With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America


of an Exhibition

by Kathryn Harris

Published on March 27, 2012, Modified on April 20, 2012

  • Description:

    The Museum of Chinese in America examines the Chinese diaspora in the United States, beginning with the arrival of early Chinese immigrants in the late 18th through the late 19th centuries and concluding with the voices of Chinese-Americans today. The museum’s core exhibition is structured chronologically, with each section focusing on key themes from that era. Throughout the exhibition, small panels along the walls document trailblazers in the Asian-American community. At the end of the core exhibition is a map spanning most of a wall; on it, visitors can use threads to trace their family’s own journey to America. There is also a bank of video screens where twelve Chinese-Americans speak about their experiences and personal connections to the exhibition. The exhibition is filled with artifacts, personal narratives, and photographs, ranging from an iron used in early 20th century Chinese-run laundromats to pamphlets advising World War II era American soldiers on how to distinguish between allied Chinese soldiers and enemy Japanese soldiers.

    The Museum of Chinese in America, while presenting an overview of Chinese-American history, strives to include a diversity of perspectives on the Chinese-American experience. The video bank, for example, highlights twelve individuals’ experiences, ranging from a journalist and father of two daughters adopted from China, to the first female Asian-American New York police officer, to a fashion designer. By spotlighting these twelve individuals, MoCA uses contemporary perspectives on the Asian-American experience as cap on the core exhibition, without supplying a finite conclusion. Here, the message is that Asian-American history continues through many different people with many different backgrounds and perspectives.

    Moreover, much of the core exhibition sheds light on the diversity of the Asian diaspora in the United States. The core exhibition does present Asian-American history in more of a survey course, overview format—each section is arranged chronologically and hits on the main dates, figures, and relevant world events of the time period—but the exhibition does recognize diversity within the bigger picture. While exhibits detailing the early years of Asian immigration to the United States focuses on the extreme and pervasive prejudice immigrants and people of Asian descent faced, the small panels along each wall celebrate the accomplishments of Asian-Americans in their respective time periods. The stories of these individuals and the difficulties they overcame provide an inspirational counterpart to the particular hardships Asian-Americans faced in each time period. While the panels continue throughout the exhibition—along with descriptions of the prejudice Asian-Americans have faced—the panels in the beginning of the exhibition directly challenges the idea that all Asian-Americans in the late 19th and early 20th century worked on railroads or in laundromats and Chinese restaurants.

    I went into the exhibition with some prior knowledge of the Asian-American experience and am interested in the subject, so I didn’t mind how text-heavy the exhibition is. While video, photos, and more interactive elements—such as drawers to open and artifacts, like a iron from a typical Chinese-owned laundromat, that visitors can hold—offered a break from reading, the exhibition overwhelmingly feels like an introduction to a textbook. I feel that focusing more on one particular family or individual in each section of the exhibition would do much to help me connect emotionally to the experiences I was learning about, as well as help give me some kind of framework to hang so much information onto. Additionally, I was looking for a way to engage in some kind of dialogue with the exhibition, and was frustrated that such opportunities were limited and mostly restricted to the very end of the core exhibition. I was really grateful that I was there with my boyfriend (who is Taiwanese-Canadian) and a friend of mine (who was unfamiliar with much of the material), because I was able to discuss the exhibition with both of them. I’ve been back by myself a few times since, but I largely enjoy the feeling of the space when I’m there alone, instead of immersing myself in the content of the exhibition.

    MoCA’s core exhibition pointedly ignores the political situation in Taiwan. MoCA’s exhibits do not distinguish between those of Chinese descent and those of Taiwanese descent beyond surface-level descriptions of how the individual in question identifies. The issues uniquely affecting Taiwanese-Americans and the differences between Taiwanese and Chinese culture—and the impact those differences may have had and may continue to have on Taiwanese-Americans and Chinese-Americans—simply aren’t present. The absence of this issue is probably in the museum’s best interest; Taiwan’s political status as an independent nation or as part of mainland China is considerably controversial and many people who feel strongly about it may not want to support a museum they perceive as taking a stance on the issue. Remaining neutral on the subject of Taiwan eliminates the risk of people feeling excluded or offended due to their personal politics, thus expanding its base of support and reinforcing the universality of its message across the Chinese diaspora in America. I would definitely be interested, however, in seeing perspectives on Tibet and Taiwan represented, which I think is possible without locking the museum itself into a particular stance.

    MoCA is located on Center Street, right in Chinatown. Its position near Canal Street and the many Asian markets along Grand and various side streets place the museum in the heart of the community the museum was created to document, advocate for, and serve. The very design of the building is finely attuned to the museum’s neighborhood: large windows on one side of the museum look out on the markets and restaurants of “old” Chinatown, while windows on the other side provide a view of “modern” Chinatown, where sleek, contemporary buildings give voice to the increasing gentrification of the Lower East Side. These different street scenes are representative of the museum’s role in the community and are, in a way, exhibits in themselves; they remind visitors that the museum is grounded in the narrow, bustling streets of the Chinatowns that harbored the early Chinese-American community, while also looking towards the varied Chinese-American community of contemporary times. Additionally, MoCA’s many walking tours and oral history projects take advantage of the fact that the museum is located in the very community it has devoted its mission to.

    Along those lines, MoCA’s location is intuitive given what I believe is probably its audience: members of the Asian-American community who are interested in exploring their own history, and those of other ethnic and cultural backgrounds who most likely know little about the Chinese-American experience. The core exhibition’s sweeping overview of the history of the Chinese in America, coupled with more in-depth looks at themes such as stereotyping in the media and assimilation, makes the museum an excellent resource for those seeking a basic understanding of Chinese-American history. Furthermore, MoCA’s old Mulberry Street location now houses its archival collections, serving as a library for researchers, students, and other interested members of the public.

    Overall, I think the core exhibition provides a great deal of information on the experience of an immigrant group that is often ignored in school curricula and textbooks. However, I wish the exhibition offered more opportunities for direct engagement and focused more on the personal experiences of Chinese-Americans, rather than policies and laws. I know the Museum of Chinese in America does a lot of work in the community—I would love to see that included in the core exhibition, as well.

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