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.

Don’t Believe the Hype

-A personal view on Linsanity

Linsanity’s 2nd act is about to begin as his Houston Rockets prepare to face the Detroit Pistons on October 31 to open the NBA season. Jeremy Lin’s presence on the new GQ cover (he is the first Asian-American to do so in the magazine’s existence) is evidence that all the hoopla surrounding Lin clearly hasn’t dissipated from New York with his departure.  After reading the article I began to consider my own relationship to basketball as a Chinese American.

It might be surprising for you to read that I have mixed-feelings about Lin.  As a Chinese-American basketball player and coach, it was exciting to see another Asian American succeed at the highest level.  On the other hand, as an objective basketball observer his weaknesses stood out: the inability to dribble hard left, over-handling the ball, and jumping before he passes. He struggled to minimize his turnovers and was careless the ball– cardinal sins for a point guard whose primary job is to control the tempo of the game and be an extension of the coach.  However, one quote from Lin in the article struck me, and in it I found a way to relate to him as a basketball player.  In response to the idea that race played a significant role in his being overlooked by NBA teams:

“If I can be honest, yes. It’s not even close to the only reason, but it was definitely part of the reason…There’s a lot of perceptions and stereotypes of Asian-Americans that are out there today, and the fact that I’m Asian-American makes it harder to believe, even crazier, more unexpected,” he says. “I’m going to have to play well for a longer period of time for certain people to believe it, because I’m Asian. And that’s just the reality of it.”

I can relate to Jeremy Lin feeling pressure to play better for longer in order to break the perceptions and stereotypes he faces in the NBA.  I competed on Amateur Athletic Union (AAU) teams (NY Gauchos, NY Pride) that traveled and competed nationally. One year during try-outs with Gauchos, when teams were formed by the coaches, my new teammates looked at me with exasperation—to them I was dead weight because I was Chinese.  They didn’t pass me the ball and I became frustrated.  On one possession, determined to show my abilities, I hustled and grabbed a long rebound, ignored my teammates frantic instructions and passed it forward to a teammate who scored an easy lay-up.  My coach blew the whistle, and yelled at my squad:  “He is the point guard, give him the ball! Why did it take you idiots so long to notice that?!” That it took my coach’s intervention for them to consider passing me the ball is telling.

Another time, during my first practice with the Gauchos a teammate very seriously asked me, “Do you really eat egg-rolls for dinner every day?”  I was taken aback and confused that he believed all Chinese people owned restaurants and ate egg-rolls every day.  With Lin’s successes, would my former teammate–now playing in the NBA– have the same attitudes towards Lin as he did towards me when we were younger?

In 2005 I was recruited to play in Bill Chan’s Queens-based USAB Warriors team which began my association with the network of Chinese and Asian American basketball tournaments and teams.  Over the years, we won three national titles together. I recently won two national titles as a coach with USAB.  Throughout my time with USAB, every team doubted us, took us lightly, and looked down on us.

The GQ article prompted a reflection of what has Lin achieved. I am proud and excited, but also skeptical that he can match last season’s production. I also understand that the larger unanswered questions about Lin’s emergence are about perceptions of Asian-Americans. In essence, what is Jeremy Lin’s broad impact on society? I’m looking forward to November 9, 2012 when The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) hosts a panel discussion called ROCKET MAN: The Future of Jeremy Lin with Devin Gordon (GQ) and Will Leitch (New York Magazine), the editor and writer behind the history-making Jeremy Lin feature in November’s GQ.

Daniel Ng is currently the Curatorial Intern at MOCA and is a Master’s student at New York University in the program in Museum Studies.  He is one of the coaches for the USAB Warriors in Queens, NY, continues to compete in basketball leagues, and is a die-hard NY Knicks fan.

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Filed under: Exhibitions, Public Programs, , , ,

Beyond the Image

In anticipation of the exhibition June 4, 1989: Media and Mobilization Beyond Tiananmen Square, Curator and Director of Exhibitions Herb Tam reflects about simultaneously watching Michael Chang win the French Open and reports of the crackdown on protestors in Tiananmen Square.

On June 5, 1989 seventeen-year old Michael Chang defeated tennis legend Ivan Lendl in the 4th round of the French Open in one of the most indelible moments in tennis history. It was the first time a Chinese or Chinese American player had advanced into the semifinals of one of the four major tournaments. My parents, sister and I leaned into the TV that morning, riveted to the match, while also learning of the vast and violent crackdown on protesters for democratic reform in Tiananmen Square the night before on the other networks. We watched replays of an anonymous young man confronting a column of tanks, thwarting their advance into the square. Flipping back to NBC, Chang’s legs cramped up and it looked like Lendl would overwhelm the teenage upstart. But Chang, with crafty play (he lobbed weak underhand serves and ‘moon balls’ to save his legs and prevent additional cramping), perservered and outlasted Lendl to win an epic match.

As the match and news from Tiananmen Square played out, feelings of Chinese pride and horror swept over us and my nerves felt fried. After the match finished, we raced to the Chinese consulate on Geary Street in San Francisco to join other protesters in solidarity with those in Beijing. We stood among hundreds as cars honked their approval. In the bright, windy sunshine listening to impassioned, tearful pleas, I wondered if Communist grip on daily life in China would loosen enough to allow for real reform and greater freedom of speech. A day after the crackdown, and in the wake of Chang’s improbable win, possibility for revolutionary change felt curiously within reach. How could anything seem possible in the aftermath of so much death and destruction? Amidst the shock we felt watching this historic tumult unfold on TV, an old order seemed ready to topple.

A week later, Chang went on to win the French Open in another monumental upset of a past champion, Stefan Edberg. And though he won, the victory felt strangely anti-climatic. Psychologically and superstitiously, the Chinese plan for the worst. But in strictly tennis terms, many Asian Americans who understood the game quietly acknowledged that his style wasn’t necessarily sustainable as a way to win major championships. Chang was a classic counter-puncher whose short, stocky frame was built to absorb and chase down punishing serves and groundstrokes from U.S. counterparts of his generation like Pete Sampras, Jim Courier and Andre Agassi, all of whom were groomed on power, knock-out punch tennis. Chang’s win brought Asian Americans to the brink of exalted belief about what was possible, athletically, for “us”. But at the same time that we (and I mean “we” as in Asian Americans and those that are down) indulged in this hope, we new that it was a mere glimmer.

Similarly, the surreality of watching millions of Chinese pour into Tiananmen Square was exhilarating and solemn at the same time. For while we witnessed the uneasy balance of the protesters’ defiance and the Communist party’s permissiveness for a few weeks, the quick, ugly crescendo of the crackdown on June 4 shattered the dream we all knew would end. It woke us up to the cold reality of the party’s will; China’s ascendant present grew out of this moment.

As experts wonder about China’s intentions (a recent New York Times article highlighted the Chinese government’s investments in the Caribbean as an encroachment imminent to American shores), another Asian American athlete, Jeremy Lin, flashed a series of transcendent, unforeseen performances (just like Michael Chang in the summer of 89), raising Asian American cultural studies into trending territory. But those of us who were around for Chang’s rise have buffered ourselves emotionally for a possible plateau-effect with Lin. Chang remained good and often great for a good part of the 90s, staying right behind Pete Sampras as the number two player in the world. But a major part of his legacy was that he only got that one grand slam title. In the minds of many, Chang is frozen as a teenage phenom improbably taking it to the giants of tennis in the 89 French Open, but nothing more.

Now that Lin is hurt and likely out for the year, we can only guess about his true place in the basketball universe. What will be his future? Will he be like Phoenix’s Steve Nash, Dallas’ Jason Kidd or the LA Clippers’ Chris Paul, all who have preter-natural gifts to see plays seconds before they happen and thus make their teammates’ job much easier? Or will he be like Orlando’s Jameer Nelson, Memphis’ Mike Conley or Indiana’s Jarrett Jack: very good NBA point guards who can turn out star performances once in a while. Maybe he’ll wind up in the servicable, unspectacular starting point guard category like Minnesota’s Luke Ridenour, Toronto’s Jose Calderon, or Portland’s Raymond Felton?

This summer will be the ongoing moment of Jeremy Lin, when he’ll be “to be continued” for a good long time. Lin aside, we commit any Asian American athlete’s play to narrative and are so invested in his success because his story might define us to others. With a dearth of other representations of us, his image might wind up being our mask. The Chinese have long been seen as an undifferentiated mass, signified by anyone who managed to break through. For my generation, all Chinese boys on the basketball court were Bruce Lee. In looking alike, we are all invisible.

The lasting, iconic image of the June 4 protest is of the young man taking on those tanks. The scene is shot from afar and the young man’s back is to the camera. We never get to see his face. His identity is lost and that’s partially why that image is so powerful and haunting. Only in his anonymity can he represent the protesters’ humanity, nobility and audacity, and be the universalized object of the government’s killing machines. He literally becomes the Chinese in the same way that Michael Chang, Michelle Kwan, and Jeremy Lin are in the moments of their greatest triumphs. They become so much more when they (and the movement) fail or fall short of overwraught expectations.

Filed under: 1989: Media and Mobilization Beyond Tiananmen Square, Exhibitions, , , , , ,

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.

Filed under: Collections, MOCA Monday, Public Programs, , , , ,

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

Filed under: Exhibitions, MOCA, , , , , , , ,

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