The MOCA: Culture and race in America

MOCA, or the Museum of Chinese in America, is located on Centre St just north of Canal in Chinatown. Brilliantly curated, part art installation, part multimedia, part historical artifact, the MOCA collection addresses a multitude of issues that the Chinese-American community faced throughout history. Although the museum itself is not large, it uses the space expertly to make it seem as though a cacophony of voices is telling a story.

The exhibition starts out with the arrival of the first Chinese in America – three men arrived in Baltimore in 1785 from Guangzhou. From there, the display moved towards a narrative linking trade, colonialism, and migration. Diaries, currency, tea pots, old photographs of Chinese storefronts in Wisconsin, racist caricatures, and East India Trading Company artifacts intermingled. From this, it was made apparent that the movement of Chinese people to all corners of the earth was not in a vaccum. It was the result of colonialism, destitution, and yes, desire.

The museum also deftly dealt with the issue of “Othering” (per Edward Said’s Orientalism) that often went hand in hand with the establishment of American-Chineseness. The photographs from a magazine were infamous for reinforcing the “Other” in Chinatown by removing European-Americans from their images, leaving behind only Chinese-Americans in this “Chinese” space. Another section was devoted to the American-Chinese creation Chop Suey, a dish created to suit to the tastes of the local community. It’s examples like these where  “Chinatown” was created in the European-American imaginary. “In Chinatowns large and small, we meet across counters and stereotypes,” reads the curatorial statement.

The MOCA is also a place for community building. I witnessed a hilarious exchange between an older Chinese woman and the young Chinese man working at the gift shop counter (where incidentally I bought a veryyy cute Year of the Rabbit MOCA mug). I went around the exhibition at roughly the same time as this pair of older Chinese women, who were enthralled with the exhibition and exclaimed their joy at reading an early English-Chinese translation book – the book was groundbreaking in that it used Chinese characters that sounded similar to English words as a guide for pronunciation.

The Chinese woman was buying a souvenir and spoke in Cantonese to the man, asking if he spoke Chinese. When he replied that he did, she asked if he could read and write Chinese. Clearly he was born in America, betrayed by his accent. The older woman spoke wistfully, saying that she wished her children could speak Cantonese like he did. “They are Chinese! How can they not know Chinese? How do you go back? If you don’t speak Chinese you can never go back. Are you a jook-sing?” The man replied, yes, he was a jook-sing, or Westernized Chinese. (For more information on the jook-sing, read my blog post Caught between worlds.) In the room beside the gift shop were interactive puzzles that visitors could work on, including the tangram and steel links.

The amazing thing about the MOCA is that the struggles documented are universal amongst minorities in America. I was struck by the Hollywood portion of the exhibition – there was a makeup guide on how to do both blackface and yellowface. In another section, a documentary screening showed how Chinese student associations were harassed during the McCarthy era; the “Red Scare” of the Cold War was a direct descendent of the “Yellow Peril” monster (see also: Fu Manchu) from the golden Hollywood era of the 1930s.

In the corner was a recording of Martin Luther King speaking against the Vietnam War, and images of Asian-Americans marching in solidarity with Black Power, Chicano, and LGBT movements in the late 60s. And most surprising was the art installation dedicated to “hapas,” or mixed-race people.

Although Asian-Americans today are seen as “white proximate,” whatever that means, the MOCA reminds us that our struggles for equality are present in every rights movement. From the prejudice against Muslim-Americans today to the issue of same-sex marriage, injustices are intertwined and need to be worked against together regardless of our own personal struggles.

For more information on the MOCA, see here.

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