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.

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, , , ,

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