The Museum of Chinese in America

Founded in 1980, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.

Michelle Obama, Jason Wu, and American Reinvention

First Lady Michelle Obama wears Jason Wu to the Inaugural Ball. (Photo credit Reuters/Rick Wilking)

First Lady Michelle Obama wears Jason Wu to the Inaugural Ball. (Photo credit Reuters/Rick Wilking)

On Monday, January 21st, fashion critics and fashionistas waited with baited breath to see what, or rather who, First Lady Michelle Obama would wear to the Commander in Chief Ball at the second inauguration of President Barack Obama, and her choice did not disappoint. She did, however, surprise many by opting for yet another stunning number by Taiwanese-American designer, Jason Wu, who designed her dress for President Obama’s first inauguration in 2009. This time around, she made a more daring sartorial decision, choosing a vibrant floor-length ruby-red halter-neck velvet and chiffon gown, which was a major departure from her first inaugural dress: a romantic, albeit demure, one-shouldered white chiffon concoction.

Since then, Michelle Obama’s fiery red Jason Wu dress has fueled endless discussions on Facebook, Twitter, and personal style blogs. People can’t seem to stop talking about the power of her dress and what it represented. After Michelle first wore Wu’s design in 2009, the designer’s career underwent a meteoric rise. Almost overnight, the nearly-unknown designer became a household name. Fast-forward four years: Wu has launched a wildly successful capsule collection for Target, won the prestigious Swarovski Award for Womenswear at the CFDA Fashion Awards, and regularly dresses A-list celebrities for red carpet events. Most recently, Wu was chosen as one of the 17 designers in the Museum of Chinese in America’s highly anticipated fashion exhibition, Front Row: Chinese American Designers, set to open April 26th.

Why is Michelle Obama’s choice of dress so important? After all, the piece is worn once then put away behind glass at the National Archives. The First Lady’s choice matters because more than fashion statements, inaugural dresses are potent cultural symbols. The gowns chosen by the First Lady – along with all its idiosyncrasies, from its color to its cut – tell a story about the woman wearing it, and moreover, about the current socio-cultural times in which we live. Perhaps the boldest fashion statement made in First Lady Inaugural history, Michelle Obama’s dress choice did not just jumpstart a young designer’s career, it set the tone for what the world could expect from her as a new First Lady. Elegant, confident, and empowered, she embodied the quintessential modern woman in Wu’s dress.

Clothing and fashion are effective mediums for self-expression, and perhaps even more importantly, tools for self-reinvention. And reinvention, after all, is one of the main tenets of what it means to be American: to create yourself according to your aspirations. As President Obama stated eloquently in his second inaugural address, “America’s possibilities are limitless, for we possess all the qualities that this world without boundaries demands: youth and drive…and a gift for reinvention.” Jason Wu, who immigrated to America when he was a child, is a living example of such an American dream. At a young age, he has become one of the most successful designers not only of his generation, but in the world of fashion. Our upcoming exhibition, Front Row, will showcase that creative talent and give audiences a feel for the transformative power of fashion and design.

Front Row: Chinese American Designers opens at MOCA on April 26, 2013. In addition to Wu, the exhibition features designs by Thomas Chen, David Chu, Melinda Eng, Jade Lai, Derek Lam, Wayne Lee, Humberto Leon and Carol Lim, Phillip Lim, Mary Ping, Peter Som, Anna Sui, Vivienne Tam, Yeohlee Teng, Zang Toi, and Vera Wang

Serena Cheng is currently a Curatorial Intern focused on the exhibition Front Row at the Museum of Chinese in America.


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Don’t Believe the Hype

-A personal view on Linsanity

Linsanity’s 2nd act is about to begin as his Houston Rockets prepare to face the Detroit Pistons on October 31 to open the NBA season. Jeremy Lin’s presence on the new GQ cover (he is the first Asian-American to do so in the magazine’s existence) is evidence that all the hoopla surrounding Lin clearly hasn’t dissipated from New York with his departure.  After reading the article I began to consider my own relationship to basketball as a Chinese American.

It might be surprising for you to read that I have mixed-feelings about Lin.  As a Chinese-American basketball player and coach, it was exciting to see another Asian American succeed at the highest level.  On the other hand, as an objective basketball observer his weaknesses stood out: the inability to dribble hard left, over-handling the ball, and jumping before he passes. He struggled to minimize his turnovers and was careless the ball– cardinal sins for a point guard whose primary job is to control the tempo of the game and be an extension of the coach.  However, one quote from Lin in the article struck me, and in it I found a way to relate to him as a basketball player.  In response to the idea that race played a significant role in his being overlooked by NBA teams:

“If I can be honest, yes. It’s not even close to the only reason, but it was definitely part of the reason…There’s a lot of perceptions and stereotypes of Asian-Americans that are out there today, and the fact that I’m Asian-American makes it harder to believe, even crazier, more unexpected,” he says. “I’m going to have to play well for a longer period of time for certain people to believe it, because I’m Asian. And that’s just the reality of it.”

I can relate to Jeremy Lin feeling pressure to play better for longer in order to break the perceptions and stereotypes he faces in the NBA.  I competed on Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams (NY Gauchos, NY Pride) that traveled and competed nationally. One year during try-outs with Gauchos, when teams were formed by the coaches, my new teammates looked at me with exasperation—to them I was dead weight because I was Chinese.  They didn’t pass me the ball and I became frustrated.  On one possession, determined to show my abilities, I hustled and grabbed a long rebound, ignored my teammates frantic instructions and passed it forward to a teammate who scored an easy lay-up.  My coach blew the whistle, and yelled at my squad:  “He is the point guard, give him the ball! Why did it take you idiots so long to notice that?!” That it took my coach’s intervention for them to consider passing me the ball is telling.

Another time, during my first practice with the Gauchos a teammate very seriously asked me, “Do you really eat egg-rolls for dinner every day?”  I was taken aback and confused that he believed all Chinese people owned restaurants and ate egg-rolls every day.  With Lin’s successes, would my former teammate–now playing in the NBA– have the same attitudes towards Lin as he did towards me when we were younger?

In 2005 I was recruited to play in Bill Chan’s Queens-based USAB Warriors team which began my association with the network of Chinese and Asian American basketball tournaments and teams.  Over the years, we won three national titles together. I recently won two national titles as a coach with USAB.  Throughout my time with USAB, every team doubted us, took us lightly, and looked down on us.

The GQ article prompted a reflection of what has Lin achieved. I am proud and excited, but also skeptical that he can match last season’s production. I also understand that the larger unanswered questions about Lin’s emergence are about perceptions of Asian-Americans. In essence, what is Jeremy Lin’s broad impact on society? I’m looking forward to November 9, 2012 when The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) hosts a panel discussion called ROCKET MAN: The Future of Jeremy Lin with Devin Gordon (GQ) and Will Leitch (New York Magazine), the editor and writer behind the history-making Jeremy Lin feature in November’s GQ.

Daniel Ng is currently the Curatorial Intern at MOCA and is a Master’s student at New York University in the program in Museum Studies.  He is one of the coaches for the USAB Warriors in Queens, NY, continues to compete in basketball leagues, and is a die-hard NY Knicks fan.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Public Programs, , , ,

AAWW Excerpted – Sea Salty: The Man and the Crab

We loved Harley Spiller’s post Sea Salty: The Man and the Crab on AAWW’s online magazine The Margins, about his friend and former Marine mess cook John Gun Pin. In the post, he remembers both Pin’s life and the last dish he prepared: ha cha (cured crab). We and asked to excerpt it on our blog. You can read Harley’s full post here. The Margins is the flagship editorial platform of the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, a bold new online magazine dedicated to inventing the Asian American creative culture of tomorrow.

Our no-fuss hero was born on the island of Donghai in mainland China’s Zhoushan Archipelago. He cut his eye teeth on Ningbo-style eats, an important facet of zhejiang, or Shanghai food, one of the eight cuisines of the vast Chinese cookhouse. Ningbo cooking allows natural flavor to predominate and is characteristically salty and fragrant. Locals prize soft textured seafood dishes like braised eel or fried yellow croaker, and preserved snacks that help stretch the abundant white rice, like ni law, salted molting snails with shells as small and translucent as pinky nails.

John’s Jackson Heights home was for years the closest I got to China. Fish draped with newspaper dried on lines under the eaves; the kitchen was re-purposed as cousin Coco’s acupuncture studio; and televised Chinese opera monopolized a visitor’s remaining senses. The basement, which opened onto a vegetable garden with fruit trees and a patio peppered with potted alliums, had been turned into an open kitchen. Aluminum-foil-wrapped appliances flanked a simple eating area, and jars of every description sat with their contents steeping, pickling, and curing in corners and on ledges selected for their particular qualities of temperature, light, and air. Eco-minded before their time, nothing in the Pins’ jam-packed fridge seemed to be in its original bottle.

John died in January 1997. His son Michael and I visited Rose Pin, his widow, a month or so later. Her cooking was subtler and more precisely executed than her husband’s, but the first thing she offered was the very last dish John had made—a bottle of ha cha—salt-preserved crab. Rose served John’s amuse-gueule but declined to partake. “Too salty,” she said.

John made two kinds of ha cha, always controlling the bottled admixtures for ullage. Both used the same ingredients, but one featured crab bodies, minced along with their shells. The other contained only claws, cracked but intact. Ha cha is best eaten by straining the chitinous bits through the teeth like a baleen whale filtering krill. Traditionally smeared over steamed white rice, the roseate Ningbospecialtyhas a squishy texture and, like John, a salty spiciness tempered with oceanic sweetness.

Like much traditional Ningbo cuisine, John was simple but ingenious, with a powerfully unpretentious character. Today there are 7.5 million Ningbo natives, yet Shanghai and its Shaoxing-wine soused “drunken crabs” steal the limelight.  There are few mentions of ha cha on the Internet and I have never heard of it being served in a restaurant. Other cured brachyura include the Korean chili-based yangnyeom gejang and soy-doused ganjang gejang, preparations so popular that the city of Gwangju boasts a “Street of Seasoned Raw Crab & Boiled Rice.” It seems that the only edible raw crab is the leg meat of zuwaigani (Hokkaido snow crab), which is turned into glistening sashimi. Eating more ordinary crab raw can cause serious infections from parasites like the ugly-sounding and acting lung fluke. Ha cha, ceviche, and other cured foods (think lox, ham) might appear raw to the uninitiated, but they are ready to eat.

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MOCA Monday: Music at MOCA Follow Up

Last Friday’s MOCAMIX was an awesome evening. Many thanks to Min Xiao Fen and Christopher Yahng for kicking off this fantastic new series! (Interested in attending MOCA programs? Check out our website and join our mailing list!)

Min Xiao Fen and Christopher Yahng perform at MOCAMIX July 13, 2012. (Photo credit: Peter Fink)

Filed under: MOCA, Public Programs

MOCA Monday: Music at MOCA, Past and Present

The Museum of Chinese in America maintains an extensive archive and collection of Chinese American artifacts and oral histories. MOCA Mondays will briefly highlight one image or item from the collection. For more information, visit our website.

We loved this old Basement Jazz flyer, especially in light of our upcoming inaugural MOCAMIX concert, featuring Christopher Yahng Jazz Trio and Master Pipa Player Min Xiao-Fen. We hope to see you there!

The flyer for the upcoming MOCAMIX. RSVP now!

A basement workshop flyer circa 1977.

Filed under: Collections, MOCA, MOCA Monday, Public Programs, ,

MOCA Monday: Opening Receptions Past

The Museum of Chinese in America maintains an extensive archive and collection of Chinese American artifacts and oral histories. MOCA Mondays will briefly highlight one image or item from the collection. For more information, visit our website.


We love this photo of the opening reception of Eight Pound Livelihood, the very first show presented by founders Charlie Lai and Jack Tchen and the then-New York Chinatown History Project. We’ve come a long way in 30+ years!

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MOCA Monday: Streethaiku in America

We’re pleased to have launched An Xiao’s Streethaiku in America photography series on our chineseinamerica tumblr. Below is one of many photos that An, an artist and design strategist based in Los Angeles, will be posting for the museum as part of the exhibition America Through a Chinese Lens, April 26 – September 10, 2012 (opening reception on April 25, 6-8pm). More information on the exhibition can be found on our website.

Says An Xiao: "To eat at Kogi BBQ in Los Angeles is like an act of supplication, an honoring to the genesis of designer food truck culture."

Filed under: America Through a Chinese Lens, Exhibitions, , , , ,

MOCA Monday: Him Mark Lai’s Study

The Museum of Chinese in America maintains an extensive archive and collection of Chinese American artifacts and oral histories. MOCA Mondays will briefly highlight one image or item from the collection. For more information, visit our website.

A wall of books and materials represents a lifetime devoted to the study of Chinese American History.

This photo was taken in the study of Him Mark Lai, known as the “Dean of Chinese American History”. He co-taught the first Chinese American History course in the US (with Phillip P. Choy at San Francisco State College in the Fall of 1969), and is a noted scholar and author. His physical collection belongs to UC Berkeley, and a digital archive is the ongoing project of the Chinese Historical Society of America. Photos of his study are on display at MOCA.

Filed under: Collections, MOCA Monday, , ,

Beyond the Image

In anticipation of the exhibition June 4, 1989: Media and Mobilization Beyond Tiananmen Square, Curator and Director of Exhibitions Herb Tam reflects about simultaneously watching Michael Chang win the French Open and reports of the crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square.

On June 5, 1989 seventeen-year old Michael Chang defeated tennis legend Ivan Lendl in the 4th round of the French Open in one of the most indelible moments in tennis history. It was the first time a Chinese or Chinese American player had advanced into the semifinals of one of the four major tournaments. My parents, sister and I leaned into the TV that morning, riveted to the match, while also learning of the vast and violent crackdown on protesters for democratic reform in Tiananmen Square the night before on the other networks. We watched replays of an anonymous young man confronting a column of tanks, thwarting their advance into the square. Flipping back to NBC, Chang’s legs cramped up and it looked like Lendl would overwhelm the teenage upstart. But Chang, with crafty play (he lobbed weak underhand serves and ‘moon balls’ to save his legs and prevent additional cramping), perservered and outlasted Lendl to win an epic match.

As the match and news from Tiananmen Square played out, feelings of Chinese pride and horror swept over us and my nerves felt fried. After the match finished, we raced to the Chinese consulate on Geary Street in San Francisco to join other protesters in solidarity with those in Beijing. We stood among hundreds as cars honked their approval. In the bright, windy sunshine listening to impassioned, tearful pleas, I wondered if Communist grip on daily life in China would loosen enough to allow for real reform and greater freedom of speech. A day after the crackdown, and in the wake of Chang’s improbable win, possibility for revolutionary change felt curiously within reach. How could anything seem possible in the aftermath of so much death and destruction? Amidst the shock we felt watching this historic tumult unfold on TV, an old order seemed ready to topple.

A week later, Chang went on to win the French Open in another monumental upset of a past champion, Stefan Edberg. And though he won, the victory felt strangely anti-climatic. Psychologically and superstitiously, the Chinese plan for the worst. But in strictly tennis terms, many Asian Americans who understood the game quietly acknowledged that his style wasn’t necessarily sustainable as a way to win major championships. Chang was a classic counter-puncher whose short, stocky frame was built to absorb and chase down punishing serves and groundstrokes from U.S. counterparts of his generation like Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi, all of whom were groomed on power, knock-out punch tennis. Chang’s win brought Asian Americans to the brink of exalted belief about what was possible, athletically, for “us”. But at the same time that we (and I mean “we” as in Asian Americans and those that are down) indulged in this hope, we new that it was a mere glimmer.

Similarly, the surreality of watching millions of Chinese pour into Tiananmen Square was exhilarating and solemn at the same time. For while we witnessed the uneasy balance of the protesters’ defiance and the Communist party’s permissiveness for a few weeks, the quick, ugly crescendo of the crackdown on June 4 shattered the dream we all knew would end. It woke us up to the cold reality of the party’s will; China’s ascendant present grew out of this moment.

As experts wonder about China’s intentions (a recent New York Times article highlighted the Chinese government’s investments in the Caribbean as an encroachment imminent to American shores), another Asian American athlete, Jeremy Lin, flashed a series of transcendent, unforeseen performances (just like Michael Chang in the summer of 89), raising Asian American cultural studies into trending territory. But those of us who were around for Chang’s rise have buffered ourselves emotionally for a possible plateau-effect with Lin. Chang remained good and often great for a good part of the 90s, staying right behind Pete Sampras as the number two player in the world. But a major part of his legacy was that he only got that one grand slam title. In the minds of many, Chang is frozen as a teenage phenom improbably taking it to the giants of tennis in the 89 French Open, but nothing more.

Now that Lin is hurt and likely out for the year, we can only guess about his true place in the basketball universe. What will be his future? Will he be like Phoenix’s Steve Nash, Dallas’ Jason Kidd or the LA Clippers’ Chris Paul, all who have preter-natural gifts to see plays seconds before they happen and thus make their teammates’ job much easier? Or will he be like Orlando’s Jameer Nelson, Memphis’ Mike Conley or Indiana’s Jarrett Jack: very good NBA point guards who can turn out star performances once in a while. Maybe he’ll wind up in the servicable, unspectacular starting point guard category like Minnesota’s Luke Ridenour, Toronto’s Jose Calderon, or Portland’s Raymond Felton?

This summer will be the ongoing moment of Jeremy Lin, when he’ll be “to be continued” for a good long time. Lin aside, we commit any Asian American athlete’s play to narrative and are so invested in his success because his story might define us to others. With a dearth of other representations of us, his image might wind up being our mask. The Chinese have long been seen as an undifferentiated mass, signified by anyone who managed to break through. For my generation, all Chinese boys on the basketball court were Bruce Lee. In looking alike, we are all invisible.

The lasting, iconic image of the June 4 protest is of the young man taking on those tanks. The scene is shot from afar and the young man’s back is to the camera. We never get to see his face. His identity is lost and that’s partially why that image is so powerful and haunting. Only in his anonymity can he represent the protesters’ humanity, nobility and audacity, and be the universalized object of the government’s killing machines. He literally becomes the Chinese in the same way that Michael Chang, Michelle Kwan, and Jeremy Lin are in the moments of their greatest triumphs. They become so much more when they (and the movement) fail or fall short of overwraught expectations.

Filed under: 1989: Media and Mobilization Beyond Tiananmen Square, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

MOCA Monday: BD Wong, Back in the Day

The Museum of Chinese in America maintains an extensive archive and collection of Chinese American artifacts and oral histories. MOCA Mondays will briefly highlight one image or item from the collection. For more information, visit our website.

"M. Butterfly" star BD Wong in a 1989 edition of Asian Week.

A baby-faced BD Wong popped up in the Collections’ archive as our Exhibitions team was doing research for the upcoming June 4, 1989 Exhibition, opening April 26. While not necessarily related to that show, we couldn’t resist sharing this picture. Who doesn’t love a blast from the past? (Also worth clicking through: an interesting article about the play from a feminist perspective.)

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