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?

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MOCA Collections: “Father, please work hard.”

My first post mentioned MOCA’s bachelor archives, which is MOCA’s first collection of archives from 31 years ago when we constructed our first site. It came from Chinatown’s bachelor apartments.

Although President Roosevelt signed a law to repeal the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1943, a large scale Chinese immigration did not occur again until the enactment of the Immigration Act in 1965. Crowds and crowds of Manhattan Chinese immigrants took over the apartments of later generation Chinese immigrants, who came to New York in the beginning of the 20th century and worked in the laundry business. These apartments are known as the Bachelor Apartments, and are the extraordinary product of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

In the middle of the 19th century, Chinese men were attracted to America’s west coast to construct railroads; however, due to the increasing arrival of miners, Chinese immigrants turned to the laundry business. They washed the miners’ clothes that were caked solid with dirt. Chinese immigrants began moving to the east coast in the early 20th century, and the laundry trade became their main business in the east. The end of the 19th century brought the implementation of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which forbade Chinese immigrants from naturalization, multi-racial marriages, etc. This strongly deprived Chinese immigrant men in America the possibility of marriage. As a result, this created the Bachelor Apartments in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

By the end of the end of the seventies, the Chinese population in America nearly doubled reaching about one million. Twenty percent of the Chinese population was living in New York. Regrettably, there has been no official record of this community’s history. During China’s simultaneous rapid development and change, this history has also become extremely important.

As the saying goes, “one man’s trash is another man’s treasure.” New York Chinatown History Project, which is the predecessor to the Museum of Chinese in America, was the start of a roadside cultural and historical institution that was established by former executive director Charles Lai and New York University professor Jack Tchen in 1980. At the time, Lai and Tchen discovered that when new immigrants moved into the empty apartments of previous tenants and new businesses replaced old ones, the streets were then filled with various Chinese individual’s fascinating historical remnants. There were business signs, letters wives wrote to their husbands from far distances in China, WWII soldier uniforms, as well as complete bundles of Chinese newspapers. These precious historical remains that Lai and Tchen collected became MOCA’s first archive.

Among these files, there is a letter that a son wrote to his father seen in the picture of the mentioned letter:

We received the 5000 yuan father sent home. It was pretty much all used to repay the debt, and there isn’t much money left over. However, expenses at home are extremely great; supplies are expensive, the price of rice has gone up, and next year another sister is starting school. All together 3 sisters are in school and expenses will increase. We’ve already sold our gold and jewelry in order to relieve our desperate situation. Father, please work hard to send money home.

This letter was written on December 15, 1943 of the lunar calendar, the same year that the Chinese Exclusion Act was repealed. It was also when the Chinese Exclusion Act had the longest affect. At the time, although fathers in America were living apart from their family, they still bore the responsibility of raising their families far away in China.

Yue Ma
Associate Director of Collections

Letter from Son to Father











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MOCA and A Sense of Place

“To be at all to exist in any way – is to be somewhere, and
to be somewhere is to be in some kind of place.  Place is
as requisite as the air we breathe, the ground on which we
stand, the bodies we have. We are surrounded by places.
We walk over and through them. We live in places, relate
to others in them, die in them.

Nothing we do is unplaced.”
Edward S. Casey

When I reflect on my early childhood memories in school, I often think about the disconnect between my classroom experiences and my immediate surroundings. Though I grew up in a neighborhood in Lower Manhattan that is both diverse and rich in history, I often found that what I was learning in the classroom did not relate to my own life. Information was gleaned from textbooks and teachers rather than from my environment and experiences. For this very reason, I found school to be removed from my interests and always felt that I had two selves – one in school and one out-of-school. Furthermore, I felt that my experiences out-of-school were not as important as subject areas in school.

It was not until I started to run an after school program in my own community that I made the connection between that community and its impact on learning and teaching. At that point in my life I had traveled, lived, and worked in many different cities – both across the US and around the world.  By experiencing different places I became sensitive to my relationship with the surrounding environment. However, an underlying desire to return, understand, and work in the neighborhood I grew up in persisted.

MOCA symbolized the first place where my story belonged. Growing up, I always felt that American history was far away, long ago, and had nothing to do with my own experiences. It was not until I visited MOCA as an undergraduate student that I began to understand how my heritage and experiences fit within the larger context of American history and culture; I saw how history can be very personal, and yet universal in nature.

As an educator, it is my hope that students have a similar experience when they visit MOCA. Through examinations of artifacts, photographs, oral histories and the built environment, students learn about the successive waves of Chinese immigrants, their motivations for coming, and how they shaped American society. Instead of textbooks, everyday objects and images often serve as starting points for discussions about immigration and even encourage students to make connections to their own lives. One of MOCA’s goals is to provide for a more integrative and inclusive historical narrative in which social issues are open for examination – especially for those who have not been part of mainstream representations in our public culture.

What is also fascinating is that though MOCA’s origins are situated in the geographical context of Chinatown, the narrative of the Chinese American experience is something that speaks to anyone from the Redwood Forests to the Gulf Stream waters…

Come visit MOCA, and experience it for yourself!

Karen Lew
Associate Director of Education

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1882 Chinese Exclusion Act

As part of the Tenement Museum’s 400 Years of Immigration History campaign on Twitter, MOCA tweeted and blogged about the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

The first major wave of Chinese immigrants came to the United States following the 1849 California gold rush. The vast majority of the incoming Chinese were men who worked in labor-intensive industries like railroads, mines, and canneries. Because Chinese laborers were willing to work for lower wages than their European counterparts, companies often used the Chinese as strikebreakers. Labor competition led to resentment of the Chinese and political agitation to limit the number coming into the country. Read the full post here.

~Special thanks to MOCA education intern, Katherine Park.

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MOCA on Twitter

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