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: BD Wong, Back in the Day

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.

"M. Butterfly" star BD Wong in a 1989 edition of Asian Week.

A baby-faced BD Wong popped up in the Collections’ archive as our Exhibitions team was doing research for the upcoming June 4, 1989 Exhibition, opening April 26. While not necessarily related to that show, we couldn’t resist sharing this picture. Who doesn’t love a blast from the past? (Also worth clicking through: an interesting article about the play from a feminist perspective.)

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Taproots

United States Service Men in World War II. Courtesy MOCA Collections.

The photo above, which my family donated to the MOCA Archives, depicts my grandfather and other Asian American service men on leave from active duty during their service in World War II.

My grandfather, pictured front and center, is listed as Tommy Chin.  A paper son, he entered the United States as a teenager under the name Sing G. Tom.  He later enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, touring the coast of Gibraltar, Japan, and other parts overseas.  Under the G.I. Bill, he received his accounting degree from what is now known as New York University and, quite some years afterwards, was naturalized as a U.S. citizen, officially adopting the American name of Tom Y.M. Chen.  Over the next fifty or so years, my grandfather’s life became interwoven with the emergence of New York City’s Chinatown, serving as head of the Chan Family Association and as one of the founding Board members of Confucius Plaza.

Much about the photo is unknown to me – where exactly it was taken, why they were all gathered there, whose hand penned the caption, what they were all laughing at.  My grandfather and my grandmother had not yet met in the restaurant where he worked while attending school.  My father and his siblings had not yet attended NYU, nor had my sister, nor my cousin.  I had not yet traveled to China to heung ha, to visit his home village – one of the ancestral taproots to my family tree.

All I know is that in 1943, my grandfather was 22 and about to start a life-long relationship with this country.  Anchored in New York, his life was one of many individual radii that extended and overlapped with one another, creating a place and a community where none had existed before.

Marissa W. Chen
Development Assistant

 

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MOCA Monday: Lil Cowboys

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.

Young cowboy (photo from MOCA archives.) 

What is it about little boys and playing cowboys? In anticipation of the upcoming MOCA exhibition America through a Chinese Lens (opening April 25 – September 10, 2012), a survey of photographs depicting American life as shot by Chinese and Chinese American artists, documentary photographers and non-professionals, we launched MOCA’s tumblr page, Scrapbook MOCA, to expand on the show’s themes and engage with our online audiences. The first image is from the MOCA Collections; the second was originally posted on our tumblog, where we’ve put up a series of submitted photos, including this one from Assistant Curator Ryan Wong. Says Ryan:

This photo was taken in 1990 at a friend’s party in a public park in Los Angeles.

Some combination of Speedy Gonzales, the Autry Museum in Los Angeles, the Marlboro man on Sunset Boulevard, and family trips to the deserts of the Southwest forged a cowboy in toddler me. Regional culture was (and still is) a central part of my identity.

Young Assistant Curator Ryan Wong all dressed up.

I wore a bolo tie before a cloth tie, cowboy hat before a baseball cap, and owned a whole range of bandanas.

My parents tried to keep me away from guns and violent toys. My grandmother, oblivious to this rule, gave me two Old West-style revolvers with functioning hammers and faux-ivory grip for Christmas when I was around four. Naturally they became my favorite toys – after that it was High Noonall the time.

P.S. Those recklessly stylish overalls carried over into my next all-American fascination: railroad conductor.

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MOCA Monday: BAL-LIN

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.

Members of the Chinese Athletic Club pose for a team photo.

In honor of tonight’s program BAL-LIN: Beer and Basketball at MOCA, we present this photo of some old-school players from our collection. Interested in future MOCA events? Check out our website! We’ve got five more basketball game nights scheduled in March and April.

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MOCA Monday: My Circus (Virtual Salon)

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.

Ma Liang, My Circus I (C-print, 2003.)

The Virtual Salon: Chinese Transnational Photographers in the Digital Age (2006) was a photography exhibit of works by the Chinese Artist Network (CAN). Through an examination of CAN’s work, Virtual Salon showed how the digital revolution had affected artists and challenged the discourse surrounding contemporary art at that time. Ma Liang, one of the featured artists (the exhibition also included photographers Felix Tian, Wang Yishu and Xie Wenyue), is known for his theatrical images, filled with costumes and props and shot on unusual sets.

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Before and After Jeremy Lin

The Jeremy Lin spectacle pointed to a gaping absence in American life. The universal surprise, ignorant racial slurring, media frenzy, and high expectations poured onto the 23-year-old burst forth from a decades-old dam of suppressed frustration and misunderstanding.

Jeremy Lin’s race matters. How, in 2012, when we are a supposedly post-racial society in which Asian-Americans are supposedly succeeding and where discrimination has supposedly ended, did this symbiosis of fascination and condescension emerge? Talking about race is hard for Americans; when it comes to Asians we seem to be at a complete loss.

This is not an essay about Jeremy Lin. I admire his talent and conduct on and off court, but his life story has already been discussed and rehashed many times.

The great elephant in the room is the lack of precedent, and no one seems able to say why that is so. Absences are harder to talk about than icons.

Where are the Asian-American basketball stars?

In the cultural and political life of America, being here in large numbers is never itself enough to ensure representation. Chinese people have been in America since the mid-1800s. Not one of them could jump? I have seen a lot of commentators more or less explain that “Asians just don’t play sports.” Assume, for a second, that this is true.

There has been an amazing growth of Asian professionals since the 1965 immigration bill – doctors, lawyers, bankers, scientists. This is the origin of the most pervasive and insidious stereotype against Asians in America today: “model minority.” Let’s please leave aside the tales of mythical-Asian-genius or Confucian-spiritual-scholar-quest. Take a simpler example: if your family witnessed the crushing poverty and brutality of the Cultural Revolution in China, making your kids do extra homework to ensure a good job doesn’t sound so extreme. The concerns of Asian immigrants (like everyone else’s concerns) are attributable to material and historical forces rather than some pseudo-scientific “inner work ethic.”

TIME Magazine's cover for a feature on Asian American "Whiz Kids".

White-collar stability is the great American promise to the children of hard-working immigrants.  So if “Asians don’t play sports,” it is because a career in professional sports, unlike a white-collar path, is an unstable and uncertain gamble. I don’t need to repeat the many statistics about drop-out youths led by unreasonable hopes, of injuries leading to ruined careers and poverty.

But then, Asians do play sports – lots of them. Just not on TV. The lack of Asians in professional sports perpetuates the idea that no Asian can make it. A lot of people have speculated that Lin’s Asianness might have been a barrier to his recruitment. I cannot offer an opinion there. But I do believe that in hiring rooms across the country, particularly for leadership positions, people tend to choose people who look like those they are used to hiring. I imagine something similar happens when picking teams on high school courts. And on the flip side, if a talent like Lin can be passed over by recruiters, what reason do other Asian youth have to try?

Jeremy Lin broke a color line. It was not a hard rule like the ‘gentlemen’s agreement’ Jackie Robinson upset sixty-five years ago, but took far longer to cross. Race lines in contemporary America are not written as law, but work in a system of de facto barriers that are far harder to measure: media representation, racial assumptions, educational and economic opportunity.

Where are the Asian men?

If you have read the blog Angry Asian Man or the article “Paper Tigers” by Wesley Yang, you know that a lot of Asian men are, indeed, angry. Until Jeremy Lin, most of America didn’t notice or care, let alone ask why that might be.

Think of all the popular images of Asian men you have seen, from Mickey Rooney’s yellow face role in Breakfast at Tiffany’s to the character Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles to the smiling figures on Abercrombie and Fitch’s laundry t-shirt (“Two Wongs Can Make It White”) to the host of background caricatures of waiters, cooks, laundrymen, deli owners, and crime bosses on TV and in movies. Asian men find themselves caught in a paradox: even if they are revolted by those images, they are forced by repetition to internalize them.

The Brides of Fu Manchu (from MOCA Collections.)

This demoralizing cycle has its roots in the 19th century, when Chinese male laborers vastly outnumbered Chinese women: a threat to polite white society. While Asian women were exotified, Asian men were vilified. In popular American culture, Asian men have played the roles of coolies, opium lords, communist spies, and, most recently, nerds; throughout they have been silent, untrustworthy, and inscrutable. The culture industry encourages the repetition of stereotypes rather than breakouts: we expect to see Asians in certain roles, Asians are cast in those roles, and so on.

Writers like Eddie Huang and Jay Caspian Kang talk about Jeremy Lin like the second coming – the first being Bruce Lee. Lee, like Lin, broke a color barrier, changed his industry, and became a hero to a legion of young people, especially Asian men. He also suffered a slew of hatred and parody. Lee died almost forty years ago – it is unbelievable that America has gone this long without another game-changer.

When Jeremy Lin scores in the double digits, invents a handshake with Landry Fields, yells after sinking a three, he chisels at the monolith of stereotypes that we have been fed since the 1800s.

The most surprising reaction I have seen to Jeremy Lin has been from many Asian-American friends and colleagues: fear. They are on edge every time the Knicks lose a game, hold their breath when Lin stumbles. What they fear, I think, is an onslaught of racial slurs and jeers, a backlash that dismisses Lin’s rise as a fluke that changed nothing. The ESPN headline incident proved their fears founded.

To the rest of America: don’t keep us in fear. We shouldn’t have to cringe every time the Knicks play. Admire Jeremy Lin, but ask the harder questions.  Lin came out of nowhere, but that nowhere is what Asians have been dealing with for years.

Thank you, Jeremy Lin, for forcing us to have this conversation. Now it’s on the rest of America to rise to the occasion.

Ryan Wong
Assistant Curator

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