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 Personal Story of the Impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

(This blog entry was inspired by a kickoff event for the 1882 Project I attended a few weeks ago.)

A Personal Story of the Impact of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

What’s in a name?

I’ve considered this question from time to time ever since I learned that my American last name was different, in spelling and meaning, from my Chinese last name. As a child growing up, there was always an assumption that my father’s last name was changed on Ellis Island. The running folklore in our family was “ Oh, the officials messed up the spelling, so that’ s why our last name became Lew instead of Lee – Lew/Lee, it’s the same thing.”

But was it really?

As I dug deeper into my family history, I learned that LEW had a unique origin: it was a name that originated in San Francisco after the earthquake of 1906 and subsequent fire that razed municipal buildings housing city records. This major catastrophe gave rise to the phenomenon of paper identities, whereby many Chinese immigrants falsely claimed American citizenship during the exclusion era, when Chinese laborers were prevented from immigrating to the US, and people of Chinese descent were prohibited from becoming naturalized citizens. My great aunt’s father had made such a claim to American citizenship on the basis of the 14th amendment and later declared that he gave birth to a son in Toisan, China during the 1930s – an identity that my father would eventually assume for the rest of his life.

Though my father immigrated to the US in 1951, eight years after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was symbolically repealed, the odds against his immigration remained immense because of a restrictive quota of 105 immigrants of Chinese descent that were allowed into the US each year. Furthermore, my father had to come to the US before the end of 1951 because, according to his paper identity, he was going to turn 16 by mid-December, and the law required him to enter the US before his 16th birthday. Had he turned 16 before entering the US, he would no longer have been eligible for sponsorship by his family. When he arrived in NYC, he was taken to Ellis Island and detained for two months before being reunited with his actual parents and older brother (who had made their own immigration arrangements) in New York City’s Chinatown.

My last name is one among the variety of names that comprise the Lee family tree. Some family members were able to retain the Lee name, while others took on other names to circumvent social, political, and racial barriers to immigration. These anomalies in the Lee family tree are intertwined with stories like my father’s, obstacles certain family members had to overcome to gain access to a new way of life during a time when people from other countries were freely welcomed into the US. My last name Lew is as much a descendant of the first race based exclusion act ever passed by the US federal government as it is a branch of the Lee family tree.

Karen L Lew

Associate Director of Education


For more information about 1882 Project, please see:

For an abridged version of my father’s oral history about his experiences on Ellis Island see following link:

Filed under: Education, MOCA, , , , ,

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











Filed under: Collections, , , , , , , ,

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 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


Filed under: Collections, MOCA, , , ,

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