Museum of Chinese in America
by Caitlin Brody, Time Out New York contributor , 11/13/2009
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“Where is home?” A seemingly simple question, but when inscribed on a plaque at MOCA's new location, it becomes knotty and complex. The $8.1 million, 14,000-square-foot space—which is six times larger than the institution’s cramped Mulberry Street digs, allowing for more of its permanent collection to be showcased—was designed by famed Vietnam Veterans Memorial creator Maya Lin. Although Lin transformed a historic warehouse, it is not all streamlined and sleek. She purposely left the exposed-brick walls around the skylighted courtyard, reminiscent of a traditional Chinese home, in order to represent the rawness that has been a part of Chinese-American history.
Straddling two strikingly different neighborhoods, Chinatown and Soho, the building is a perfect metaphor for the cultural balancing act Chinese-Americans (and other immigrants) do every day.
“Before MOCA, there was no place to find the true stories of Chinese-Americans," says recently appointed museum director S. Alice Mong. "We have fixed that, and now we can celebrate a multitude of true and diverse stories."
Originally founded as a community-based organization in 1980 by historian John Kuo Wei Tchen, MOCA is the only museum of its kind in the country. But while it relates the history of Chinese-American immigrants from 1850 to the present day, the stories on display aren't always as sweet as the cornucopia of flavors at the Chinatown Ice Cream Factory. Tales of overcoming prejudice and weathering brutal immigration experiences abound. Near a wall covered with a potpourri of identification and residence certification documents stands an interrogation chair, inviting visitors to physically put themselves in the place of a Chinese immigrant during the early 20th century.
The displays are not all grim, of course. Younger viewers will be especially taken with the ornate golden dragon that hangs tantalizingly from the ceiling in the bright red "Gung Hay Fat Choy" room, which also features an open-mouthed lion head. Kids can actually play with the latter, and are encouraged to “feed” wishes into the animal’s mouth, a Chinese New Year tradition. The "Welcome to China Town!" room presents and then dispels stereotypes with photos of actors in “yellow-face,” Cherry Chan Candy boxes and Chinatown dishes. Signs contextualize the images: “Chop Suey becomes a means of survival. It’s not what we cook for ourselves, but Americans like it.”
Upon exiting the museum, visitors pass flat-screen TVs streaming anecdotes told by prominent Chinese-Americans, including the first female Asian-American NYPD officer, singer Agnes Chan and fashion designer Anna Sui. In a partnership with retail chain Target, MOCA waives its admission fee during Target Free Thursdays, leaving visitors plenty of cash to explore Chinatown and its adjacent neighborhoods. "This is a city where every culture can find a home," said Mayor Michael Bloomberg at the opening ceremony. It’s clear Chinese-Americans have found one here.
For more tips on kid-friendly activities and museums and galleries in the City, visit Time Out New York.