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.

MOCA Monday: PS 23

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.

Classmates from P.S. 23 pose for a school picture in 1942.

MOCA’s Collections & Research Center is located on the 2nd floor of the former Public School 23 building on the corner of Mulberry and Bayard Streets, diagonal from Columbus Park. For many years the Museum hosted reunions where former classmates gathered to swap stories of their golden school days.

(If you know anyone in the photo, let us know!)


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The Travelers: Childhood Memories of Taiwan

First Day of Kindergarten, Taipei, 1969. Courtesy of Lee Mingwei.

The image on the poster for the new exhibition at MOCA, Lee Mingwei: The Travelers and The Quartet Project (shown left) is a photo of Lee Mingwei and his mother en route to his first day of kindergarten in Taipei. In the office last week, fresh from the printer, the poster had been folded down into an over-sized brochure. I caught a glimpse of the power lines, then the skyline of trees of various shapes and heights, and when the entire image was in full view, the bridge railing made of concrete–unadorned in its original glory. With each unfolding, I traveled closer to those three months of my childhood when this view of a concrete slab against a tree-lined sky framed by power lines was a daily sight. I must have been about 5 and had recently arrived in Taiwan after several years in the States. Because I missed the minimum enrollment age for first grade in Taipei by a few months, my parents decided to send me to live with my grandparents in Hsinchu, a small town an hour south of Taipei where schools were less stringent about age-eligibility. I don’t remember who took me to my first day of school, but my grandfather was a frequent companion on my morning walks to school. On the way to and from school, we would cross a concrete bridge much like the one in Lee Mingwei’s photo, except the concrete slab that stood in for a proper bridge railing was only ankle height. I remember this detail because one day, I got into trouble for crossing this bridge. Once school let out, I usually made my way home with a friend who lived on the same street. Unbeknownst to us, my grandfather would sometimes watch–OK, who am I kidding, spy on–us while we walked home from school. Good thing he did, because I guess instead of walking, my friend and I played tag all the way home, oblivious to other pedestrians, traffic and our surroundings in general. I got reprimanded because on this particular day, I was almost chased off the side of the bridge. Another step, my grandfather pointed out, and I would have fallen off the bridge since this concrete slab of a railing only reached my ankles.

The author and her mother (right) with a friend, friend's sister and mother, circa 1981.

I didn’t think that out of all the elements in Lee Mingwei’s exhibition, I would find the strongest personal connection to the backdrop of his photo, but as usual, where an object in MOCA’s exhibitions and collection transports us in our minds and in our lives never ceases to surprise me. Throughout my years at MOCA, I’ve had many such experiences–from a mother of Haitian descent recounting her grandmother’s life story upon seeing the 8-pound iron in our core exhibitions to just last month, when a group of Chinese American veterans spotted the 1943 photo of the 407th Air Service Squadron on display and began to call out the names of the men they recognized in the photo. I learned that here at MOCA, so many years later, it was the first time many of them had seen a photo of themselves in full-dress uniform.

I know I’m not alone in these remembrances. When you see objects in MOCA’s exhibitions, what place, what time, what mood do you experience or return to?

Beatrice Chen
Director of Education and Public Programs

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

MOCA Monday: The Lotus

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

Menu for The Lotus, Washington, DC, circa 1940s. Harley Spiller Collection.

Menu from The Lotus, a part of MOCA’s 2004 exhibition “Have You Eaten Yet?” which took a historical look at a central image of Chinese American life – the Chinese restaurant. Often the first introduction to Chinese culture for many Americans, the Chinese restaurant has functioned since the nineteenth century as a site of cultural exchange. The exhibit traced the Chinese restaurant’s origin and growth in America, and explored how these cultural negotiations have been made over time. It took a revealing look at American and Chinese perceptions and expectations through historical menu collections, and Chinese food stories and legends.

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Our Goal is Never Ending

As protesters marched down Lafayette yesterday afternoon, a call went around the office: “Occupy Wall Street is passing the Museum!” We grabbed cameras (and, thanks Steve Jobs, smartphones) and ran to our back door to watch as people took to the streets, marching peacefully, carrying signs and chanting in unison. Autumn has finally descended upon the city and there was a coolness in the air though I suspect it was more than that which gave me chills. It felt historic to be observing this civil action–though observing was all we did, despite the calls to join the march downtown. (In the Museum industry, we’re typically in the business of presenting and interpreting history, not making it.) So how do we look at Occupy Wall Street? What perspective can we offer from a historical vantage point?

A protest photograph from the MOCA archives is paired with a recent image by photographer Hai Zhang.

Photographer Hai Zhang, whose work will be included in our Spring 2012 exhibition “America Through A Chinese Lens,” has spent time with the occupiers, and his images shared here on our blog are striking in their timelessness. Forgetting for a moment that the hippie trappings of some of the protesters seem stuck in a time warp, the reason there is nothing new about these images is that we’ve seen these interactions play out across the national stage for decades. What he has captured is the enduring struggle between the people and the power as they seek equilibrium. As Zhang told us, “I had trouble [positioning] myself—one side is saying the protest is aimless… and the other side praises the protest as a truly revolutionary American Spring… I know neither side is completely true.” Rather than taking a decisive stand, he chose to simply document the events. We’ve juxtaposed his current images with photos from our collections of protesters marching; for representation, for equality, for peace. Protected under the First Amendment, generations of Americans have and continue to gather in the streets to be heard. But unlike marching for equality for those things we cannot change—race, gender, sexual orientation—today’s protesters are asking for us to confront the American creation myth. The promise that if you work hard you’ll succeed seems empty now as we watch our country struggle through a deep recession and record unemployment. Any sweeping change is hard-won and fraught with issue, but this seems particularly difficult. And where does this leave us? For younger generations, perhaps with a new perspective on civic involvement. New York often acts as a microcosm for the rest of the country—there is a sense that everyone looks to us, and responds in kind. It is thus especially fitting that these events have started here, and gained momentum across North America. What began as an amorphous and easily-dismissed movement has grown into a collective voice with a coherent purpose. As Zhang says, “this protest will not last forever, and probably will end with no clear victory, but it has forever changed our attitudes and raised awareness and hope.”

Generations of protesters (the image on the left is from the MOCA archives, the image on the right is courtesy of Hai Zhang.)

The idea of the 99% is not a new one. The country’s underprivileged classes have long argued that there is a great disparity between rich and poor, and even middle class and poor; it took the middle class to get poorer for most of us to sit up and notice. But low wages or no jobs? Academic excellence leading to little more than loan debt and disappointment? A feeling of being ignored or pandered to by our political leaders? These are the stories (and more) that we’ve collected and shared throughout our exhibition “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America”. These images could be protesters in 1960s calling for peace, or as Zhang remembers, the Chinese who took to Tiananmen Square in the 1980s. Regardless of time, place and technology, activism relies upon the spectacle of the masses coming together for change. Thus photography makes an ideal agent for distributing the ideas and concepts of activism: it is made to be witnessed. When we look at these images, when we feel the marchers surge past us, when we hear their calls to action, we see our own history as Americans. A people unafraid to fight for what is right, to shake up a system or engage in the process of changing the world for the future. Our hope is that someday when we look back upon Occupy Wall Street, it is from a better, more perfect union.

Emily Chovanec Schappler
Visitor Services Manager

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Museum as Material: Curator Herb Tam on Lee Mingwei

In advance of the forthcoming exhibition, Lee Mingwei: The Travelers and The Quartet Project,  Curator Herb Tam discusses how Lee’s work re-imagines what a museum could be. The exhibition opens with a public reception on Thursday, October 20, 7-9pm. For more information visit http://www.mocanyc.org/exhibitions/current

A page from Book no. 50

Excerpt from Museum as Material: The Travelers and the Radical Domesticity of Lee Mingwei

I am writing this in the days after New York State passed historic legislation legally recognizing gay marriage, throwing light onto a broad shift in the nature of domestic spaces that has been developing since World War II. As we prepare to install Lee Mingwei’s exhibition at MOCA, I find myself reflecting on what his work says about the role and status of museums today, how it relates to the idea of home, and what his commissioned project, The Travelers, will literally and conceptually do to our space.

The Museum of Chinese in America, having begun without exhibit facilities in 1980 as the Chinatown History Project, and after inhabiting a warren of rooms at P.S. 23 in Chinatown for more than 20 years, moved in 2009 to its current 215 Centre Street location. The new site, a former machinery repair shop, was designed by Maya Lin and refers to the sacred domestic space of the home.  Indeed, the central area in the museum alludes to the courtyards that are commonly seen in traditional homes throughout China.

In 2010, Lee was asked to create a site-specific project inspired and informed by MOCA, our new building, and our work to describe the history and culture of Chinese experience in America. In past work, Lee has challenged artistic and social conventions. In 1999, he and artist Virgil Wong (members of the collective PaperVeins) staged an elaborate virtual project that cast Lee as a pregnant man.  Inviting Lee, whose work typically demands personal engagement with the artist himself or with a condition he has set, has forced MOCA to confront its own shifting identity as a museum settling into a new space. The project Lee conceived of, The Travelers, imagines the museum as a home, just like Maya Lin’s design intimates. But The Travelers does so by raising questions about the expectations of our space and by highlighting shifts in the meaning and function of both museums and homes.

In addition to its references to Chinese American experience and to this particular museum, it is instructive to see The Travelers as arising from a tradition of artistic activity that seeks to destabilize institutional spaces. For more than a decade, Lee has done so by creating situations that relocate the field of domestic experience into the logistics of museums. If both Lee’s body of work including The Travelers and MOCA refer in different ways to home, we should ask what this space signifies today.

A contributor shares her story.

The full version of this essay is on the exhibition’s poster, which will be available at the Museum.

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

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