How a harrowing fire became a silver lining for a museum of Chinese American life
The Museum of Chinese in America’s workshop space in Lower Manhattan is brimming with artifacts that were very nearly lost to history.
A 1986 photo of a Taiwanese Little League team by photographer Emile Bocian has stains around the edges. A sign for the former Chinatown eatery Joy Luck Restaurant has cracks in one of its acrylic letters. A paper sculpture of a bald eagle crafted in the ’90s by a Chinese asylum seeker in detention is missing a foot and half a wing.
This sign for a former Chinatown business was damaged when the building housing MOCA’s collections caught fire in 2020. Credit: Sheng Wang/Museum of Chinese in America
Yao likens MOCA’s recent wins to a phoenix rising from the ashes.
“This incredible tragedy with a five-alarm fire actually put us on the map,” she told CNN. “We were able then to not only save our current collection, but expand it.”
As MOCA’s collection continues to grow, Yao said she hopes to illuminate the nuances around the Chinese experience in the US — and tell a richer, more complex story about the nation.
Restoration efforts are well underway
After being salvaged from the fire in January 2020, the museum’s collections were freeze-dried and eventually brought to the MOCA Workshop.
The two-story, 4,000-square-foot building down the block from the museum now serves as a research and collections center. It’s where the critical work of restoring and rehousing artifacts is taking place.
When the building that once housed MOCA’s collections caught fire in 2020, the museum’s archives were spared from the flames but sustained water damage. Credit: Sergi Reboredo/VWPics/Getty Images
Many of the artifacts have already been carefully cataloged and stored. Archival boxes containing issues of “The China Daily News” and “The China Press” — Chinese language newspapers published in the US — are neatly stacked on shelves upstairs. On the ground floor, a green velvet dress with butterflies at the collar and cuff is among the labeled garments hanging on padded hangers.
Other objects need further attention and care, and MOCA is inviting the public to take part. The museum periodically posts salvaged items on its website, detailing their significance, the extent of the damage and the cost of repairs. Patrons can then “sponsor an object” by making a donation.
So far, the museum has raised enough money to remove mold and grime from a painting by Chinese American watercolorist Dong Kingman and mend the Joy Luck Restaurant sign, according to its website. Other items, such as a Chinese typewriter and Chinese American pilot Maggie Gee’s airman ID, are still in need of sponsors.
Its collections and ambitions have grown
As MOCA was in the throes of figuring out how to save the tens of thousands of artifacts it had amassed over decades, Chinese Americans started reaching out with questions of their own.
Some had lost loved ones to the Covid-19 pandemic, or other causes, and were left with troves of family heirlooms that they didn’t have a specific use for, said Yao. Many were from later generations of Chinese Americans who couldn’t decipher the materials they were now tasked with sorting through. Would MOCA be interested in taking donations?
“You don’t speak your parents’ mother tongue. You don’t know what’s valuable in your closet. You don’t understand what to keep and what to throw away,” Yao said. “We’ve almost become a 24/7 reference desk for those types of questions.”
To address those kinds of queries, MOCA hit the road. In 2021, museum staff started visiting cities across the country to meet with people, hear their stories and help them assess objects. These connections have expanded the museum’s collections — Yao said a brother and sister donated their mother’s traditional Chinese dresses, which ended up in an exhibition MOCA curated for the 2023 Winter Show at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory.
The museum’s some 85,000 artifacts documenting Chinese life in the US are now housed in the MOCA Workshop. Credit: Courtesy Museum of Chinese in America
As the museum’s collections have expanded, so too have its ambitions.
“We hope this space is not only used by our own,” Ma said. “We hope we can work with schools or just the public. If they want to learn how to preserve their family clothes, photographs, letters… they can learn from our workshop.”
A new oral history recording booth in the MOCA Workshop also reflects how the museum’s work has evolved. Capturing and preserving oral histories of Chinese Americans was a vital part of MOCA’s mission even before the fire, but the resulting audio quality was often poor, Ma said. Now, there’s a dedicated space with cozy chairs, a warm backdrop and a microphone and video camera. The studio has just recently been set up, and the museum hopes to start holding interviews here soon.
“We have a great sense of urgency to take down as many oral histories as possible,” Yao added. “(There is a) generation in their 80s and 90s who have lived through many episodes within the last 80 to 90 years of US-China history that is going to be lost if we don’t record their history.”
MOCA rebuilds, but not without some controversy
One of MOCA’s largest new sources of funding has been a $35 million grant from the city of New York that will assist in its efforts to acquire its building.
A display from MOCA’s exhibition “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America.” Credit: Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
Karlin Chan, a community activist and advocate who has lived in Chinatown for more than 60 years, said he feels the museum has been scapegoated for decisions made by city officials and local politicians.
“At the end of the day, the museum is trying to stay alive,” he told CNN. “The narratives that they sold out Chinatown for $35 million are a stretch. They had no real vote.”
“If MOCA or any other cultural institution were to adopt the viewpoint of the critics and refuse public funding when it did not agree with every dollar of the City’s $90 billion annual budget, cultural institutions across the city would not exist,” the museum said.
“Before we can really get this narrative defined in US textbooks and in history vernacular, it is really important for museums like MOCA and others that are telling the story to bridge that gap,” she added.
The objects left behind by Chinese Americans can offer people a deeper understanding of an unevenly recorded history — that’s why it’s so important to Yao and others at MOCA that the museum lives on.
Top image: A display from the Museum of Chinese in America’s 2018 exhibition “Chinese Medicine in America: Converging Ideas, People and Practices.” (Photo by Wang Ying/Xinhua)