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.

MOCA Monday: Lee Mingwei’s The Travelers

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.

Artist Lee Mingwei commissioned books that asked participants to reflect on the experience of leaving home.

In a break from MOCA Monday’s commitment to showcasing images from the collections, we’d like to share an image from a current exhibition: Lee Mingwei’s The Travelers. This piece was just written up in The New Yorker’s Goings on About Town. We invite you to view it through March 26. From their piece:

Two impressive installations by the Taiwanese-born artist grapple with the meaning of home. In “The Quartet Project” (2005), four video monitors, tucked behind partitions, document musicians performing Dvořák’s Op. 96 in F Major; known as the “American string quartet,” it was written while the Czech composer was on an extended visit to the U.S. The ambient play of light on the wall evokes both domesticity (home fires burning) and alienation (the flicker of TV spied through a stranger’s window). For “The Travelers,” which was commissioned by the museum in 2010, Lee made a hundred blank notebooks and invited participants to write down their thoughts about leaving home and then pass the books on to others and ask them to do the same. An air of distance is evident. One woman notes that in Europe, she says she’s from the U.S., in New York, she says she’s from California, and in San Francisco, she says she’s from Taipei. Even Maya Lin, who designed the museum, admits, “I still see myself as a Midwesterner, not a true New Yorker.” Through March 26.

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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

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Museum as Material: Curator Herb Tam on Lee Mingwei

In advance of the forthcoming exhibition, Lee Mingwei: The Travelers and The Quartet Project,  Curator Herb Tam discusses how Lee’s work re-imagines what a museum could be. The exhibition opens with a public reception on Thursday, October 20, 7-9pm. For more information visit

A page from Book no. 50

Excerpt from Museum as Material: The Travelers and the Radical Domesticity of Lee Mingwei

I am writing this in the days after New York State passed historic legislation legally recognizing gay marriage, throwing light onto a broad shift in the nature of domestic spaces that has been developing since World War II. As we prepare to install Lee Mingwei’s exhibition at MOCA, I find myself reflecting on what his work says about the role and status of museums today, how it relates to the idea of home, and what his commissioned project, The Travelers, will literally and conceptually do to our space.

The Museum of Chinese in America, having begun without exhibit facilities in 1980 as the Chinatown History Project, and after inhabiting a warren of rooms at P.S. 23 in Chinatown for more than 20 years, moved in 2009 to its current 215 Centre Street location. The new site, a former machinery repair shop, was designed by Maya Lin and refers to the sacred domestic space of the home.  Indeed, the central area in the museum alludes to the courtyards that are commonly seen in traditional homes throughout China.

In 2010, Lee was asked to create a site-specific project inspired and informed by MOCA, our new building, and our work to describe the history and culture of Chinese experience in America. In past work, Lee has challenged artistic and social conventions. In 1999, he and artist Virgil Wong (members of the collective PaperVeins) staged an elaborate virtual project that cast Lee as a pregnant man.  Inviting Lee, whose work typically demands personal engagement with the artist himself or with a condition he has set, has forced MOCA to confront its own shifting identity as a museum settling into a new space. The project Lee conceived of, The Travelers, imagines the museum as a home, just like Maya Lin’s design intimates. But The Travelers does so by raising questions about the expectations of our space and by highlighting shifts in the meaning and function of both museums and homes.

In addition to its references to Chinese American experience and to this particular museum, it is instructive to see The Travelers as arising from a tradition of artistic activity that seeks to destabilize institutional spaces. For more than a decade, Lee has done so by creating situations that relocate the field of domestic experience into the logistics of museums. If both Lee’s body of work including The Travelers and MOCA refer in different ways to home, we should ask what this space signifies today.

A contributor shares her story.

The full version of this essay is on the exhibition’s poster, which will be available at the Museum.

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

The Travelers Giveaway: Exclusive MOCA Traveling Tote!

We’re kicking off a contest series for The Travelers, an ongoing project and upcoming exhibition by artist Lee Mingwei, who custom-made 100 notebooks that are being circulated internationally. The books are meant to travel for one calendar year, passed on like chain letters, documenting stories. Participants are asked to write stories about the concept of “leaving home,” which will be available for visitors to read once the project has reached completion and is installed at MOCA.

Get involved on the web! This month’s question:

Where do you currently call home? How did you or your family first arrive there/here?

Leave your story in the comments below and be eligible to win this exclusive MOCA traveling tote! Please include your e-mail address in the appropriate field when you respond and submit your answer before next Monday, June 13, 2011. MOCA Staff will choose a lucky winner who responds with the most compelling story! Open to international readers.

Happy traveling!

This post is part of the blog series by artist Lee Mingwei, whose art project The Travelers, a MOCA commission, is ongoing through September 12, 2011.  In the project, Mingwei invites participants to write down their stories of “leaving home;” in this blog series, we turn to Mingwei and ask him to share his.

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

Lee Mingwei: Finding “pipa” fruit in Portugal

Courtesy of Lee Studio

This post is part of the blog series by artist Lee Mingwei, whose art project The Travelers, a MOCA commission, is ongoing through September 12, 2011.  In the project, Mingwei invites participants to write down their stories of “leaving home;” in this blog series, we turn to Mingwei and ask him to share his. 

(Image courtesy of Lee Studio)

I arrived in Portugal on Tuesday the 19th, mainly doing a site visit in the historical town Guimareas, for a project for the European Capital for Culture 2012.  Guimareas is a lovely city which was founded around the 11th century by the first king of Portugal.  My room looked out to a tiered vineyard and a small church perched right on the hills.  I was constantly reminded of its countryside location with fresh air and the rolling mountain mist.

The residents there were very, very friendly and helpful.  I found pipa fruit– the largest I have ever seen– all over the fruit stands.  They were more tart than I remembered but were imbued with aroma.

The cultural team and I worked for the three days that I was there, trying to figure out the details and the possible location for the Mending Project for September of 2012.  There were quite a few abandoned storefronts within the old city wall; these could be very lovely spot for the project if cleaned up properly.

On Thursday afternoon, took the local train to Lisbon, and stayed with my friends Antonio and Christopher, professors at the university.  They took care of me with great generosity and hospitality.  I met Christopher online when he came across my Male Pregnancy Project few years ago.  Since then, he has included it as one of the core projects for his students.   We took a lovely ride to the southern coast of Lisbon, where we wined and dined on a rustic veranda looking out to the Atlantic Ocean, a magical place indeed.

I am ready to come back now, waiting for my flight in the lounge.  Sleeping in my own bed is such a luxury.


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

Q&A with Lee Mingwei, Part 1: Leaving Home

Courtesy of Lee StudioThis post is Part 1 of a Q&A series with artist Lee Mingwei. Learn more about our ongoing exhibition, The Travelers, here.

(Image courtesy of Lee Studio)

Tell us about your story of leaving home.

I left Taiwan right before my 13th birthday, heading toward another island called the Dominican Republic.  My parents wanted me to leave the country because they didn’t like the idea of me doing military service under a government that was against their political beliefs.  When I arrived in Santo Domingo, I was so taken by the natural surroundings: endless fields of coconut trees, mango groves and sparkling white beaches.  Also, everyone was speaking Spanish, which was a completely foreign language to me. All these fresh new things made  the first departure from my home much less scary and was, actually, quite exhilarating, come to think of it.

What did you carry in your suitcase when you first left home for a long term stay in a country?

I don’t remember any particular item except that my mum placed a cook book by Fu PeiMei, the Taiwanese version of Julia Child.  Oh, yes, other items were several books by San Mao, which were about her life living in the Canary Islands and the Sahara Desert with her husband Jose.

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

Lee Mingwei checks in from Liverpool

Courtesy of Lee StudioThis post is part of the blog series by artist Lee Mingwei, whose art project The Travelers, a MOCA commission, is ongoing through September 12, 2011.  In the project, Mingwei invites participants to write down their stories of “leaving home;” in this blog series, we turn to Mingwei and ask him to share his.

(Image courtesy of Lee Studio)

I am currently in Liverpool, doing The Mending project for Liverpool Biennale.  It is really wonderful to be back in Liverpool, afer 4 years; the city has changed quite a bit, for the better.  I truly enjoy walking daily to 52 Renshaw Street, an old Victorian arcade, to mend stranger’s clothing.  The visitors are all very eager to participate in the process, by bringing me their cloth to mend.

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