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.

Overcoming Puzzle Shame

I’m a little ashamed to admit this, but here it is.

I have never been particularly fond of puzzles.

It gets worse.  I have never been particularly fond of puzzles because I have never been particularly good at puzzles.

Before I dig myself even deeper, let me make a disclaimer:  my faint dislike for puzzles extends mostly to those requiring some (or really, any) semblance of mathematical knowledge or skill.  Crosswords, I love.  The methodical pace, the clearly delineated patterns and more or less defined methods of attack.  Letters in their proper boxes.  Boxes stacking up to form words.  Answers derived from a little sleight of linguistic hand, but nothing that my brain can’t wrap itself around with a little nudge.  And for the ultimate clincher (beware, geek alert), I watched the documentary Wordplay a couple of years ago and never looked back.  The bits with Will Shortz (the NYT Crossword Puzzle Editor) and Jon Stewart are priceless and could make a convert out of anyone. Watch it.

Jon Stewart doing a crossword in his office. Doesn’t get much cuter than that.

But Sudoku.  Now that’s a foreign land.  My brain doesn’t pick its way through digits 0-9 with the same agility as it does through a trove of A-Zs.  Sudoku is a minefield.  Minesweep?  Fuggedaboutit.

When MOCA opened its current exhibition, Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind, I was excited to see that amongst the hundreds of antique pieces wrought from iron and jade, numerous copper and wooden hands-on replicas, there were no numbers in sight.  My mind rejoiced – here was something I could get into.

Yet as I tackled the ingenious rings, the burr puzzle, the tangrams – I began to realize that these puzzles, while not viewable to the naked eye, were full of unseen numbers.  Instead of seeing those 0s and 9s, they had manifested themselves into sides and shapes, counting orders and angles.  Geometry.  Algebra.  NO!  I felt like the kid in Mrs. Fibonnacci’s math class:

From the amazing book that both children AND adults will enjoy: Math Curse, by Jon Scieszka and illustrated by Lane Smith.

I couldn’t extrapolate their meaning beyond the dense fog of latent figures and equations.  I just wanted to see the solutions.  I wanted the pieces to either fall together or to fall apart (depending on the point of the puzzle).  I wanted to have that ‘a-ha!’ moment instantaneously or, I’ll be honest, just have someone tell me the answer.  This is not a moment I’m proud of.

Miring in my self-doubt, wondering how I could have gotten myself into this mess, it began to occur to me that I might have been looking at this all wrong.  While numbers may be a grounding component of these puzzles, and possibly of all puzzles (after all, at a very basic, superficial-level understanding, any person worth their crossword salt knows that a fatal crossword error is to triumphantly pen in an answer, only to realize that you have miscounted and have 1 more empty box to fill), the real fundamental skill in tackling a puzzle is the mental gymnastics you’re willing to subject your mind to in order to get through it.  Visually, I think your brain probably looks something like this (check the clip at around 2:18 in):

Vincent Cassel doing his Nightfox-laser-dance-thing as he breaks into a vault in the movie, Ocean’s 12.

Appropriately, like a sign from above, the New York Times delivered this message into my inbox that very same day:

“It’s all about you, using your own mind, without any method or schema, to restore order from chaos,” Dr. Danesi said. “And once you have, you can sit back and say, ‘Hey, the rest of my life may be a disaster, but at least I have a solution.’ ” MARCEL DANESI, a professor of anthropology at the University of Toronto and the author of ”The Puzzle Instinct: The Meaning of Puzzles in Human Life.” (NYT Quotation of the Day, December 7, 2010)

And just like that, I believed.  Reading through the illuminating article, “Tracing the Spark of Creative Problem-Solving,” by Benedict Carey, I began to see puzzles for their capacity to tap into different spheres of our brain, informing us as to how human beings process information, analyze a situation, and develop insight.  Taking it a step further, they can tell us more about how we communicate with one another.

I had been seeing these puzzles, Sudokus and tangrams alike, as insurmountable obstacles as opposed to scalable peaks, wrapped up in the notion that they were only for the mathematically-oriented.  A puzzle boils down to each person’s own predisposition to various methods of synthesizing data, and if that fails, our ability to then stretch beyond our predispositions and find other possible approaches.  This perspective helped diffuse the numerical fog, providing a framework that made it all seem less daunting.

Though I can’t kid myself and say that I suddenly became a puzzle-master and will be registering for the Puzzle Symposium held at MOCA early next year, my sociologically and philosophically-bent mind gleaned a whole new appreciation for their far-reaching applications and significance.

And, dare I say, I’ve grown a bit fond of them.

–Marissa W. Chen, Development Assistant, MOCA

Note: The New York Times did a fantastic series on puzzles and their relevance in contemporary society.  And while it is featured in the Science Times section, much of the content cross-references the intersection of puzzling and art, design, philosophy, and more. I would highly recommend that you check out their plethora of articles and essays, particularly one of my favorites about how to construct the perfect crossword and the thought processes behind it: “An 11-Letter Word for Perfectionist?  Starts with ‘C’”, by Cornelia Dean.

I also highly recommend that you check out the article on the design behind Jon Scieszka and Lane Smith’s Math Curse, which gets into a whole ‘nother can of worms that I would have loved to explore in this post, but will have to save for another time.

Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind will be showing at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) through May 2011.  Please visit our website,, for upcoming events, programs, and Puzzle Symposium (yes, it’s a real thing).

Filed under: Exhibitions, , , , , , , , ,

An Exhibition for the Eyes, Hands, Mind, and this Holiday Season

This holiday season, the exhibition team is particularly excited to present a tremendously enjoyable and at times challenging exhibition to our visitors. “Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind,” which opened November 6, is the first of its kind on the East Coast and MOCA is proud to host the second-only national viewing of the Yi Zhi Tang Collection. This collection made its public debut in 2008 at the Chinese Cultural Center in San Francisco. In that same year MOCA, then operating at its decade-old site on Mott Street, was first approached about the exhibition and has been working to bring it to New York for the past two years.

Carefully culled by guest curators Wei Zhang and Peter Rasmussen from their Yi Zhi Tang Collection, the over one hundred items on view consist of a wide range of ancient and modern puzzles and puzzle related artifacts found or made in China. It is interesting to note that decades before the first Chinese immigration wave in America (the Gold Rush, 1848-1855), Chinese puzzles had already been brought into this country by China traders from Boston, Philadelphia, and possibly New York. Called “Puzzles for Exports,” these puzzles were made in China with the sole purpose of exporting to the West. For this reason, they can only be found outside of China. Much to their Western patrons’ liking, they are often exquisitely-carved ivory pieces, packaged in lacquer boxes for shipment and storage. In the exhibit at MOCA visitors will find some of the finest examples upon first entering the gallery.

Wei untangling the string of a “ball and cup toy” in the Puzzles for Export case.

So what exactly are Chinese puzzles and how are they different from the puzzles we know in the English-speaking world? For the curators, “[Chinese] Puzzles are usually — but not always — games that are played by oneself, use physical apparatus, and involve arranging, disentangling, putting something together or figuring out a sequence of moves to arrive at a predetermined goal.” While puzzles in the Western hemisphere tend to be associated with science and mathematics and suggest a sense of inevitable difficulty and frustration, the Chinese counterparts allude to more positivity and encouragement. One can arguably find this evident in the Chinese nomenclature of puzzle as a collective category. Technically there is no one term in Chinese that connotes the same layers of definitions and metaphorical significances that the word puzzle does in English. For the tangible object or device whose design presents difficulties to be solved by ingenuity and patient effort, the most commonly used word is yi zhi youxi, literally “enhancing intelligence games”. They are activities of amusement that aim for advancement of one’s brainpower and ingenuity. A connection between the hands and the mind in puzzle playing is accentuated and celebrated, hence the title and design of the exhibition.

Peter and Wei putting together the giant burr puzzle. They are convincing advocates for hands-on experience with puzzles!

As Exhibitions Manager, I have had the great honor and pleasure to handle each piece. The process of installing the show was that of solving the puzzles—literally. On Halloween weekend, while the entire city was cheerfully immersed in the spirit of ghosts and monsters, I sat in the gallery, frowning at many of the antique puzzles, trying to figure out how to piece a Tanagram or a Fifteen-Piece Puzzle together without ready solutions. Made to enlighten but also delight, the select pieces on view manifest outstanding craftsmanship and artistic achievement as much as history, literature, and, in some cases, architecture, and philosophy.

Peter helps solve a tangram puzzle during the installation.

One can and will certainly gasp at their beauty and cultural depth, but the fun is far from complete without an opportunity to try out the puzzles. As Wei says, “puzzles are not puzzles if you don’t play with them.” Taking her advice to heart, we have intentionally orchestrated many interactive displays in the gallery, including a long table featuring sixteen puzzle replicas for hands-on participation which we encourage you to try your hand at. Our curator-trained docents will also be available every weekend to assist visitors with solving the puzzles. Taking too long to solve the puzzle? Check out MOCA store and pick up your favorite puzzles as gifts or for yourself to practice at home! This holiday season, make Chinese-puzzle-solving part of the fun and merriment!

Wei training the docents to solve the puzzles while Peter works in the back on the script of their excellent Curator's Talk on November 6.

Ting-Chi Wang
Exhibitions Manager

*Click here for images of the Member’s Preview of Chinese Puzzles on Peter and Wei’s facebook.

Filed under: Exhibitions, , , , ,

Chinatown Flavors

In anticipation of tonight’s screening of Take Out with take-out at MOCA came an inevitable revisit to the foods of Chinatown.  One institution of Chinatown cuisine stood out in particular: Mei Lai Wah Coffeehouse.

Coffeehouses in Chinatown were the earliest form of eateries frequented by the Chinese in New York. Much like the taverns and coffeehouses in Europe before the Printing Revolution, these Chinatown coffeehouses served as gathering places for the community to catch up on the latest news. The first wave of Chinese immigrants, mostly from Toisan in Canton (Guangdong) Province, sought out jobs, debated politics and traded gossip in these hole-in-the-wall joints over roast pork buns and coffee or tea.

Mei Lai Wah Coffeehouse, opened in 1968 by two Toisanese men, is one of the old school coffeehouses that is still around. Several years ago, MOCA member Mel Young shared his childhood memories of Mei Lai Wah with the Museum:

“This old-style tea parlor/coffeehouse has been around [for decades]. The owners have never changed their winning formula − cheap, delicious pastries, dim sum (nothing fancy, but all freshly steamed), and strong, old-fashioned coffee. There is always a mob of people getting take-out at the counter.

The tables and counter stools look like they have seen much wear over the decades. The Formica tabletops are well-patinated and the stools have been “reupholstered” with vinyl tablecloth material strapped down with metal wire. This place has a distinctly masculine feeling to it; you won’t see many women eating here on their own. There always used to be a haze of cigarette smoke in there until smoking in restaurants was banned.

Mei Lai Wah is famous for their egg custard tarts. The crust is light, slightly oily and deliciously flaky, setting them apart from the characterless ones sold at some of the modern Chinese bakeries. They were a nice treat after Chinese school on Sundays.”

That well-worn atmosphere is no more, though the beloved recipes still exist. In 2008 the original owners retired and Mei Lai Wah underwent a facelift.  It is now Mei Li Wah Bakery, a brightly lit establishment with baked goods lined up along wooden shelves served by men and women in orange polo shirts. Happily, you can still find their signature cha-siu roast pork buns (baked sweet dough filled with barbequed roast pork) and egg tarts (egg custard in a pastry shell.)

Both dishes are distinctly Cantonese. In fact, when people referred to Chinese food before the 1980s, they were really talking about Cantonese food. The cuisine from other parts of China had yet to make its way to the American public. That has changed over the past few decades, and today’s New York has traditional foods and flavors from all over China.

Are you curious about the emergence of Chinese regional cuisines in America’s dining culture? Take MOCA’s walking tour From Coffehouses to Banquet Halls on Saturday, December 18 at 1pm. For tickets and more info click here.

Beatrice Chen
Director of Education and Public Programs

Filed under: MOCA, Public Programs, , ,

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