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.

March is Women’s History Month

On March 2, a friend and I attended the opening night of God of Carnage with its third cast featuring Dylan Baker, Jeff Daniels,

Lucy Liu at MOCA Legacy Dinner 2009.

Janet McTeer and Lucy Liu. I had been meaning to see God of Carnage since it opened on Broadway about two years ago but just hadn’t gotten around to it. Lucy Liu was one of the 2009 Honorees at the Museum of Chinese in America Legacy Dinner in December. We at MOCA, as well as the Chinese American community, were very excited when we heard that Lucy was making her Broadway debut this season. There are already plans underway to organize a MOCA contingent to see the show, so stay tuned to the website for details. I am sure other Asian American affinity organizations are thinking of doing the same.  I can assure you, theater-goers won’t be disappointed with the play or the performances.  Lucy and the entire cast were fantastic!

If you have been to the new MOCA, you will know that we have a section in “Welcome to Chinatown!” that features Chinese in Hollywood’s imaginations. In this section there is a Core Portrait featuring Anna May Wong (1905-1961), the most famous Chinese American actress of the 20s & 30s who lost out to Louise

Anna May Wong

Rainer for the role of O-Lan in the film version of The Good Earth.  Louise Rainer won the first of her two Oscars for best actress for the role O-Lan in 1937. If Anna May Wong had gotten the role of O-Lan and given the Oscar-winning performance, she would have been the first non-Caucasian actress to win an Oscar, beating Hattie McDaniel’s performance in Gone with the Wind in 1939.  Just some food for thought on this coming Sunday evening…

For those of you eager to learn more about Anna May Wong, please join us on Thursday, March 18 from 6:30 pm to 8:30 pm for our Work in Progress Series featuring the screening of Anna May Wong: In Her Own Words. Admission is free through our Target Free Thursdays program. Come join us for this screening and help us celebrate Chinese American actresses!

S. Alice Mong, Director, MOCA

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The Making of Meaningful Connection

“Seasons pursuing each other, the indescribable crowd is gathered….”

This quote from Walt Whitman’s Leaves of Grass, one of my favorite quotes of all time, is now part of the Digital Media Wall located at the end of MOCA’s new core exhibitions, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America.  I love it because it is so telling of MOCA’s spirit and commitment in the past 30 years and for many more to come.  MOCA is a gathering ground and hub, where people of all backgrounds come to reclaim, rediscover, and celebrate the Chinese American experience.  Next to Whitman’s quote on the wall, one can find a spread of videos, three of which are equipped with a touch screen.  Visitors are encouraged to scroll through a list of twelve individuals and to hear them talk about how Chinese American history is relevant to them.  Among the interviewees are John Liu, new comptroller-elect, previously councilman of New York City; Anna Sui, fashion designer; Frank Wu, civil rights lawyer and professor; Jeff Gammage, journalist and father to two Chinese adoptees, and Father Raymond Nobiletti, pastor at Transfiguration Church on Mott St in Chinatown.

These are but twelve highlights.  There are many more people who, after visiting MOCA physically or virtually, find themselves spontaneously revisiting their own experience and actively making meaningful connections between the stories told by MOCA and those of their own.  Almost always, many of them would immediately share their own stories with us.  One soon realizes that people of different backgrounds are more closely related than we think.

This was especially true when I went home to Taiwan for vacation shortly after the new MOCA opened on September 22 last year.  Before departing from New York, I knew the trip was going to be a little different from those before.  I had scheduled two presentations in Taipei and Kinmen to share MOCA’s experience in building its new home.  For those who find themselves unfamiliar with Kinmen, it is a 60-square-mile-short outlying island approximately 6.2 miles off the Southeast shore of China.  While it’s geographically closer to the mainland, it is a part of the territory of Taiwan.  It is this minuscule island that I am from.  Although the audiences of both venues were generally intrigued with MOCA’s commitment to the immigrant experience, they came from rather different stand points and were interested in very diverse topics and issues.

The venue of my presentation in Taipei was the Department of Cultural Affairs of Taipei City Government.  In the audience were mainly the employees of the Department who were involved with the project to build a new Taipei City Museum (tentative name).  One crowd-member was from The Palace Museum, a museum comparable to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City in terms of its prestige in the world of traditional Chinese art.  With their affiliations and specific projects in mind, many of them poised questions that had to do with the logistics and statistics of MOCA, from the opening hours, to the visitor demographics, to how the curatorial foci were shaped.  What I found interesting was that the approach that the Taipei City Museum is taking for the new museum is very similar to the approach MOCA takes.  Like many American cities, they see Taipei as a city of immigrants that make up the fabric of the nation.  This is a new reality for many major cities around the world because of globalization. With the increasing interest in people’s displacement and related discussions and issues around the world, MOCA is only going to be progressively relevant over time.

The attendees to my presentation in Kinmen were diverse in their interests.  They found themselves connected with MOCA in a different but similarly significant way.  The presentation was organized by Professor Chiang Bo-Wei from the Graduate School of Culture and History of Southern Fujian, National Kinmen Institute of Technology.  Prof. Chiang was thoughtful in the choice of presentation venue.  Initially, Prof Chiang intended to host the lecture at the Graduate School but he announced the change of venue at the last minute to the recently renovated Chen Jing-Lan Villa to better contextualize my lecture.  Chen Jing-Lan was a native to Kinmen, who went oversea for better economic opportunities.  He returned to Kinmen in 1921 with savings to build one of the most exemplary buildings associated with immigrant culture of the time.  Like the early Chinese in the US at the turn of the century, many Kinmenese left home to Japan or South East Asia in search of jobs and opportunities.  They would then send money home to support their families, like the bachelors of American Chinatowns.  Some of them who did well could even afford to renovate their old home or build brand new houses for the family they left behind as a signifier of success.  Chen was one of these successful emigrants.  These new houses were oftentimes heavily influenced by Western style and usually reflected the architectural styles of their adoptive country.  Such was the case of the Chen Jing-Lan Villa.

Between 1992 and 2005, the Villa was uninhabited and in dilapidation.  After a joint effort of the academia and local authorities, the Villa was renovated and restored to its original glamour.  The audience at the presentation at the Villa was larger and there was a mix of students, local residents, and people interested in cultural and historical preservation.  At the end of the presentation, they gave me feedback that reflected more personal interest and emotions.  Perhaps this was because of their sense of kinship with me as a native Kinmense and the passion they have for preservation of local heritage.

One of the audience members was particularly inspired by MOCA’s inclusion of the interactive device, “The 8 Pound Livelihood”, that allows the visitor to feel the weight of an iron used in a Chinese laundry that closed down in the 1980’s.  Through the interactivity, the visitor is expected to have a sense of the hardship of laundry work, one of the main jobs many early Chinese immigrants in America had.  The audience member continued to point out that similar to the Chinese American experience many Kinmen immigrants in Southeast Asia began with makeshift barber services on the roofed walkway.  MOCA’s design helped her realize that there can also be participatory activity around the lesser known experience of Kinmenese immigrants in Southeast Asia at local museums or cultural institutions.  Perhaps, she went on, they can offer barber services to the visitor in a similar outdoor setting to reenact and reinterpret history.

Regardless of the actual relevance behind her idea, the excitement in her tone was evidence of a connection between MOCA and these people of my own hometown, a tiny place thousands of miles away from America.  Once again, I was convinced of MOCA’s unique capacity of engaging people and helping them make meaningful connections with each other and with history.

Ting-Chi Wang
Exhibitions Manager


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MOCA Collections

I was very excited when I started writing this blog, and it suddenly reminded me of when I was young. Every time I wrote an essay I almost always used “I was very excited…” to start writing, which is how most young people started an article in China during the certain time period. At the time we would write in this popular way even without being excited. This time, there really are a lot of things to be excited about. For more than three years since I started working here, I’ve been waiting for the day we would open our new museum. In a blink of an eye, it’s already been several month since the new museum opened. The museum’s opening has created an opportunity for us at the collections department to use the entirety of the old site to develop collections preservation and research work. Recently MOCA started a blog, and it’s really another thing to celebrate!

Something I’ve always felt was unfortunate has inspired me to write in Chinese about some thoughts on my work. Despite the fact that I am here now, before I accepted this job at MOCA, I didn’t know about this museum’s existence. This made me realize that many new Chinese immigrants may be like me— they don’t know about this museum’s existence. Moreover, they don’t know about the opportunity of interacting with this museum and more individuals, or that they are actually linked in countless ways.

Using MOCA’s blog, I prepared a series of ways using Chinese to introduce our museum’s collections to the Chinese in America, and to introduce this “home” for Chinese Americans to Chinese immigrants like me. I hope everybody will take a step towards understanding the Collections and Research Center and how we preserve Chinese American and immigrant history. I also hope I can collect even more donations from the newer immigrant generation such as historical documents, pictures, and objects so we can have a more abundant collection in our museum and enrich Chinese American history.

Getting back on track, today I’d like to tell everyone about a book in our collections that is hand-written and more than seventy years old—‘Coaching Book’.

A few months ago California apologized to Chinese Americans for the bill passed by America in 1882 known as the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act was to last 10 years when it was first passed, but by 1902 the act became permanent. It wasn’t until 1943 when America joined forces with China against Japan that President Roosevelt finally signed a bill repealing the Chinese Exclusion Act. The Chinese Exclusion Act prohibited the Chinese from buying land, multiracial marriages, and more. It had an immense impact on Chinese immigrants, which created phenomena like Chinatown’s bachelor apartments and “bought papers” with fake identities that were used to come to America.

The first collection of archives MOCA constructed thirty years ago was from Chinatown’s Bachelor Apartments. I will give a detailed introduction about this collection in the next entry. Today, I want to first discuss the recent topic of the Chinese Exclusion Act, which has made many later-generation Chinese Americans search for stories about their grandparent’s “bought fake identity papers” in order to enter America.

In our museum’s archives there is an extremely precious handwritten ‘Coaching Book.’ In reality, this

A "coaching book" from the MOCA collection.

book is a manual that trains people on how to “buy papers.” The book is 50 pages front to back, and at the time Chinese immigrants struggled to memorize and recite the book’s details for a smooth entrance to America. People who bought identities had to familiarize themselves with the book and destroy the book before reaching America in order to avoid the immigration office from seizing evidence and sending them back. According to reports, 56,113 Chinese immigrants came to America from 1910 to 1940; most importantly, they entered the country from San Francisco’s Angel Island. At the time, many Chinese immigrants were taken into custody, while some were sent back.

As a result, of all the things our museum has collected this 50 page completely handwritten book is extremely precious. Inside it prepares detailed information on several generations of ancestors, direct and distant relations, and detailed information on family names, in a method of Q&A. It also prepares even more detailed questions. Those individuals who bought papers had to also familiarize themselves with detailed arrangements of the family compound.

As the picture of the book shows:

“House #7, Cheng Wang, abroad about 19 years, wife at home, son Ya Fei about 10 years old, total 3 people

House #12, Yong Qing, abroad, wife at home, no children, total 2 people


This book lists 19 houses in all, including all details big and small. As you can see, our grandparent’s generation had to memorize this book in order to enter America and avoid having their visas rejected. It really wasn’t easy.

Yue Ma, Collections Manager











如附图所书:大七间 成旺屋 出外约十九年 妻在家 子亚飞 约十岁 共三人


大十二间 永情屋 出外 妻在家 未有子女 共二人



马  越, 馆藏部副主任


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