Photo courtesy of Anne Lowe
In the heart of New York City’s Chinatown—the largest Chinatown in the USA, streets bustle with restaurants and chop suey joints, vegetable markets sell snow peas and ginger, exotic pears, lichee nuts and comquats and busy fish stalls offer seafood so bright and fresh and shiny you can smell the sea’s brine. Chinese New Year will be celebrated in the streets and its celebrated dining places on January 31.
Here, at 215 Centre Street, Museum of Chinese in America presents a fascinating journey into the history and culture of the Chinese people and their thorny relationship with America.
Through artifacts, collections of memoirs, photographs, videos and exhibitions of art, visitors and students may study and research the events and chronicles of the Chinese in the Western Hemisphere.
An introductory video disc transports us back in time to the 1600’s before Chinatown was Chinatown and the region was home to Native Americans who traded with the Dutch at Werpoes Hill and Center Street; by 1626, the Dutch had purchased Manhattan Island and small farms dotted the area. Tanneries used the standing water in nearby swamps and provided employment and pollution around the area that is Worth, Centre and Mulberry Street in the late 18th century and butcher shops occupied Mott, Pell and Bayard Street. The neighborhood was crowded, filled with the stench of the slaughterhouses and the poverty of the poor. Free blacks and escaped slaves moved into the area in the 1830’s, labored in the tanneries and were active in the abolition movement. Then Irish and German immigrants arrived in America in the 1850’s, crowding tenements and Italians and East European Jews followed them. Today, the area is becoming though visitors may tour the past in the Tenement Museum at 970 Orchard Street, the St. Paul Chapel dating from 1766, that miraculously survived September 11, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue built in 1887. Though Chinese traders and sailors brought tea and silk to our ports in the early 1830’s, permanent Chinese residents in the neighborhood in the 1850’s only numbered about 150.
Displays of artifacts and memoirs illustrating the dispersion of the Chinese to the Western Hemisphere mesmerize. The Chinese immigrated from the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, fleeing a deteriorating economy, floods, food shortages, government corruption and violence. Called Collies or “Bitter Strength,” in Chinese, they came to find their Gold Mountain. Many arrived in San Francisco in 1849—thousands of others traveled to Peru, Trinidad, California, Montana and Oregon seeking a new life in a new world. They labored in gold mines and later ten thousand men were recruited to build the first transcontinental railway while others washed, ironed, served food and harvested crops. The immigrants found lives of harsh manual labor and prejudice based on race.
When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined tracks at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad transformed the West—no longer needed by the railroads the immigrants were used as replacement labor in a depressed economy. Mob violence and discriminatory laws followed and many Chinese fled to larger cities; their ghettoized neighborhoods becoming known as Chinatowns. By the 1880’s, the number of Chinese in New York was close to one thousand—the foundation of the largest Chinatown in America.
The United States reacted to the hostility toward the Chinese by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which prohibited laborers from entering the United States. Merchants were exempt under Section Six of the act.
A current exhibition features The Lee Family of New York Chinatown Since 1888. Harold L. Lee and Sons, Inc. outlines the growth of a small foreign exchange company, founded in 1888, to it’s success today as a national insurance agency. This year is the agency’s 125th anniversary.
The Exclusion Act was finally lifted in 1943 and China, our war-time ally, given a small immigration quota. In 1968, the quota was increased, the population grew and today, Chinese citizens are prominent in the arts, science, technology, medicine and politics.
Amongst the highlights in past exhibits were Chinese American Designers such as Vera Wang, Anna Sui and Vivienne Tam and Shanghai Glamour between 1910 and the 1940s. Shanghai was a modern city by the 1920s with its fashion known worldwide.
Currently on display is a more serious presentation Life in Chinatown On and After September 11. The display communicates the experience of Asian New Yorkers during and after the World Trade Center attacks through documents, images and artwork and is dedicated to those that lost their lives.
Chinese American art historians and students founded the museum in 1980, as the New York Chinatown History Project, to show the “Chinese experience as part of the larger history of America” MocCA’s mission is “to reclaim, preserve, and broaden understanding about the diverse history of the Chinese people in the Americas.”
Happy Chinese New Year