Volume 22, Number 20 | The Newspaper of Lower Manhattan | September 25 - October 1, 2009
Photo by Spencer Tucker/Mayor’s office
Alice Mong, director of the Museum of Chinese in America, and Mayor Bloomberg dotted the eyes of a lion costume to symbolically give life to the lion and the museum.
Chinese Museum’s new center opens
By Julie Shapiro
To the pounding of drums and the applause of spectators, a brightly festooned lion sprang to life in front of the Museum of Chinese in America Tuesday morning.
The traditional lion dance marked the opening of MoCA’s new $8 million location on Centre St., which gives the museum six times as much space as it had on Mulberry St.
“We’re finally here,” director Alice Mong said with a happy sigh. “Today is a very proud day for us.”
Moments before the lion dance began, the yellow and orange costume lay still on the sidewalk, while Mayor Michael Bloomberg and museum architect Maya Lin completed the customary eye-dotting ceremony. They brushed water over the lion’s eyes, which is traditionally supposed to bring the creature to life, symbolically launching the museum’s life as well.
The lion costume was so intricately detailed that it was a bit difficult to tell exactly where the eyes were, so Bloomberg decided to hedge his bets and dab water across much of the lion’s face.
“I want this lion to really be awake,” he said. In an earlier speech, he noted the museum’s importance as both a tourist attraction and a record of an immigrant group’s contributions to the city.
Lin, who is most famous for designing the Washington memorial to Vietnam War veterans, said the Chinatown project took on great personal significance for her. In the past three years she said she spent at least as much time gathering support for the museum as she did designing its new space. Over the years, she recalled frequently getting asked the question, “Where are you from?” and when she answered, “Ohio,” people would respond, “No, where are you really from?”
“We are a land of immigrants,” said Lin. “We are all part of a larger story.”
As a way of displaying those stories and answering those questions, Lin designed a Journey Wall for the museum’s entrance, a mosaic of bronze tiles carved with the names of donors, along with their birthplace and their current home. The tile she purchased for her parents details Lin’s heritage, listing birthplaces of Shanghai and Fuchow for her parents, along with their current home in Athens, Ohio.
The Journey Wall is Lin’s favorite part of her design for MoCA’s new location, which is in a former machine repair shop. Lin converted the oil-soaked industrial space into hushed galleries of dark-paneled wood that center around an interior brick courtyard. Lin purposely left the crumbling, sunlit courtyard raw to recall ghosts and the pull of the past.
The museum’s move to Centre St. a block north of Canal St. puts it on the border of Chinatown and Soho. Lin created two separate entrances, one facing east toward historic Chinatown and the other facing west, symbolizing the museum’s openness to a larger community.
“This is not just a museum for Chinese Americans,” Lin said. “It is a museum for all Americans.”
Still, the text of the museum’s new permanent exhibit, “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America,” is written from the perspective of Chinese Americans, using the “we” voice to describe immigrants’ struggles and victories. Peppered with exclamation points, the narrative tracing Chinese Americans from 1784 to the present reads more like a rallying speech than a scholarly document.
More universally affecting than the text are the artifacts themselves, from letters to citizenship documents, many gathered from curbside garbage piles in the 1980s by the museum’s founders, Charles Lai and John Kuo Wei Tchen. The two started the Chinatown History Project nearly 30 years ago when they saw an older immigrant generation dying without telling their stories to anyone.
“We knew only that if we did not document it, our Chinese-American story would have been lost forever,” said Lai, who directed the museum until recently.
Lai and Tchen originally focused just on the story of Chinatown, but the museum’s focus has grown to cover Chinese immigration across the country. Lin said the story will take on new forms in future, perhaps examining the role of Chinese businessmen who spend much of their time in the United States and the growth and identity of the many Chinese baby girls who are adopted by American families.
“Bit by bit, we’ve evolved to tell the larger story,” said Mong, the director.
In addition to the permanent collection, the museum will also host rotating exhibits. Currently on display is “Here & Now: Chinese Artists in New York.”
In celebration of its opening, MoCA (mocanyc.org, 212-619-4785, 215 Centre St.) is free to the public through this Sat., Sept. 26. Starting Sunday, the museum will charge $7 admission, with seniors and students $4 and children under 12 free. Target is sponsoring free admission every Thursday, when galleries will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. The museum is also open Monday and Friday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.