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.

Comfort Foods

As we prepare to spend Thanksgiving with family and friends gathered around a meal, I got to thinking about comfort food. Growing up, my family lived across the country from our relatives, and our Thanksgiving stood out less as a time to follow traditions and more as a time to celebrate through cooking together. (In Oregon, with our youthful vegetarianism waxing and waning in popularity, I think there may have even been a few turkey-less years…) My job was always to make the biscuits, a  recipe from my mother’s New Basics Cookbook that I can just barely make from memory still. There are other food traditions we’ve kept going over the years. My mother makes a blue-ribbon-winning linzer torte, and Christmas Eve dinners are always dominated by a rich, creamy macaroni and cheese. One of the best gifts I’ve received was a collection of recipes from my friends and family, and I was thrilled to see my father’s brown bread and my husband’s grandmother’s apple cake included. For me, the comfort foods I treasure are the ones that remind me of being small and underfoot in the kitchen, reaching a hand up to steal a taste, impatiently awaiting a simmering sauce or baking bread. It made me wonder what comfort foods my colleagues craved, and so an email went out, asking for foods (and better yet, recipes.)

Samantha Chin-Wolner found it almost too easy to pick: “…my mom’s congee. I don’t actually have a recipe, but she’d cook the rice down overnight and throw in ginger and chicken. As a kid, I’d often destroy it with an obscene amount of soy sauce. BEYOND simple but so perfect, especially during the fall/winter.” (Serious Eats has a great article on cooking a proper bowl.)

For Sophia Ma, it’s all about the way grandma used to make: “It was a whole chicken, it would sit all day on the stove, and lots of herbs and roots…sometimes she would throw in a whole fish too. Fish, good for the eyes, and chicken, good for the body. And of course it’s also grandma making it too!” (Not Grandma’s soup, but a Momofuku recipe so I have a strong feeling it’s probably delicious: Chicken-Ginger Noodle Soup.)

Herb Tam keeps it simple (and isn’t the best comfort food the simplest?) with “Steamed egg with dried shrimp mixed in with my white rice.” (Looking to buy your own dried shrimp? Check out Chow for sources and tips.)

Marissa Chen comforts herself year-round with “Aji de Gallina!  I crave it every Thanksgiving, and Christmas, and Easter… basically all the time.” (She also included a recipe and a history lesson from La Vida Comida.)

In a nice twist, Ryan Wong remembers Dad’s best recipe (and Mom’s best takeout): “Fried rice the way my dad made it. Exactly five ingredients: eggs, frozen peas, onions, lap cheong (sausage) and rice. Also, mondoo (Korean dumplings) the way Koreatown Plaza in Los Angeles made it – my mom doesn’t cook. She took me and my brother for meals in Koreatown when my dad was on work trips.” (It may not be like how Mom used to buy, but New Yorkers have named Mandoo Bar in Murray Hill the best dumplings in the borough.)

So whether you celebrate with roasted turkey or ma po tofu, from our MOCA family to yours: Happy Thanksgiving.

Emily Chovanec Schappler
Visitor Services Manager

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The Travelers: Childhood Memories of Taiwan

First Day of Kindergarten, Taipei, 1969. Courtesy of Lee Mingwei.

The image on the poster for the new exhibition at MOCA, Lee Mingwei: The Travelers and The Quartet Project (shown left) is a photo of Lee Mingwei and his mother en route to his first day of kindergarten in Taipei. In the office last week, fresh from the printer, the poster had been folded down into an over-sized brochure. I caught a glimpse of the power lines, then the skyline of trees of various shapes and heights, and when the entire image was in full view, the bridge railing made of concrete–unadorned in its original glory. With each unfolding, I traveled closer to those three months of my childhood when this view of a concrete slab against a tree-lined sky framed by power lines was a daily sight. I must have been about 5 and had recently arrived in Taiwan after several years in the States. Because I missed the minimum enrollment age for first grade in Taipei by a few months, my parents decided to send me to live with my grandparents in Hsinchu, a small town an hour south of Taipei where schools were less stringent about age-eligibility. I don’t remember who took me to my first day of school, but my grandfather was a frequent companion on my morning walks to school. On the way to and from school, we would cross a concrete bridge much like the one in Lee Mingwei’s photo, except the concrete slab that stood in for a proper bridge railing was only ankle height. I remember this detail because one day, I got into trouble for crossing this bridge. Once school let out, I usually made my way home with a friend who lived on the same street. Unbeknownst to us, my grandfather would sometimes watch–OK, who am I kidding, spy on–us while we walked home from school. Good thing he did, because I guess instead of walking, my friend and I played tag all the way home, oblivious to other pedestrians, traffic and our surroundings in general. I got reprimanded because on this particular day, I was almost chased off the side of the bridge. Another step, my grandfather pointed out, and I would have fallen off the bridge since this concrete slab of a railing only reached my ankles.

The author and her mother (right) with a friend, friend's sister and mother, circa 1981.

I didn’t think that out of all the elements in Lee Mingwei’s exhibition, I would find the strongest personal connection to the backdrop of his photo, but as usual, where an object in MOCA’s exhibitions and collection transports us in our minds and in our lives never ceases to surprise me. Throughout my years at MOCA, I’ve had many such experiences–from a mother of Haitian descent recounting her grandmother’s life story upon seeing the 8-pound iron in our core exhibitions to just last month, when a group of Chinese American veterans spotted the 1943 photo of the 407th Air Service Squadron on display and began to call out the names of the men they recognized in the photo. I learned that here at MOCA, so many years later, it was the first time many of them had seen a photo of themselves in full-dress uniform.

I know I’m not alone in these remembrances. When you see objects in MOCA’s exhibitions, what place, what time, what mood do you experience or return to?

Beatrice Chen
Director of Education and Public Programs

Filed under: Exhibitions, Lee Mingwei’s Blog for The Travelers, , , ,

September 11th Reflections

Our Associate Director of Education, Karen Lew, shares some thoughts on the ten-year anniversary of September 11th.

As with many of us during this time, I have been reflecting on the impact of September 11th as the tenth anniversary approaches.

In the days and weeks following September 11th, I can remember thinking that there were two worlds in Lower Manhattan: the one above Canal Street and the one south of it.  Everything south of Canal Street had been isolated from the rest of the city and relegated to the realm of news broadcasts. Lower Manhattan had become more of a crime scene than a community, and everyone was unsure about its future. Week after week, a new article about the tenuous economy of Manhattan’s Chinatown appeared in the New York Times. Life below Canal Street was militarized; the National Guard were stationed at major intersections throughout, and one needed photo identification to travel within a span of 3 – 4 blocks. The streets were uncannily empty. Storefronts were closed, and the lingering smell of burning metals, plastics, and other substances I could not even identify created a miasmic field in the neighborhood. I will never forget this burning, stinging vapor that lasted well into December.

In response, my boyfriend at the time (now my husband) and I created a button that embodied what we felt was the most constructive and appropriate response to the violent disaster. On its face was the Chinese character for unity with a graphic that represented the neighborhood, the 10013 zip code, and the words “Reflect, Rebuild, Revive”–a call to literally rise out of the ashes. We encouraged our friends and acquaintances to support Chinatown and the rest of the Lower Manhattan and created an e-mail account where people could write to share their experiences as they coped with the fallout the day of the attack. The image of that button was deposited into the 911digitalarchive.org. See link: http://911digitalarchive.org/repository_object.php?object_id=33875

September 11, 2001 made me fight for my neighborhood.  I didn’t want to see it die. Though at the time I was already involved with nonprofit work focused in other communities around NYC, I decided to find a job serving the very community I grew up in. Six months later, I serendipitously discovered an opportunity that combined my interests in youth and community development when a new after school program was created in the Chinatown/Lower East Side area in response to September 11th to support children and their families living in proximity to the World Trade Center.

Ten years later still in the fight for my city, and my community.

For a listing of programs at MOCA commemorating the ten-year anniversary, please see link: http://www.mocanyc.org/about/news/moca_announces_911_anniversary_program

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Commerce Secretary Gary Locke Reflects upon his Heritage

(Front Row Left to right) Jenny Low (Chinese-American Planning Council President), Virginia Kee (CPC Founder), NYC Comptroller John Liu, Secretary Locke, NYS Assemblywoman Grace Meng, S. Alice Mong (MOCA Director), Maya Lin (Artist & Designer of MOCA, Co-Chair of MOCA’s Board); (Back Row Left to Right) Herbert Kee (CPC Founder), Chung C. Seto (ChungSeto Group), Wellington Chen( Executive Director of Chinatown Partnership LDC), Linda Sun ( District Office Manager of Assemblywoman Meng’s office)

On May 12th, Commerce Secretary Gary Locke visited the Museum of Chinese in America. Maya Lin, designer of the Museum and Co-Chair of the Board, along with Director S. Alice Mong, gave Secretary Locke a tour of the Museum, congratulating him on his nomination as the new U.S. Ambassador to China. “We are truly honored to have Secretary Locke, MOCA’s 2005 honoree, and show him our new home as a national cultural anchor chronicling the history of Chinese in America,” said Director Mong. Secretary Locke had an opportunity to view the tile profiling him on the Luminary Wall, which is part of the Museum’s Core Exhibit, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America. The Luminary Wall honors Chinese descendants who have made major contributions to American history, chronologically documenting their stories from all walks of life. Secretary Locke’s tile appears in Section 8: Towards a More Perfect Union, along those of Maya Lin, Ang Lee, David Ho and Elaine Chao.

After his visit, Secretary Locke reflected upon his experience growing up as a Chinese American in his blog post here.

Photo Caption: Secretary Locke with S. Alice Mong ( MOCA Director) and MOCA staff

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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

MOCA

For more information about 1882 Project, please see: http://www.1882project.org

For an abridged version of my father’s oral history about his experiences on Ellis Island see following link: http://www.nps.gov/npnh/forteachers/ellis-island-oral-histories.htm

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Happy Lunar New Year from Our Museum Staff!

Happy New Year / 新年快乐!

To jumpstart the Year of the Rabbit, we’ve asked some of our staff members to share their thoughts and memories of their Lunar New Year experiences. Hope you enjoy!

First, a word from our Director, S. Alice Mong:

Hearty welcome to the Year of the Rabbit!

I have been eagerly anticipating today –first day of the Lunar New Year for quite some time now as Year of the Tiger has been full of too many ups and downs and I was happy to see its passing.  We just got done with a hearty New Year office lunch of noodles (signifying longevity), nian gao (made of glutinous rice which sounds like another year higher or taller), dumplings and green vegetables.  I passed out my traditional lai-see/hong bao (red packet with money) to the unmarried staff to wish them a happy new year.  The food and hong bao all brought back wonderful memories of Chinese New year the way we use to celebrate in Taiwan before we immigrated to the US.  I explained Chinese New Year to those not familiar with it as a combination of Easter (we deck out in our new cloth), Thanksgiving (big family feast—usually at Lunar New Year’s Eve), Christmas (instead of presents, we get the lai see (in Cantonese)/hong bao  (in Mandarin) –with so many aunts and uncles, we kids generally start off the New Year in a very prosperous way) and of course, it’s also like Fourth of July with its firecracker and fireworks (less so these days due to fire regulations).

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What a difference a year makes!

Saturday, January 2, 2010, while visiting my best friend in Switzerland for the New Year holiday, I heard my cell phone’s text message silent hum several times in the middle of the night. Thinking it was probably Happy New Year wishes from friends in the US, I went back to sleep.  Well, it wasn’t…..they were urgent messages from the staff that there was a fire next door to the Museum and although the Museum itself suffered no fire damage, we did sustain major water damage as the exhibition space is on the ground floor and the offices are located in the basement of the building. In a few hours, over 10,000 gallons of water were released from the sprinkler along with an unknown quantity from the fire hoses. The Museum had only opened its doors a little over 3 months earlier—talk about trial by fire, or in this instance trial by flood—and I worried that we would have to be closed for extended period in 2010 for major renovation. Thanks to the hard work of the staff, the board, insurance adjusters, architects and contractors, the disruption was kept to a minimum.

 

2010 Water damage by fire in Core Exhibition

Staff in classroom during renovation

For the entire month of July, as they renovated our office space, all of us huddled and worked together in the classroom with no walls or any cubicles dividing us—we really got to know each other well that month!  Major work was finally completed this fall. My hats off to the entire staff, volunteers and board for its resiliency and commitment. It’s through team work that we have gotten this far as an institution. The new MOCA is as beautiful and relevant as the day we opened to the public on September 22, 2009.

This past Monday, December 28, 2010, we battled the elements again when a blizzard threatened to shut down New York City. I am proud to report that we were able to open to the public despite the snow as three of us were able to get to the Museum. My assistant Sophia Ma ran admissions and the gift shop, our IT Director Frank Liu dug us out until the snow removal people came, and I did coat check.  Believe it or not, we actually had visitors—I had the pleasure of greeting Dr. and Mrs. Yu; a retired professor from the mid-west now living in San Francisco, the family brought three generations of Yu’s to MOCA. The Yu family was right there when we opened our doors at 11:45 am! They were thankful we were open and I was thankful they came.

On Sunday, January 2, 2011, exactly a year after the ‘flood’, MOCA hosted our first wedding in the Chow Cultural Programs Center as YinXia and Vincent were married here surrounded by their family and friends. The sinking feeling of doom and gloom from exactly one year ago has now been replaced by the joy of watching a lovely young couple make a commitment to begin their journey together as a family.  As YinXia’s parents, Zan and Eva, proudly posed in front of their family’s Journey Tile with their daughter and new son-in-law, I marveled at what a difference a year makes and what an exciting journey lies ahead for the newlyweds and for MOCA.

MOCA hosted a wedding for the first time in its space

 

Happy New Year!

S. Alice Mong, Director, MOCA

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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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Reflections on 9-11

This fall, the MOCA presents Chinatown POV: Reflections on September 11th in the Jundy and Tin An Cheng Salon from September 11, 2010 through November 29, 2010. This installation includes first-person accounts, photographs, and mixed-media represents voices from a neighborhood just ten blocks away from Ground Zero.

In honor of the exhibition, we share the reflections of Cynthia Lee, our Curator and Director of Exhibitions. This was written on the one-year anniversary:

This is what I remember about September 11th

I needed to get into work early that day, and it was beautiful out – a clear blue sky that made even New York City feel … clean. It was election day, and three Chinese American candidates were running for City Council in Chinatown. I was thinking that it could be a historic day for the Chinatown community. When I emerged from the subway station, it was a little after 9:00 AM.

As I turned the corner and walked down Mulberry Street, I saw plumes of black smoke over the building tops. “Where’s the fire?”, I wondered. As I got to the Museum’s front entrance, I realized it was coming from the World Trade Center. And it wasn’t just a fire, it was an inferno. I walked over to where a small group of onlookers had gathered beside Columbus Park. One man said that he saw a small plane crash into the tower, his arms recreating the “accident”. Everyone spoke in hushed tones… incredulous. The flames were still red hot as they spewed from the gash in the side of the tower.

I wondered how anybody could possibly survive this. And at the same moment, I knew that Windows on the World was sitting right above the crash. The Museum had its last two fundraising dinners at the restaurant renowned for its commanding views of New York, and I watched in horror as I imagined the staff at Windows trying to escape the fires raging below them. We had very fond memories of working with the Windows staff on those dinners – after each event we would say, such nice people.

When I got into the office, our small, rotary dial, black-and-white TV was serving us minute-by-minute news coverage of the crash. We were in the middle of moving office furniture, files, and supplies to our new second administrative office so there was a lot of activity in our cramped work space. Outside my window, I could see the fire continuing to burn. I felt so helpless, or rather, so useless. People were dying before my eyes.

Then there was an explosion that I could actually feel in my chest. I looked up and saw another burst of flames in the crisp blue sky. And Lamgen, who was watching the news, announced that another plane – a jetliner – had hit the second tower. Oh my God, this was not an accident.

From that point, everything seemed to happen so quickly and yet in slow motion. The towers, to our absolute horror, came down before our eyes seemingly within seconds … one … by one. And still, the sky remained blue, and the sun which used to be blocked by the towers was now filling spaces in our office unlike before. Our neighbor had a video camera and exclaimed that he had caught it on tape.

It felt like Orson Wells’ “War of the Worlds.” When the towers went down, we lost our TV transmission. We followed the events over the radio. Plane went down over Shanksville, Pennsylvania. Reported fires on the Mall in D.C. Plane crashed into the Pentagon.

Three visitors to the Museum, two tourists from China and their friend from New Jersey, came in bewildered. They had videotaped the Twin Towers as they viewed the New York skyline from New Jersey, and when they emerged from the Holland Tunnel, they were gone. We found another TV and all gathered in front of it, hungry for news.

Transportation lines closed: bridges, tunnels, subways. People were moving en masse throughout the city. We needed to find our way home somehow. Jill said I could borrow “The Huff,” her legendary pink Huffy bike, to make it back up to the Upper West Side. I made it only half a block on the bike, realizing that it was too tall for me and that I couldn’t adjust the seat. Besides, the roads were quickly being closed to traffic below Canal Street. I walked along Canal, prepared to hike back home on foot, when I heard police officers making announcements that buses were transporting people uptown. New Jersey bus companies had donated their services to evacuate the masses of stranded people away from Lower Manhattan. We were to be dropped off at one stop – West 65th and Amsterdam. You had to find your way to other points from there.

Looking outside my window, I watched as hordes of people gathered at various intersections on Canal Street. All looking towards the plumes of smoke left behind by the Twin Towers… taking photos, videotaping, staring in disbelief. People were asking the bus driver to drop them off at this and that street. He shook his head, this was not a time for special requests.

We sped up the empty streets of New York – a caravan of coach buses. People on the sidewalks looked at us, wondering who we were and why we had a police escort. That’s when I began to feel the disconnect between myself and other New Yorkers who weren’t near the WTC. Getting off the bus, there was a crowd around the Red Cross offices near my apartment. People wanted to donate blood or volunteer, anything. People were turned away – come back tomorrow, we already have more volunteers and donors than we can handle. Down the street I overhear two people talking, what do you want for lunch? I was in another space completely from what was around me.

My friends and relatives tried to call me. Frustrated and scared that they were unable to get through, they emailed me. I’m okay, I reassured them. Really sad, but okay. I realized that it was my friend’s birthday that day. We were going to celebrate together, being that we shared September birthdays. It felt ridiculous to think about my 31st birthday now.

The next day, I tried to donate blood. Come again later, they said, we have more than we can handle right now. On the third day, I was finally taken in to the makeshift donation center at the Martin Luther King Jr. High School. I’m underweight, but I don’t tell them. I got in line and waited eight hours to get poked in the arm. Neighboring businesses donated food for us throughout the day.

We weren’t going into work because they closed off the streets to non-residents below 14th Street, then later the line was moved to Canal Street. When I finally returned to work, I had headaches from the toxic-smelling air. It was acrid, gray, and oppressive. The streets were empty of people and trucks, and lined with armed guards and blue police barricades. We worked from our cell phones because all the phones lines had been damaged with the building collapses.

Later, we could hear the crowds of people outside our windows, waiting on line for relief funds. There were stories of elderly people who died because they couldn’t call an ambulance, workers being laid off, and stores closing shortly after 9/11.

One year later, I still have not been able to visit ground zero.

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