The inclusion act

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 03 June, 2012, 12:00am


On a lesser-trodden block of New York's Chinatown, the glass-and-wood facade and the Helvetica acronym of the Museum of Chinese in America (Moca) project modernity and modesty in equal measure.

Inside, the high ceiling and red-brick walls that frame the main galleries conjure up an ancient feeling, as though you had walked into the ancestral hall of a village home in the New Territories. This juxtaposition of ancient and modern befits a 30-year-young museum telling a story that is nearly 200 years old and still unfolding.

The museum is a depository of personal history and artefacts belonging to the waves of immigrants who have shaped not just Chinatowns across the United States but also the country at large. The collective fate of Chinese-Americans has been as much forged by international geopolitics as it has by domestic policies. To that end, the museum also highlights their place in the ever-shifting relationship between China and America, at once foes and friends.

'Our hope is to tell the larger story of Chinese settlement,' says co-founder and New York University professor John K.W. Tchen. 'The story began much earlier.'

For Tchen and Charles Lai, the struggle to build Moca has been an attempt to salvage a history that is being fast forgotten. Most of the museum's collection came, literally, from rubbish heaps.

Growing up in suburban Chicago in the 1960s, Tchen, whose parents hailed from Jiangxi province, hoped to study Chinese-American history in graduate school. When he couldn't find a suitable course, he set off for the country's oldest Chinatown.

'My real education began in New York City.'

Here, in 1975, he met Lai, who emigrated from Hong Kong several years ago but, back then, was working in the community on summer breaks from Princeton University.

The impact of relaxed immigration policies was becoming ever more apparent on the streets of Chinatown. With the Chinese Exclusion Act having been repealed three decades earlier, hordes of immigrants were settling in from the mainland, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Long-established businesses, some having outlived their owners, were being shuttered, while older immigrants, predominantly bachelors growing frail and forlorn, were increasingly shunned by the newcomers as 'dirty old men'.

Determined to seize the moment to rescue history from neglect, Lai and Tchen roamed the streets of the four square blocks that then contained Chinatown, diving into dumpsters to resurrect as many cast-offs as possible.

'We called ourselves urban archaeologists,' Lai says.

Lai and Tchen took it upon themselves to do something no one else had thought to do: trace the paths of generations of Chinese settlers. Thus, in 1980, the New York Chinatown History Project, Moca's precursor, was born.

Turning trash into treasure was the easy part; eliciting personal tales was tougher, partly because many old-timers thought their stories weren't worth sharing. 'Laundries have no history!' the two would be told when trying to gather oral histories from laundrymen.

'We're trying to represent a community whose history wasn't valued, and was, in fact, marginalised,' says Fay Chew Matsuda, who succeeded Lai in 1989 as the project's executive director. 'So you make do with what you can find - bits and pieces of the community.'

SHAFTS FALL FROM a prism-shaped skylight that pierces the roof, as if they were glimmers of hope, but otherwise the museum's galleries are dimly lit. There are other bright spots, however: the illuminated biography boxes of Chinese-American luminaries; the scientists, the artists, the politicians.

By the entrance stands a wall of bronze tiles, an engraved quilt of family names in both Chinese characters and English. Along-side the names are those of ancestral villages and American hometowns - the departure point and destination of each family's saga.

The subdued decor seems to suggest that Moca is less about the celebration of success and more a sober chronicling of betrayals and heartbreak. This is where one traces the trail of tears.

The Chinese involvement in the Californian Gold Rush has been well documented, but it is not so well known that the miners who crossed the Pacific were valued for their skills in diverting water to flush out the precious metal. Even so, many were banished from the mines and had to turn to the backbreaking work of building railroads.

Once that work ran dry, they fanned out across the northwestern states in search of opportunity, mostly in the fields, as farmhands.

They toiled on a Colorado salt farm, they canned salmon in Washington state, they farmed shrimp and abalone in Oregon on an industrial scale. They have all but been forgotten, though in rare instances the fruit of their labours brought eponymous fame. For instance, Bing cherries were named after Ah Bing, the Chinese gardener who reportedly cultivated the variety through cross-breeding.

At that time, the young country wanted to expand trade with the waning Qing court and the Chinese were afforded protection under the Burlingame Treaty of 1868 as citizens of a most favoured nation.

Soon enough, though, the tide turned. As Chinese were brought into factories as strike breakers, they were demonised as job stealers and 'heathens'. Anti-Chinese rallies and organised boycotts spread across the country. Many Chinese faced violence and even lynchings, treatment shared by newly unshackled African slaves. Among the museum's artefacts are two items that evoke popular sentiments. One is a half-moon-shaped sign cast with an epithet, 'the Iron Chink', the patented moniker of a fish-butchering machine invented to replace the Chinese labourers toiling in canneries. The other is a replica of a cap pistol, the trigger of which tugs at the Manchu queue of a Qing figurine. A demand has been carved into the handle: 'The Chinese must go.'

This public antipathy culminated in legislative action: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, spelling a lifetime of desolation for many Chinese migrants in America.

Museum visitor Laura Kwong's paternal grandfather was lucky. Despite the immigration ban, which was to last until 1945, the boy from Taishan, Guangdong province, was allowed to join his father in California. He grew up to earn a doctorate at Stanford University and moved to Minnesota to start his career. His son, Kwong's father, married an English-Swedish native of the state.

'Growing up I really related to being Chinese, although no one thought of me as Chinese,' Kwong says.

Although her father doesn't speak a word of Chinese, she took up Putonghua as an undergraduate and spent a year as an exchange student at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

'I grew up thinking I'm Chinese. But in Hong Kong I found out that I'm 100 per cent American,' says Kwong. 'It was a really hard thing to accept.'

At Moca, Kwong no longer sees the need to choose between being American and being Chinese. She says she's learned more specifics about the narrative arc of Chinese migration here than she ever has from her family.

LAI AND TCHEN WERE undeterred by the resistance they ran up against. They felt strongly that much like the artefacts rescued from the rubbish, the ageing immigrants' stories were critical to the chronicling of the Chinese in America. Their oral histories would be the backbone of the museum's collections.

'Who are the experts?' Tchen asks. 'Of course, it's the people who lived through the era and who have the experiences.'

Since the Chinatown History Project was housed in a former secondary school building, they hit upon the idea of holding class reunions. Although many alumni had settled in or near Chinatown, most had not been in touch with former classmates since leaving the school. The reunions not only brought in the crowds, they also helped the old students unbottle their past.

'There's a lack of coherence in [this] marginalised community,' says Tchen. 'You've got new immigrants coming in not understanding the history. The museum serves to bridge the gaps of communication within the community itself.'

What Tchen and others hoped to build was a 'dialogue-driven' museum, where visitors and the community would engage in dynamic exchange. And it worked: more and more people came forward with tales and bequests.

The first exhibit - on the travails of laundrymen - opened in 1984 to acclaim from community residents. Part of the original exhibit, called Eight-pound Livelihood, after the wrist-twisting heft of the charcoal-burning irons the laundrymen used, is on view at Moca today.

Having established its place in Chinatown, the museum's next milestone was to gain recognition - and material support - from the city and from wider Chinese-American circles. The test came in 2003, when the museum outgrew its four former classrooms and sought a more visible, spacious home.

Once again, Lai faced a chorus of naysayers - this time mostly city officials and Chinese-American philanthropists.

'I was told, 'You're too small and too provincial' to deserve donations and support,' Lai recalls. Some affluent Chinese-Americans preferred to see their names grace the galleries of national art museums or the halls of Ivy League universities than cast their lot with Moca.

Nonetheless, Lai and others raised US$15 million for the expansion. This fund-raising feat won Moca credibility and helped secure US$2.2 million each from the City of New York, a community development corporation focusing on Lower Manhattan and the 9/11 Fund. (The terrorist attacks not only brought Wall Street to a halt but also decimated many Chinatown businesses).

In September 2009, Moca reopened in a long-abandoned machine shop, one of the few historical brick buildings left standing in Chinatown. The refurbishment was design-ed by prominent Chinese-American architect Maya Lin, whose claims to fame include the iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington DC and art installations displayed at the US embassy in Beijing and on the campus of Shantou University, in Guangdong. Lin, who now co-chairs the museum's board of directors, saw to it that the new premises had one entrance facing Chinatown and the other opening to other city neighbourhoods, representing Moca's mission to bridge communities.

EVEN AS CHINESE-AMERICANS began to leave Chinatowns, turning their backs on the laundry shops and restaurants that had been their ancestors' launch pads to more respectable fields, they found no escape from shifting political winds, their fates buffeted by prevailing stereotypes and public opinion.

After the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor, the US declared war on Japan and allied itself with war-torn China. Chinese-Americans were thrust into the limelight and warm embrace of the national war effort. By some estimates, as many as one in five Chinese men in the country enlisted in the military. (Meanwhile, residents of Japanese descent were rounded up for internment).

The museum showcases black-and-white Life magazine covers featuring Chinese air-force pilots as poster boys. Another popular magazine of the time offered pseudo-scientific tips on how to distinguish between the facial features of Chinese and Japanese, better to tell new friend from new foe.

Within a decade or so, however, the wheel of fortune would turn against the Chinese again. After the Communist Party seized power in China, the Red Scare raged in the US. Most Chinese, native or transplanted, had their allegiance questioned. Many were interrogated; not a few were deported. In one of the galleries, a 1960s vintage television plays home videos and montages of Chinese families living through the paranoia and anxiety of the era.

The rough times didn't subside until 1972, when president Richard Nixon's ice-breaking visit to Beijing brought the return of normal diplomatic relations between the two nations.

As China looms ever larger in the American consciousness, it is too soon to envisage the characteristics of the next chapter of Chinese-American history Moca will present. But for Tchen, 'The museum is trying to show Americans what the history is really about - this is the part of history Americans tend to not want to remember.

'Unless Americans can deal with their own history and their tendency to stereotype, their ability to understand China and Chinese-Americans will be limited.'