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.

Reflections on 9-11

This fall, the MOCA presents Chinatown POV: Reflections on September 11th in the Jundy and Tin An Cheng Salon from September 11, 2010 through November 29, 2010. This installation includes first-person accounts, photographs, and mixed-media represents voices from a neighborhood just ten blocks away from Ground Zero.

In honor of the exhibition, we share the reflections of Cynthia Lee, our Curator and Director of Exhibitions. This was written on the one-year anniversary:

This is what I remember about September 11th

I needed to get into work early that day, and it was beautiful out – a clear blue sky that made even New York City feel … clean. It was election day, and three Chinese American candidates were running for City Council in Chinatown. I was thinking that it could be a historic day for the Chinatown community. When I emerged from the subway station, it was a little after 9:00 AM.

As I turned the corner and walked down Mulberry Street, I saw plumes of black smoke over the building tops. “Where’s the fire?”, I wondered. As I got to the Museum’s front entrance, I realized it was coming from the World Trade Center. And it wasn’t just a fire, it was an inferno. I walked over to where a small group of onlookers had gathered beside Columbus Park. One man said that he saw a small plane crash into the tower, his arms recreating the “accident”. Everyone spoke in hushed tones… incredulous. The flames were still red hot as they spewed from the gash in the side of the tower.

I wondered how anybody could possibly survive this. And at the same moment, I knew that Windows on the World was sitting right above the crash. The Museum had its last two fundraising dinners at the restaurant renowned for its commanding views of New York, and I watched in horror as I imagined the staff at Windows trying to escape the fires raging below them. We had very fond memories of working with the Windows staff on those dinners – after each event we would say, such nice people.

When I got into the office, our small, rotary dial, black-and-white TV was serving us minute-by-minute news coverage of the crash. We were in the middle of moving office furniture, files, and supplies to our new second administrative office so there was a lot of activity in our cramped work space. Outside my window, I could see the fire continuing to burn. I felt so helpless, or rather, so useless. People were dying before my eyes.

Then there was an explosion that I could actually feel in my chest. I looked up and saw another burst of flames in the crisp blue sky. And Lamgen, who was watching the news, announced that another plane – a jetliner – had hit the second tower. Oh my God, this was not an accident.

From that point, everything seemed to happen so quickly and yet in slow motion. The towers, to our absolute horror, came down before our eyes seemingly within seconds … one … by one. And still, the sky remained blue, and the sun which used to be blocked by the towers was now filling spaces in our office unlike before. Our neighbor had a video camera and exclaimed that he had caught it on tape.

It felt like Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” When the towers went down, we lost our TV transmission. We followed the events over the radio. Plane went down over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Reported fires on the Mall in D.C. Plane crashed into the Pentagon.

Three visitors to the Museum, two tourists from China and their friend from New Jersey, came in bewildered. They had videotaped the Twin Towers as they viewed the New York skyline from New Jersey, and when they emerged from the Holland Tunnel, they were gone. We found another TV and all gathered in front of it, hungry for news.

Transportation lines closed: bridges, tunnels, subways. People were moving en masse throughout the city. We needed to find our way home somehow. Jill said I could borrow “The Huff,” her legendary pink Huffy bike, to make it back up to the Upper West Side. I made it only half a block on the bike, realizing that it was too tall for me and that I couldn’t adjust the seat. Besides, the roads were quickly being closed to traffic below Canal Street. I walked along Canal, prepared to hike back home on foot, when I heard police officers making announcements that buses were transporting people uptown. New Jersey bus companies had donated their services to evacuate the masses of stranded people away from Lower Manhattan. We were to be dropped off at one stop – West 65th and Amsterdam. You had to find your way to other points from there.

Looking outside my window, I watched as hordes of people gathered at various intersections on Canal Street. All looking towards the plumes of smoke left behind by the Twin Towers… taking photos, videotaping, staring in disbelief. People were asking the bus driver to drop them off at this and that street. He shook his head, this was not a time for special requests.

We sped up the empty streets of New York – a caravan of coach buses. People on the sidewalks looked at us, wondering who we were and why we had a police escort. That’s when I began to feel the disconnect between myself and other New Yorkers who weren’t near the WTC. Getting off the bus, there was a crowd around the Red Cross offices near my apartment. People wanted to donate blood or volunteer, anything. People were turned away – come back tomorrow, we already have more volunteers and donors than we can handle. Down the street I overhear two people talking, what do you want for lunch? I was in another space completely from what was around me.

My friends and relatives tried to call me. Frustrated and scared that they were unable to get through, they emailed me. I’m okay, I reassured them. Really sad, but okay. I realized that it was my friend’s birthday that day. We were going to celebrate together, being that we shared September birthdays. It felt ridiculous to think about my 31st birthday now.

The next day, I tried to donate blood. Come again later, they said, we have more than we can handle right now. On the third day, I was finally taken in to the makeshift donation center at the Martin Luther King Jr. High School. I’m underweight, but I don’t tell them. I got in line and waited eight hours to get poked in the arm. Neighboring businesses donated food for us throughout the day.

We weren’t going into work because they closed off the streets to non-residents below 14th Street, then later the line was moved to Canal Street. When I finally returned to work, I had headaches from the toxic-smelling air. It was acrid, gray, and oppressive. The streets were empty of people and trucks, and lined with armed guards and blue police barricades. We worked from our cell phones because all the phones lines had been damaged with the building collapses.

Later, we could hear the crowds of people outside our windows, waiting on line for relief funds. There were stories of elderly people who died because they couldn’t call an ambulance, workers being laid off, and stores closing shortly after 9/11.

One year later, I still have not been able to visit ground zero.

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