After last night’s struggle at the Center for Jewish History, I was keen to get back on the horse. Thankfully there are a few Thursday late-night museum openings, so I headed to one right by my SoHo office – the Museum of Chinese in America, or MOCA. And – wow.
I know I say this about every museum, but this is great. It’s pretty small and yet it covers a whopping amount of political and social history in a linear, succinct way. It’s thorough, personal and creative.
Before the museum, I knew very little about the rollercoaster Chinese people have endured in America. But room by room, I learned of their struggle – how America encouraged workers to sail over in the 1800s because of their skills and cheap labor, which were central to the building of the country’s railroads. But soon Americans began claiming the Chinese were taking their jobs – and banned them from entering the country. The remaining families had to carry stacks of identity papers wherever they went.
Through the years, they began to be appreciated again for their crafts and skills, and the real turning point came in World War II when, compared to the Japanese, they were seen as the ‘trustworthy’ Asians.
Particularly interesting was a room that had been converted into the office of the Lee family – a hugely successful Chinese family that has served New York for decades. They’re behind a foreign exchange business, a travel agency, a movie theater and still operate an insurance company on Pell Street. This room was a great touch.
The whole museum was really interactive – there was a great use of screens and audio – and the tiny space was used to its best – you could pull maps, pictures and drawers of artifacts from the walls. It was also a brilliant introduction to the plight and powers of these families who have endured so much while becoming an integral part of the city.