History

In my last post I described a piece that slightly interposed with a part of Chinese history, now I find myself using it as an opportunity to revisit another part of history that feels even closer to me.  It is the the history of Chinese in America. Though, It is not out of sheer nostalgia that I am looking back at the history of many that have struggled and sacrificed before me.  But it is out of the admiration for their resilience and my desire to remember a part of that history that could be easily overlooked.  While China is the third largest country of the world and one of the oldest civilizations.  Its population makes up nearly one-fifth of the world's population with a rich culture and a thriving economy.  With all this said, when one decides to leave his or her motherland in order to settle in a new world, it must have been  an arduous journey emotionally and physically.  Despite hardships, the presence of Chinese Americans has an unparalleled impact on America today even though it does not seem to equal to its numeric population but more in the veins of its contribution to cultural and technological development.

On this past Friday, I visited the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) on Center Street and had the honor of being given a personal tour by Curator Herb Tam.  What I discovered there was not only something that had an emotional impact on me but something that also inspired me in many different ways.  The museum houses many narrative documents of different lives of Chinese Americans from its very beginning of time up until most recently.  Its permanent collection serves as an archive for the history of Chinese in America (of the United States).  Starting with a timeline of historically significant figures and the political climate of which surrounded them. There are also various displays of antiquated objects that the museum preserved and collected.  MOCA also contains special exhibition spaces for more contemporary works produced by Chinese Americans.  But for this post, I will only focus on the permanent collection.

Photo taken inside MOCA
This is one of the wall-photos inside the permanent collection gallery

Photo taken inside MOCA
This is the space just before entering into a replica interior of a traditional Chinese shop
Before it is called Museum of Chinese in America, back in 1980 it started off as the New York Chinatown History Project established by historian Jack Tchen and archivist Charles Lai along with other Chinese American artists, historians and students.  Its mission has been to preserve the history of Chinese in America with efforts to educate future generations. Now an art museum that also serves as an education resource with a building designed by architect Maya Lin. Its location is right in the heart of Chinatown and its exterior facade has a clean modern visual impression.  When Maya Lin was designing the space, she also looked to the building's history for inspiration.  Rather than taking away and starting from the ground up, she utilized the history of the building and its location.  Some structure remnants such as old columns with its original writings and peeling paint, as well as a sky light that was also an original part of the building have been utilized.  Maya Lin chose to present a modern exterior with large glass walls both on the building's front and back.  From the back of the building, the side that faces Lafayette street allows passing pedestrians to peer in and see an old fashioned Chinese herbal remedy and tea shop.  In this decision, she opened up the dialogue of looking through the lenses of the present back to the past.  This element is prominent in both her design of the building's physical standing and her intention to metaphorically translate the museum's mission of historic preservation via means of modernity. 

Photo taken inside MOCA
A replica an interior of a traditional Chinese herbal remedy and tea shop

This photo is exhibited inside the shop space,
it depicts a scene from a historic traditional Chinese shop that supplied herbal remedies and various other items
Photo taken inside MOCA
Iron and soap
The permanent exhibition area wraps around a courtyard-like space that mimics a 四合院 (could be pronounced as Siheyuan, it describes a courtyard surrounded by four buildings). Utilizing the surrounding sides, there are narrative video-stories of historic figures projecting on the walls. The sound of the videos could be heard when a visitor stands underneath the individual screens. The permanent exhibition starts with names and photographs of individuals whom made significant contributions to the history of Chinese in America. Along with each images that depict historic scenes there are also objects that have been collected and preserved by the museum. Such as cloth-irons and washing-boards even an old costume once worn by an actor in a Beijing opera. Unlike other museums, visitors are welcome to handle and touch the objects. When I was there while trying to lift up the iron, its heavy metal weight surprised me. Opening laundry shops was one of the first businesses that the Chinese in America built as means of livelihood. When trying to picture lives in those days for the men and women that worked in laundry shops, it must have been such intense labor for they had to work with such heavy irons for hours each day. Most people probably would not know that the earliest Chinese immigrants in fact arrived in the 1700s. Most of them were from rural and provincial areas of China, and they came here in hopes of finding gold and thus the name 旧金(the Chinese name for San Francisco, literally means old gold mountain) for one of the first cities in America where the new immigrants arrived to work.

An ancient shop such as seen above may appear to be just supplying herbal remedies and loose tea leaves, however for its local customers it was also where letters from China were received and a place to dictate a message to be sent home. Often times the earlier Chinese immigrants that came were not literate and therefore a shop like this also served as their interpreter and a refuge for personal comfort. For others, the shop was a social hangout where news and information were exchanged.

Throughout the history, Chinese people have immigrated to this country for various reasons and from different social backgrounds.  From the earliest gold-rush miners then turned railroad workers, to those that came from well-to-do families that supported their children for a Western education.  In both instances, many have gone back to China after they had either gained the wealth they sought or earned the education that allowed them to make a better China.  While at the same time, many had also found new homes in this young country and stayed.  After the 1949 Communist Revolution, many people left China for political refuge in America. The latter most likely stayed and found their new homes here. The offspring of these earlier and later Chinese immigrants have then become successful individuals and made major contributions to American culture. 

Photo taken inside MOCA
Work desk of Him Mark Lai, San Francisco, California, 2009

This last image of my post presents the interior working space with the desk of Him Mark Lai.  Him Mark Lai was a leading practitioner of Chinese American historical studies.  He was also a prolific writer whom produced works that presented more positive and truthful aspects of the legacy of Chinese Americans.  Before he retired, Him Mark Lai worked as an engineer by day and worked as an historian at all other hours.  I was most inspired by the multiple roles and tasks that he took on as his lifetime goals.  Throughout generations and generations of Chinese Americans, they all have had to take on different roles and work day and night at various tasks and professions.  At times, for the sheer purpose of survival; intellectuals would have to perform menial manual labor during transitional periods living in this new country.  Nonetheless, no amounts of physical or mental hardship was able to wear down their resilience and the desire to excel and exceed oneself in order to make a difference in the positive direction.  It is in this spirit that I was profoundly moved by my experience of visiting the Museum of Chinese in America.

Also see a related posting.

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