gave me feedback that reflected more personal interest and emotions. Perhaps this was because of their sense of kinship with me as a native Kinmense and the passion they have for preservation of local heritage.
One of the audience members was particularly inspired by MOCA’s inclusion of the interactive device, “The 8 Pound Livelihood”, that allows the visitor to feel the weight of an iron used in a Chinese laundry that closed down in the 1980’s. Through the interactivity, the visitor is expected to have a sense of the hardship of laundry work, one of the main jobs many early Chinese immigrants in America had. The audience member continued to point out that similar to the Chinese American experience many Kinmen immigrants in Southeast Asia began with makeshift barber services on the roofed walkway. MOCA’s design helped her realize that there can also be participatory activity around the lesser known experience of Kinmenese immigrants in Southeast Asia at local museums or cultural institutions. Perhaps, she went on, they can offer barber services to the visitor in a similar outdoor setting to reenact and reinterpret history.
Regardless of the actual relevance behind her idea, the excitement in her tone was evidence of a connection between MOCA and these people of my own hometown, a tiny place thousands of miles away from America. Once again, I was convinced of MOCA’s unique capacity of engaging people and helping them make meaningful connections with each other and with history.