MOCA Stories

For 2020, MOCA will be celebrating its 40th anniversary and showcasing past events, exhibitions, acquired collections, and other facts about MOCA through its illustrious 40-year history. We hope that you will learn something new while helping us celebrate! 美国华人博物馆(MOCA)于2020年庆祝建馆四十周年,我们将回顾建馆以来辉煌的40年历史,展示以往举办的活动、展览、征集的藏品以及其他相关内容。希望各位在同庆的过程中也可以学到新知!
  • MOCA Co-Founders, 1980

    In 1976, Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai met at Basement Workshop, an Asian American political and arts organization located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The organization was a space that allowed fellow artists and activists to meet and exchange ideas. Tchen and Lai noticed that Chinatown was going through a transformative period and wanted to preserve the history of the neighborhood before it disappeared. This prompted the two to establish the Center for Community Studies (colloquially known as the New York Chinatown History Project) in 1980. The center would grow and evolve into the MOCA you know today.

  • Oral Histories, 1981

    During the first year of the New York Chinatown History Project, their priority was to conduct oral histories with members of the neighborhood. Over the course of 1981, the fledgling organization collected 28 oral histories. These included prominent community leaders such as Man Bun Lee (the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association President at the time), William “Charlie” Chin (folk singer), and Emma Mills (founder and former president of the Chinatown Planning Council). These oral histories, which are accessible by visiting the MOCA archives, offer a look into a bygone Chinatown and can serve as valuable firsthand sources for researchers.

  • Bud Glick and Paul Calhoun, 1982

    As the New York Chinatown History Project grew, so did the organization’s collection efforts. In 1982, two freelance photographers, Bud Glick and Paul Calhoun, were brought on to photograph and document the New York Chinatown community. The two men photographed the daily life of the residents of the community between 1982–1983.

  • Eight Pound Livelihood, 1983

    The New York Chinatown History Project’s first exhibition titled Eight Pound Livelihood debuted in 1983. The show examined the lives of Chinese laundrymen in New York’s Chinatown. The term “eight pound” in the title refers to the weight of the heavy irons that laundrymen wielded on a daily basis. The exhibition was installed on panels at the main branch of the New York Public Library on 42nd Street. After the show closed, it travelled to various college campuses including Cornell, Oberlin, New Hampshire, and various CUNY schools.

  • Bugaoban, 1984

    In 1984, the New York Chinatown History Project started a newsletter called the Bugaoban. The name was a reference to the community bulletin boards in old Chinatowns that were used to disseminate the news. The newsletter was meant to inform museum members of the current state of the institution, as well as provide articles that offer insight into the lives of Asian Americans. The issues were composed of articles written by staff as well as public submissions. The Bugaoban ran from 1984 through 2006.

  • The Chinese Women of America, 1985

    In 1985, author and professor Judy Yung curated the show The Chinese Women of America at the New York Chinatown History Project. Yung was director of the San Francisco-based Chinese Women of America Research Project, which crafted the show after two years of extensive research and oral histories. The show examined the experiences of the first Chinese women that came to the US in 1834 to the women of the 1980s. Notably, the exhibition featured Polly Bemis (born Lalu Nathoy or Gong Heng), a Chinese woman who came to the US in 1872 as a slave and later gained her freedom, living out the rest of her life in Idaho. It also featured Sieh King King, a female activist who spoke about female oppression in San Francisco in 1902.

  • In the Shadow of Liberty, Graphics of Chinese Exclusion, 1870s - 1890s, 1986

    In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act became the first law that prohibited individuals from entering the U.S. based on race. In 1986, MOCA developed the exhibition, In the Shadow of Liberty: Graphics of Chinese Exclusion, 1870s - 1890s. The exhibition opening coincided with the 100th year celebration of the Statue of Liberty. Thus, the name of the show critiques the 1886 opening of the Statue of Liberty, a mask of freedom in the United States, while Chinese Americans experienced overt exclusion. In the same year, the New York Times developed a piece called, “Why Asian Students Excel,” bringing attention to a new way of perceiving Asian Americans: the model minority myth. Throughout these events, MOCA strived to ask, “How do we want to gain our liberty? Through exclusion of some or inclusion of all?”

  • Salvaging New York Chinatown, Preserving a Heritage, 1987

    Fay Chiang was the daughter of a “paper son”; her father immigrated to the United States to work in a laundry at 10 years old. She found it difficult to communicate with her immigrant parents, as they rarely spoke of their coming-of-age stories. When her father passed away, Chiang looked through the salvages of her parents’ past. These instances of Chiang’s were commonplace for many second-generation Chinese Americans. In the 1980s, the New York Chinatown History Project asked community members for family memorabilia to record the 100-year-old history. The collection resulted in the 1987 show, Salvaging New York Chinatown: Preserving a Heritage curated by Dorothy Rony.

  • Dai Fau, 1988

    In 1988, the New York Chinatown History Project organized a show that displayed the photographs of a German-American photographer by the name of Arnold Genthe. He photographed San Francisco’s Chinatown prior to the 1906 earthquake that destroyed the city and led to the advent of paper sons and daughters. The exhibition was called The Streets of Dai Fau: Arnold Genthe’s Photographs of Old San Francisco’s Chinatown. “Dai Fau,” which literally translates to “big city” in Cantonese, is what the Chinese referred to San Francisco as prior to the earthquake.

  • The Chinese Musical and Theatrical Association (CMTA) Acquisition, 1989

    In 1989, MOCA acquired the Chinese Musical and Theatrical Association (CMTA) collection. The materials included costumes, musical scores, instruments, and documents that were discarded when the opera club moved to a smaller location; they were housed in eight large trunks. Anonymous sources told MOCA staff that materials had been left behind, and the museum organized a spur-of-the-moment excursion to rescue materials that included staff, board members, and volunteers.

  • Amy Tan & Joy Luck Club, 1990

    For MOCA’s 10th anniversary in 1990, a benefit event called Bridging Generations: A Reading with Amy Tan was held. During the event, Tan read from her 1989 novel Joy Luck Club, which explores four American-born Chinese daughters learning about their mothers’ lives before immigrating to the U.S. The novel would be adapted by Hollywood in 1993.

  • Public School 23 Reunion, 1991

    In 1991, MOCA held the second reunion for teachers and students of the defunct New York Public School 23 located at 70 Mulberry Street. The school ceased operation in the late 1970s, and the building was converted to house cultural and arts organizations, including MOCA. The reunion saw a variety of ages and ethnicities attending; the Chinese demographic showed a dramatic increase after the complete repeal of the Exclusion Act in 1965. During the reunion, artifacts and anecdotes were collected from attendees and turned into an exhibition called What Did You Learn in School Today? P.S. 23, 1893-1976, which opened later that year.

  • Who Killed Vincent Chin? Collection, 1992

    On June 19, 1982, a 27-year-old Chinese American man was beaten into a coma that he never woke up from. He was targeted because the two men that assaulted him thought that he was Japanese and blamed him for the decline in the Detroit auto industry. The two men never saw any jail time, with the judge stating, “These weren’t the kind of men you send to jail…You don’t make the punishment fit the crime; you make the punishment fit the criminal.”

  • Dim Sum & Heart's Desire - Works in Glass and Cloth by Arlan Huang and Debbie Lee, 1993

    Dim Sum/Heart’s Desire was a 1993 exhibition at MOCA that featured the works of Arlan Huang and Debbie Lee. Huang’s medium of choice was glass, while Lee worked in cloth. Both artists created pieces that explored the elements of Chinese and American identity. Most notably, Lee worked with a group of other seamstresses to create a quilt that featured nine panels depicting the day of garment factory workers.

  • Made in China: Photographs of American Chinatown, 1994

    In 1994, the museum held an exhibition entitled Made in China: Photographs of American Chinatowns by Chien-Chi Chang that featured a series of photographs by Taiwan-born photographer Chien-Chi Chang during the time Chien was an active documentarian of Manhattan’s Chinatown. In this show, he tried to show the daily lives of the residents of these ethnic enclaves living through a sense of alienation from their mother country and their adopted home. He went on to join Magnum Photos and continues to document the abstract concept of alienation.

  • Museum of Chinese in Americas (MoCA), 1995

    1995 would see the museum take its second name change. The previously renamed Chinatown History Museum would become the Museum of Chinese in the Americas (MoCA). This name change would reflect the museum’s new direction. As the study of the Chinese diaspora grew, the museum saw a need to grow as well and expanded its collection and education efforts beyond the borders of Chinatown. That same year, the museum would work with the Triennale Di Milano in Italy to exhibit a show entitled China/town: Naming Ethnic Spaces. The exhibition team also began planning stages for the museum permanent exhibition Where is Home?, which would be installed a year later in 1996.

  • Sun Sing Theater Collection, 1996

    In the ’60s and ’70s, Chinese movie theaters were prevalent in Manhattan’s Chinatown, usually serving as places for members of the community to gather and reclaim a sense of home by watching films in their mother tongue. But with the rise of technology and the ability to watch films and television at home, the theaters saw a sharp decline in the late ’80s and early ’90s. In 1993, Sun Sing Theater, located on East Broadway, shuttered and remained unoccupied for a time.

  • “111 Mott Street” Collection, 1997

    In 1997, MOCA was able to acquire another large salvage collection. The collection is called the “111 Mott Street” collection, named for the location the collection was acquired from. A Chinese resident of the building had passed away and, with no next of kin, the landlord had thrown all of his belongings away into a dumpster. Museum staff collected the materials and later found dozens of personal letters and household knickknacks.

  • Chino-Latino Oral History Project, 1998

    Throughout 1997 and the earlier part of 1998, the museum began conducting a series of oral histories with Chinese that immigrated to Latin America. Many of the interviewees would end up living in the United States, and their narratives provided a unique series of experiences that had not previously been explored in depth. Their journeys saw them adapting to two radically different cultures instead of purely trying to assimilate into U.S. culture. In the end, three of their stories were chosen to be exhibited at MOCA in 1998 under the exhibition Mi Familia, Mi Comunidad.

    The complete collection of oral histories done for this project can be listened to in our digital database here.

  • Sunset Park Oral History Project, 1999

    In the 1980s, new Chinese immigrants to New York began to settle on 8th Avenue in Brooklyn rather than the already established Manhattan Chinatown. This community slowly grew throughout the ’80s and ’90s and is now seen as one of the three major Chinatowns in the five boroughs. In 1999, MOCA worked with the Brooklyn Historical Society to explore the growth of this new community. Together, the two institutions put up the show A Good Place to Land One’s Feet: Brooklyn’s New Chinese Community.

  • Fan Ngukkei, 2000

    Brenda Joy Lem is a third-generation Chinese Canadian. In 1997, she presented a show called Fan Ngukkei, (translated as “returning home”) at the Art Gallery of Mississauga. The show focused on exploring her Toisan ancestry through oral histories with her family and anchored in the physical medium using silkscreen banners. The show caught the eye of curators at MOCA and, in 2000, the show was modified and installed at MOCA. The show at MOCA was more targeted at showing Lem’s interpretations of Toisan culture and how that influenced her art and world views.

  • Tong Zhi/Comrades-Out in Asia America, 2001

    Sexuality is an issue that is seldom discussed openly within the Asian community; this holds especially true in regards to homosexuality. In 2001, artist Ken Chu worked with MOCA to put on an exhibition called Tong Zhi/Comrades: Out in Asia America. For the show, Chu brought together 20 gay men of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage and recorded their stories and used those details to create posters of each participant that resembled the front page of a newspaper. Each poster was printed in editions of 100 and stacked on tables at the museum for display.

  • Chinatown POV-Reflections on September 11th, 2002

    The attacks of September 11th, 2001 devastated the nation. Being close to Ground Zero, Manhattan’s Chinatown was also brought to a standstill. After the dust literally and figuratively cleared, the neighborhood had to rebuild. This rebuilding effort became a part of the history of the community and MOCA collected stories, pictures, and artifacts of the process from 2001 to 2002. Some of the more powerful artifacts in this collection included a series of notebooks containing recollections of middle school and high school students of that fateful morning. The materials collected were displayed later in an online exhibition that can still be viewed today.

  • Flushing’s Chinatown, 2003

    Flushing’s Chinatown is one of three major Chinese communities in New York’s five boroughs. The community began to flourish in the 1970s when Mandarin-speaking Taiwanese immigrants began coming to New York. They felt largely alienated by Manhattan’s Chinatown, which largely spoke Cantonese. As the community grew, other groups of Mandarin-speaking immigrants also began migrating to Flushing and the neighborhood continues to grow. In 2003, MOCA worked with 3 photographers to document the Chinese community in Flushing. These works were presented at the museum in an exhibition called Main Street, Flushing, USA.

  • Have You Eaten Yet?, 2004

    For Chinese and Chinese Americans, the question, “Have you eaten yet?” is a greeting similar to “How are you?” In 2004, MOCA curated a show that centralized food of the Chinese American diaspora. It highlighted the ways in which Chinese immigrants to the United States brought about their legacies through opening restaurants. As part of the exhibition, menus and matchbooks were adorned with dragons, lotus flowers, and pagodas. Through restaurant memorabilia, a specific visual legacy became ingrained in the American imagination of Chinese restaurants. The exhibition highlighted that the fabrication of stereotypes was a two-way streak—Chinese restaurants presented themselves as cultural brokers to survive, and their American customers stereotyped an image of China based on their experiences. Tracing a chronological history from the mid-1800s to the late 1900s, the show explored shifting attitudes towards Chinese cuisine in the United States.

  • “Yellow Peril”, 2005

    Archivist of the “Yellow Peril”: Yoshio Kishi Collecting for a New America opened at MOCA in 2005. The show was co-curated by MOCA founder Jack Tchen. The “Yellow Peril” moniker was derived from a 19th-century phrase that originated from the supposed threat of the Asian diaspora to Anglo-Americans. This trope was popularized through the media with fictional characters such as Fu Manchu. The show displayed various Asian American artifacts from the personal collections of film editor Yoshio Kishi and actress Yah Ling Sun. The collection examines perceived identities of Asians and Asian Americans based around unflattering stereotypes in American literature, popular media, and paper ephemera.

  • Marcella B. Chin Dear Collection, 2006

    In 2006, MOCA acquired its single largest collection, which was donated by longtime Chinatown resident Marcella B. Chin Dear. The Chin family came to New York in 1800s and established a series of successful business ventures. The most well-known was the Rice Bowl Restaurant, which was touted as one of the first Chinese restaurants in Manhattan’s Chinatown to have air conditioning.

    Marcella’s father had saved his family artifacts with the intention of opening a family museum, but when he passed away, his daughter donated the collection to MOCA. The collection is around 150 linear feet and contains textiles, imported books, vinyl records, game sets, instruments, family photographs, store signs, ceramics, and furniture. These artifacts document the life of a multigenerational Chinese American family in the United States.

  • The Chinatown Film Project, 2007

    The Chinatown Film Project was launched by MOCA in 2007. Chinatowns are often seen in many forms of media but are always depicted stereotypically. The project aimed to subvert these popular biases and reveal stories of the families who still thrive in Chinatown. 10 New York-based filmmakers were asked to create short films that presented their visions of Chinatown. The museum also invited the community to share their own stories documenting their local Chinatowns. Together, the films were meant to show that Chinatowns are not just Hollywood metaphors but in reality a place where people live, work, and play.

  • MOCA Annual Legacy Award Gala, 2008

    The 2008 MOCA gala dinner celebrated the inaugural opening season of the new museum space at 215 Centre Street. At the 2008 gala, the museum also gave out its first Lifetime Achievement Award to architect I.M. Pei. The award was given to recognize exemplary individuals and institutions whose distinguished achievements advance the Chinese/Chinese American society, improve humanity, and inspire all people. Pei and his firm have notably worked on buildings such as the Bank of China in Hong Kong, the Hancock Building in Chicago, the Jacob Javits Center in New York, and the Louvre in Paris. Other notable recipients of the award have been scholar Wan-Go Weng, Starr Foundation Chairman Maurice Greenberg, and banker Pei-Yuan Chia.

  • 215 Centre Street, 2009

    In 2009, having outgrown the confines of 70 Mulberry Street, MOCA relocated a few blocks away to 215 Centre Street. The new location, on the border of Chinatown and Soho, was designed by Chinese American architect Maya Lin. With the additional space, curators Cynthia Lee and Jack Tchen were able to expand on the museum’s core exhibition. The improved and expanded exhibition was named With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America. The exhibition is still on display at the museum today, with small updates having been made to keep it current. The 70 Mulberry space was turned into the collections and research center, which MOCA continued to operate until a fire in January 2020 displaced all the building’s tenants.

  • Chinese Puzzles-Games for the Hands and Mind, 2010

    Chinese puzzles have been a popular export to America since the 20th century. These fascinating objects were presented in a 2010 exhibit called Chinese Puzzles: Games for the Hands and Mind. The show featured pieces from the private Yi Zhi Tang (Art and Intelligence) Collection and presented 1,300 antique Chinese puzzles, books, and graphic materials that dated from the Song dynasty (960 AD–1279 AD) to the mid-20th century. Many of these objects exhibited a high level of workmanship, including beautifully crafted porcelains, carved ivory, and mother of pearl. Visitors of all ages had the opportunity to interact with modern reproductions of these classic games while learning the rich history behind them.

  • Lee Mingwei-The Travelers and The Quartet Project, 2011

    In 2010, Lee Mingwei, a Taiwan-born American artist, was commissioned by MOCA to start a two-part interactive project that engaged members of the community. The first part titled The Travelers saw Mingwei ask individuals to share their stories on the idea of “leaving home.” This was done using 100 notebooks that were sent as chain letters to the members of the community, asking them to pass on such books to their family, friends, and acquaintances after participating themselves. A year later, the books that made their way back to the museum were displayed as part of Mingwei’s installation.

  • Marvels and Monsters-Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 and Alt. Comics-Asian American Artists Reinvent the Comic, 2012

    In 2012, MOCA presented two exhibitions that trace the depictions of Asian Americans in comics; Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 and Alt. Comics: Asian American Artists Reinvent the Comic. They were shown simultaneously to compare and contrast the way Asian Americans have been perceived and represented in comics. Marvels and Monsters showcased and discussed the various character archetypes of Asian characters in comics such as the depiction of Fu Manchu as a manifestation of Yellow Peril. The show Alt. Comics, in contrast, featured the works of 10 Asian American comic artists that offered a critique of the older representations and reiterated the way they view their changing identities in America.

  • Shanghai Glamour-New Women 1910-40s, 2013

    Shanghai Glamour: New Women 1910-40s was guest curated by Mei Mei Rado and displayed at MOCA in 2013. The show explored how Shanghai women and their archetypes were crucial to the formation of the new city’s identity. During the time period, the dress and manner of Shanghai women became emblems of the city’s modernization. The evolution of Shanghai women opened controversial discussions about the changing social and political scene as well as gender roles. The show featured outfits from the China National Silk Museum in Hangzhou and private collections from New York City. These outfits were contextualized with accessories, paper ephemera, and photographs. The show explores the many perceived archetypes popular in Shanghai at the time—the student, socialite, courtesan, movie star, artist, dancing girl, and housewife—to reconstruct the social and cultural pulses behind the many facets of Shanghai glamour.

  • Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving, 2014

    Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving was an exhibition that celebrated MOCA’s 35th anniversary by showcasing artifacts the museum had collected over its history. The exhibition reexamines what it means to be Chinese American, asking the questions, “Where does Chinatown end? How do you become an American? And what does it mean to be Chinese?” It engaged visitors in a dialogue about their own identities and asked them to actively search for answers within the provided archive materials and objects. Objects across special collections in MOCA’s archives came together with documents, videos, and oral histories that embody the complexities of Chinese Americans in New York Chinatown and beyond.

  • Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong, 2015

    Water to Paper, Paint to Sky: The Art of Tyrus Wong, organized by the Walt Disney Family Museum, was exhibited at MOCA in 2015. The retrospective surveyed the 20th-century artist’s extensive body of work. Wong began his artistic career in 1930s California as a Depression-era muralist, watercolorist, and later film production illustrator. His work ranges from painting, ceramics, works on paper, and kite creations. Wong’s vision and impressionistic style, with Eastern influences, paved the way for the animation of Bambi (1942). His work continued with several Warner Bros. films. As his works conjured stunning environments, he was named a Disney Legend in 2001.This exhibition served to highlight Wong’s great artistic achievements and brought attention to his legacy as a Chinese in America.

  • Stage Design by Ming Cho Lee, 2016

    In 2016, MOCA presented Stage Design by Ming Cho Lee, a retrospective that celebrated the influential set designer. Lee is known for his groundbreaking abstract design sets of the 1960s and ’70s to his more recent hard-edge treatments. The exhibition followed Lee’s artistic career through more than 40 original maquettes, sketches, and photographic reproductions. He has shared his knowledge in theater, opera, and dance through his work at Yale School of Drama for over 65 years. As a recipient of the Tony Award for Lifetime Achievement in 2013, Ming Cho Lee is one of the most acclaimed set designers in the U.S.

  • FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures, 2017

    In 2017, MOCA presented FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures, an updated version of the museum’s 1996 Fly to Freedom exhibit. The show was revisited as a way to engage the public in conversation about the current climate of immigration in the U.S. The exhibition displayed over 40 paper sculptures created by Chinese passengers of the cargo ship, The Golden Venture, which ran aground at Rockaway Beach in Queens, New York in 1993. The sculptures were created during their incarceration in U.S. prisons and depicted caged birds and bald eagles that were meant to symbolize the unrealized American dream that they had hoped for. Originally, these pieces were created as gifts for their lawyers and supporters, but as time as has passed, these pieces of folk art have become an entry point into a pointed exploration of U.S. immigration policy.

  • Chinese Medicine in America: Converging Ideas, People and Practices, 2018

    In 2018, MOCA presented Chinese Medicine in America: Converging Ideas, People and Practices, an exploration of Chinese medicine. The show discussed “mysterious and magical” practices from the 19th century to modern “alternative medicine” (like acupuncture). The exhibition told a cross-cultural story through medical artifacts, contemporary art, and profiles on notable medical figures to connect medicine, philosophy, and history.

  • MOCA Spike 150, 2019

    In honor of the 150th Anniversary of the Transcontinental Railroad, MOCA rallied 1,500 runners to collectively run 15,000 miles in a cross-country relay. This project started at the Promontory Summit in Utah, where the last link of the Transcontinental Railroad was completed, to end with the 2019 TCS New York City Marathon. This project commemorated the resilience and grit of Chinese and Irish laborers who helped build the railroad but still lack such acknowledgement 150 years later. MOCA Spike 150 was an inclusive celebration of immigrants that paved the way for future generations in America.

  • Gathering: Collecting and Documenting Chinese American History, 2020

    Gathering: Collecting and Documenting Chinese American History, for the first time, brought together artifacts and histories from 28 Chinese American museums around the United States. The artifacts, institutional stories, and personal stories unveiled critical periods in Chinese American history that are often neglected. The show highlighted research that has been conducted across the U.S. to preserve Chinese immigrant contributions to the American narrative.