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.

A Reaction to MOCA’s screening of “Vincent Who?”

On Friday, March 18th, MOCA hosted a sold-out screening of the documentary Vincent Who? alongside the Organization of Chinese Americans-NY Chapter. One of our educators, Ryan Wong, sent us a reactionary guest post.


“Vincent Who?”: A Generational Reflection

In the thirty years since the brutal murder of Vincent Chin, a new generation of Asian Americans has come of age. Vincent was twenty-seven when he was killed, and many of the activists who campaigned to bring justice to his killers were as young. Those of us born since 1982 know a different world from his: our lives never overlapped, I only know his story secondhand. The opening scenes of the documentary “Vincent Who?” screened at MOCA last week show that the majority of my peers have forgotten or never known of Vincent Chin.

But by the end of the film the gravity of the killing pulls us out of the narrowness of our years. Our age makes visceral the brutality of Chin’s murder: like us, he was guilty of nothing but being young and Asian in America.

The ignorance and anger that climaxed in Vincent’s killing has manifested itself again today, from fear of the ascendancy of Asian countries to hostility towards immigrants to continued stereotyping in the media. I have yet to meet someone growing up Asian-American who has not been cast as a foreigner – molded into one of the several types that have defined perceptions of us for hundreds of years. In a nation of immigrants, Vincent Chin’s story is one that should resonate with everyone, regardless of ethnicity, as we decide how to live as a global society.

The feeling of vulnerability left by the murder became the strength of a civil rights movement thirty years ago. As seen in the documentary, imperative to act has not diminished on those born since. As Curtis Chin, the director, asserted in his follow-up to the film, whether or not we are activists in the sense of thirty years ago, it falls on our generation to form new and creative spaces in this society.

Asian America has never been so diverse in goals and experience, so assertive of its right to not only live but create an identity here. We identify and unify as Asian-American not to gloss over that diversity, but to form solidity in numbers. Vincent’s killers elided his Chinese ethnicity into their perpections of Japanese and Asians in general; our unity is, at its core, a tactic of survival.

The clarity of the violence wrought on one man and his family echoes still; the campaign for justice it ignited helped give Asian America a voice. We should use it.


Vincent Who?

Filed under: Education, MOCA, Public Programs, , , ,

A Personal Story of the Impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

(This blog entry was inspired by a kickoff event for the 1882 Project I attended a few weeks ago.)

A Personal Story of the Impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

What’s in a name?

I’ve considered this question from time to time ever since I learned that my American last name was different, in spelling and meaning, from my Chinese last name. As a child growing up, there was always an assumption that my father’s last name was changed on Ellis Island. The running folklore in our family was “ Oh, the officials messed up the spelling, so that’ s why our last name became Lew instead of Lee – Lew/Lee, it’s the same thing.”

But was it really?

As I dug deeper into my family history, I learned that LEW had a unique origin: it was a name that originated in San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fire that razed municipal buildings housing city records. This major catastrophe gave rise to the phenomenon of paper identities, whereby many Chinese immigrants falsely claimed American citizenship during the exclusion era, when Chinese laborers were prevented from immigrating to the US, and people of Chinese descent were prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens. My great aunt’s father had made such a claim to American citizenship on the basis of the 14th amendment and later declared that he gave birth to a son in Toisan, China during the 1930s – an identity that my father would eventually assume for the rest of his life.

Though my father immigrated to the US in 1951, eight years after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was symbolically repealed, the odds against his immigration remained immense because of a restrictive quota of 105 immigrants of Chinese descent that were allowed into the US each year. Furthermore, my father had to come to the US before the end of 1951 because, according to his paper identity, he was going to turn 16 by mid-December, and the law required him to enter the US before his 16th birthday. Had he turned 16 before entering the US, he would no longer have been eligible for sponsorship by his family. When he arrived in NYC, he was taken to Ellis Island and detained for two months before being reunited with his actual parents and older brother (who had made their own immigration arrangements) in New York City’s Chinatown.

My last name is one among the variety of names that comprise the Lee family tree. Some family members were able to retain the Lee name, while others took on other names to circumvent social, political, and racial barriers to immigration. These anomalies in the Lee family tree are intertwined with stories like my father’s, obstacles certain family members had to overcome to gain access to a new way of life during a time when people from other countries were freely welcomed into the US. My last name Lew is as much a descendant of the first race based exclusion act ever passed by the US federal government as it is a branch of the Lee family tree.

Karen L Lew

Associate Director of Education


For more information about 1882 Project, please see:

For an abridged version of my father’s oral history about his experiences on Ellis Island see following link:

Filed under: Education, MOCA, , , , ,

Q&A with Lee Mingwei, Part 1: Leaving Home

Courtesy of Lee StudioThis post is Part 1 of a Q&A series with artist Lee Mingwei. Learn more about our ongoing exhibition, The Travelers, here.

(Image courtesy of Lee Studio)

Tell us about your story of leaving home.

I left Taiwan right before my 13th birthday, heading toward another island called the Dominican Republic.  My parents wanted me to leave the country because they didn’t like the idea of me doing military service under a government that was against their political beliefs.  When I arrived in Santo Domingo, I was so taken by the natural surroundings: endless fields of coconut trees, mango groves and sparkling white beaches.  Also, everyone was speaking Spanish, which was a completely foreign language to me. All these fresh new things made  the first departure from my home much less scary and was, actually, quite exhilarating, come to think of it.

What did you carry in your suitcase when you first left home for a long term stay in a country?

I don’t remember any particular item except that my mum placed a cook book by Fu PeiMei, the Taiwanese version of Julia Child.  Oh, yes, other items were several books by San Mao, which were about her life living in the Canary Islands and the Sahara Desert with her husband Jose.

Filed under: Exhibitions, Lee Mingwei’s Blog for The Travelers, , , , ,

From Our Collection: Daily Dose

2004.026.008, Courtesy of Kenneth & Helen Chan, MOCA Collection.

On back: “By-line Feature: Supplied by International News Photots

235 East 45th Street New York City

For Release: October 11, 1942

Chinatown’s Pride: Photo by Sonnee Gottlieb

LEARNING THE ROPES……Just as any other group of Boy Scouts, the boys of Troop 150 must learn their knots. Assistant Scoutmaster Horance Eng is coaching some of the younger members of the Troop in knot-magic here. It is one of the first crafts in which scouts become proficient.


Please observe release date and credit line”

Filed under: Collections, MOCA Monday, , , , ,

MOCA on Twitter

  • We've moved! Please follow along @mocanyc for Museum exhibitions and programs information and culturally relevant links. 8 years ago