Artist and architect Maya Lin in front of MOCA's Journey Wall.

The Journey Wall at New York's MOCA immortalises Chinese immigrants' tales in bronze

Rong Xiaoqing in New York

This wall speaks. It already tells many stories about Chinese-American families, and now it is hungry for more.

The wall is located in the lobby of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), in New York's Chinatown. It is composed of more than 200 bronze tiles that were designed, together with the museum itself, by Chinese-American architect Maya Lin. Each tile has etched on its face the story of a family, with the names of its first-generation members, their hometown in China and the place they called home in the United States. That explains the structure's name: the Journey Wall.

Since 2009, when the museum moved from a dilapidated building to its new state-of-the-art space, about 60 families have secured tiles by donating between US$10,000 and US$25,000 to MOCA. This year, the museum formally opened the wall to the public, with eight tiles reserved for donors who can make the pledge by the end of next month.

Exterior of the MOCA.

MOCA president Nancy Yao Maasbach says the wall already says more than is immediately obvious. For example, two families from the same hometown in China have spelled the name of the town in different ways. The spellings, Toishan and Taishan, reflect the eras in which the families arrived in the US, with the latter becoming popular only after the Communist Party came to power.

A tile belonging to the Ho family, one of the oldest Chinese families resident in Hawaii, has three names on it: Ho Poi, Chang Shee and Chun Shee; a man and his two wives.

"There are so many stories associated with the wall," says Maasbach. And although the wall appears to be brown, the bronze patina of each tile is slightly different, a subtle reminder that not all Chinese look the same.

At a recent event to promote the wall and Lin's book, , the architect, who comes from a family of artists and writers - which includes a famous aunt, Lin Huiyin - said the inspiration for the wall was her own isolated past.

Community exhibit at the MOCA.

"I am from Ohio. Whenever I said, 'I am from Ohio,' people would say, 'Where are you really from?' People assume we are all from Chinatowns," said Lin, whose parents came to the US just before the Communists took over China, in 1949. "When you look at this wall, you see where we came from and where we immigrated to; it's all over the country. I don't think Americans really got that. The goal of MOCA was to get us to rethink assumptions, about race, about who we are."

The museum is recording the stories of the families of donors as well as voluntary non-donors in the oral history format and putting the results online, for the public.

"This is a very expensive donors' wall. But I was hoping we could engage more people. We are built by our stories. Whether you donate or not … you'll be able to tell your story," said Lin, who has secured a tile for her own family.

"When I was a kid, growing up in the only Chinese family in the area, I would have loved to be able to go online and understand there were other kids just like me."

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Tiled wall of China