Tuesday, September 22, 2009

Museum of Chinese in America

The Museum of Chinese in America, like the history it relates, stands at a crossroads between Chinatown and Soho, New York City and the USA, and the past and the present. The wonder of MOCA is that it navigates all these intersections with depth and humanity, succeeding in its effort to explore "the Chinese American experience within the broader context of American history and culture."

The result is not a narrow museum of "identity," as a Times reviewer put it, but an exploration of many pasts that illuminates how life in America remade the Chinese and how the Chinese remade America.

In the spirit of full disclosure, I must state that I am a friend of the museum's founders, Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai, and I did some bits of work for the museum in the past. (Including helping to salvage some artifacts from a Chinese opera company.) More important, I have been taking friends and students to earlier incarnations of MOCA since the 1980s, when its predecessor was located in an old public school building. We found there aspects of American history and New York history that were too long ignored.

The story of the Chinese in America is much more than the rise to success of a "model minority." It illuminates the exploited labor of Chinese immigrants that built much of the West, reveals the deep strain of racism that once denied citizenship to the Chinese in America, and brings to life the combination of fascination, exoticism and alienation that colored so many American reactions to the Chinese. One look at this kind of history and your sense of the past and present is never quite the same.

The latest incarnation of MOCA, at 215 Centre Street, embodies the best of the old museum and orients it to the future. Like the old MOCA, which had its roots in a community history project, the new version is deeply democratic and egalitarian, honoring the voices of both famous achievers and unsung survivors. Yet the new museum, elegantly designed by Maya Lin, is welcoming and capable of accommodating many more visitors. It also makes great use of digital technology to explore the past and present in exciting ways that can evolve with the museum in the future.

I visited MOCA tonight to celebrate its opening. With all the crowds and my own hectic schedule, I left before I got a full chance to take in everything the museum has to offer--including films and an art exhibit. I'll be back with friends and students in the future.

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