Museum-of-Chinese-in-the-Americas_V2_460x285.jpgI can’t remember when I first visited Museum of Chinese in the Americas in its old location, the second floor of the big red school building at the corner of Bayard and Mulberry. One of our Writing New York TAs, a former museum employee, had offered to take members of our class on a walking tour of the neighborhood — or was it an earlier class on The Port of New York the first time she led that tour? I can’t remember. Either way, we met at the museum for a pre-walk discussion, as we have the several times I’ve taken that walk since then. “Walking tours are a dangerous epistemological activity,” she told us as we headed out toward Columbus Park, by which she meant that as a Chinese American woman from suburban Atlanta, was she an “us” or a “them” when she talked about the neighborhood and Chinese immigration more generally?

The collection at the old space was quaint in some ways — made up mostly of materials that had been scavenged by the museum’s founders (a couple grad students, including our NYU colleague Jack Tchen) as an older generation of Chinatown residents passed away and their kids threw away unwanted old belongings: suitcases, clothing, bottles, letters, laundry signs. Curators had used this cultural detritus to create a compelling account of the issues faced by new arrivals to New York’s Chinatown over several decades.

The walking tour is hands down my favorite in lower Manhattan: I continue to be blown away every time I walk through the old secret tunnel running from Doyers Street to the Bowery: once a getaway route for gangs and bootleggers (see Freeland, ch. 2), now a subterranean arcade/strip mall of herbal medicine vendors, temporary employment agencies, and English lessons. As such it continues to teach about the history of immigration to this neighborhood.

So it was with some sadness that I realized, last spring, that my class’s Chinatown walks would no longer include a stop by that DIY museum space on Mulberry. But my disappointment was more than compensated for by the awe-inspiring Maya Lin-designed space on Centre street, slated to open officially this Tuesday, the 22nd.

moca.jpgThe museum’s scope and capabilities — not to mention funding — have expanded dramatically and the new space will host exhibitions that range far beyond the history of New York’s Chinatown. The two inaugural shows suggest the range of what MoCA will now be able to offer visitors: The new core exhibit, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, will focus broadly on the history and experience of Chinese immigration to the Americas. From the museum’s site:

The core exhibition presents the diverse layers of the Chinese American
experience while examining America’s journey as a nation of
immigrants–from an historical overview of Chinese immigration to the
United States, to the individual stories that reveal what it has meant
to be Chinese in America at different moments in time, to the physical
traces and images left behind by past generations for us to consider,
reflect and reclaim.

A key element of the exhibition is its dialogue with Maya Lin’s
architectural centerpiece – a sky lit courtyard at the heart of the
museum. The exhibit wraps around and engages with the courtyard, which
represents the idea of China – a collective origin, which for many
after the first generation, becomes a constructed, rather than an
actual, memory. Not unlike the rooms of a Chinese house, each section
of the exhibit is connected to the courtyard via portals. Each one
containing films of people narrating personal life stories,
demonstrating how history is propelled by individual moments of
decision-making in the face of circumstances larger than themselves.
External walls dialogue with the inner, in order to provide the larger
historical context for Chinese American struggles and achievements.

The second major exhibit opening Tuesday, Here & Now, focuses on contemporary Chinese American artists in New York:

The exhibition will also be accompanied by a series of panel
discussions, artist workshops, and a full-color, illustrated catalogue
that features interviews with artists Xu Bing and Wenda Gu. The
exhibition is organized into three seven-week long chapters–Visual
Memories, Crossing Boundaries, and Towards Transculturalism.

The first chapter, opening September 22 and running until November 2, features the following artists:

  • Xu Bing (b. China, 1955; U.S. arrival, Wisconsin, 1990)
  • Yun-Fei Ji (b. China, 1963; U.S. arrival, Arkansas, 1989)
  • Lin Yan (b. China; U.S. arrival, New York, 1986)
  • Cui Fei (b. China: U.S. arrival, Pennsylvania, 1996)

The subsequent chapters of the exhibition will be mounted on November 19, 2009 and on January 10, 2010.

In other words, repeat visits will reward you. And you can still book the walking tour I love so much. Take note: The first five days will feature free admission:

Tuesday, September 22: 1:30 pm – 4:00 pm (last entry at 3:30 pm)
Wednesday, September 23: 11:00 am – 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
Thursday, September 24: 11:00 am – 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
Friday, September 25: 11:00 am – 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)
Saturday, September 26: 10:00 am – 5:00 pm (last entry at 4:30 pm)

Given that the museum is just down the street from where I live, I’m digging the ways in which it’s evolving into a vibrant artistic and intellectual center that will impact multiple neighborhoods.

Oh, and p.s.: If you missed City Room’s three-part Q&A series on Chinatown gentrification (with Hunter College professor Peter Kwong), it might make good reading before you head down to the museum sometime this week.