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How a harrowing fire became a silver lining for a museum of Chinese American life

<i>Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images</i><br/>A display from MOCA's exhibition
Getty Images
Michael M. Santiago/Getty Images
A display from MOCA's exhibition "With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America."

Harmeet Kaur, CNN

The Museum of Chinese in America’s workshop space in Lower Manhattan is brimming with artifacts that were very nearly lost to history.

A 1986 photo of a Taiwanese Little League team by photographer Emile Bocian has stains around the edges. A sign for the former Chinatown eatery Joy Luck Restaurant has cracks in one of its acrylic letters. A paper sculpture of a bald eagle crafted in the ’90s by a Chinese asylum seeker in detention is missing a foot and half a wing.

Three years ago, when the building that housed the museum’s archives caught fire, the floor containing its 85,000 some objects and ephemera was miraculously spared from the flames. About 70% of the collection, however, sustained water damage — requiring a costly restoration process that would put further strain on the already struggling institution.

That process is still ongoing. But as MOCA President Nancy Yao sees it, the fire has been a boon of sorts. News of the tragedy brought attention from all over the US, reminding people of the rich history that was at stake. It also brought in millions of dollars in resources. After the disaster, MOCA was named one of “America’s cultural treasures” by the Ford Foundation and received another grant from MacKenzie Scott. The influx of funding has also helped the museum move closer to its longtime goal of securing a permanent home — a new facility designed by the architect Maya Lin is set to open in 2025.

Yao likens MOCA’s recent wins to a phoenix rising from the ashes.

“This incredible tragedy with a five-alarm fire actually put us on the map,” she told CNN. “We were able then to not only save our current collection, but expand it.”

As MOCA’s collection continues to grow, Yao said she hopes to illuminate the nuances around the Chinese experience in the US — and tell a richer, more complex story about the nation.

Restoration efforts are well underway

After being salvaged from the fire in January 2020, the museum’s collections were freeze-dried and eventually brought to the MOCA Workshop.

The two-story, 4,000-square-foot building down the block from the museum now serves as a research and collections center. It’s where the critical work of restoring and rehousing artifacts is taking place.

MOCA has been working with professional conservators to clean and repair books, paintings and other objects damaged by water, sharing some of its learnings along the way. The museum also partnered with the Fashion Institute of Technology to organize and rehouse the textiles that were affected, which include collections of Cantonese opera costumes and qipaos.

Many of the artifacts have already been carefully cataloged and stored. Archival boxes containing issues of “The China Daily News” and “The China Press” — Chinese language newspapers published in the US — are neatly stacked on shelves upstairs. On the ground floor, a green velvet dress with butterflies at the collar and cuff is among the labeled garments hanging on padded hangers.

Other objects need further attention and care, and MOCA is inviting the public to take part. The museum periodically posts salvaged items on its website, detailing their significance, the extent of the damage and the cost of repairs. Patrons can then “sponsor an object” by making a donation.

So far, the museum has raised enough money to remove mold and grime from a painting by Chinese American watercolorist Dong Kingman and mend the Joy Luck Restaurant sign, according to its website. Other items, such as a Chinese typewriter and Chinese American pilot Maggie Gee’s airman ID, are still in need of sponsors.

Its collections and ambitions have grown

As MOCA was in the throes of figuring out how to save the tens of thousands of artifacts it had amassed over decades, Chinese Americans started reaching out with questions of their own.

Some had lost loved ones to the Covid-19 pandemic, or other causes, and were left with troves of family heirlooms that they didn’t have a specific use for, said Yao. Many were from later generations of Chinese Americans who couldn’t decipher the materials they were now tasked with sorting through. Would MOCA be interested in taking donations?

“You don’t speak your parents’ mother tongue. You don’t know what’s valuable in your closet. You don’t understand what to keep and what to throw away,” Yao said. “We’ve almost become a 24/7 reference desk for those types of questions.”

To address those kinds of queries, MOCA hit the road. In 2021, museum staff started visiting cities across the country to meet with people, hear their stories and help them assess objects. These connections have expanded the museum’s collections — Yao said a brother and sister donated their mother’s traditional Chinese dresses, which ended up in an exhibition MOCA curated for the 2023 Winter Show at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory.

Another man saw that MOCA had the front cover for “The Chinese American,” an 1883 newspaper published by immigrant journalist Wong Chin Foo. He had come across a complete copy of the same issue in an antique shop and had kept it preserved in his home for more than a decade, before deciding to donate the newspaper to the museum.

As the museum’s collections have expanded, so too have its ambitions.

Yue Ma, the museum’s director for collections and research, said the goal is for the MOCA Workshop to serve as a space where researchers and scholars can access primary sources and reference materials. The workshop is currently open most days by appointment, but the museum is also working on making its artifacts available to others who can’t travel as easily. About 30% of MOCA’s collections have been digitized, according to its website.

“We hope this space is not only used by our own,” Ma said. “We hope we can work with schools or just the public. If they want to learn how to preserve their family clothes, photographs, letters… they can learn from our workshop.”

A new oral history recording booth in the MOCA Workshop also reflects how the museum’s work has evolved. Capturing and preserving oral histories of Chinese Americans was a vital part of MOCA’s mission even before the fire, but the resulting audio quality was often poor, Ma said. Now, there’s a dedicated space with cozy chairs, a warm backdrop and a microphone and video camera. The studio has just recently been set up, and the museum hopes to start holding interviews here soon.

“We have a great sense of urgency to take down as many oral histories as possible,” Yao added. “(There is a) generation in their 80s and 90s who have lived through many episodes within the last 80 to 90 years of US-China history that is going to be lost if we don’t record their history.”

MOCA rebuilds, but not without some controversy

As MOCA has gone from relative obscurity to a nationally recognized institution, it’s also come under greater scrutiny from some in Chinatown — a neighborhood that has endured many crises over the years and was hit especially hard by the pandemic.

One of MOCA’s largest new sources of funding has been a $35 million grant from the city of New York that will assist in its efforts to acquire its building.

When former New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a plan to close Rikers Island and build new jails in the boroughs, including one in Chinatown, the plan was met with wide opposition from the neighborhood, including MOCA. But the city moved forward with the jail building plan, while promising to make several community investments, among them $35 million for the museum.

MOCA maintains that it was not involved in any negotiations with the mayor and that it had applied for and received cultural funding from the city independent of the jail plan. Still, some locals have accused MOCA of betraying Chinatown and have staged several protests against the museum in recent years.

Karlin Chan, a community activist and advocate who has lived in Chinatown for more than 60 years, said he feels the museum has been scapegoated for decisions made by city officials and local politicians.

“At the end of the day, the museum is trying to stay alive,” he told CNN. “The narratives that they sold out Chinatown for $35 million are a stretch. They had no real vote.”

The museum notes on its website that it remains opposed to jail construction in Chinatown, but that city funding is necessary to continue its mission of preserving Chinese American history.

“If MOCA or any other cultural institution were to adopt the viewpoint of the critics and refuse public funding when it did not agree with every dollar of the City’s $90 billion annual budget, cultural institutions across the city would not exist,” the museum said.

Even as the museum comes under fire, Yao sees its work as critical in the current political climate. Asian Americans have experienced an onslaught of xenophobic attacks in recent years that has not yet abated. As the nation’s largest archive of Chinese American history, MOCA occupies a unique position that can show such attacks aren’t new — as highlighted in its current exhibition “Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism.” Understanding how early Chinese immigrants endured violence and discriminatory policies can help us make sense of ongoing anti-Asian racism and rhetoric, said Yao.

“Before we can really get this narrative defined in US textbooks and in history vernacular, it is really important for museums like MOCA and others that are telling the story to bridge that gap,” she added.

The objects left behind by Chinese Americans can offer people a deeper understanding of an unevenly recorded history — that’s why it’s so important to Yao and others at MOCA that the museum lives on.

Top image: A display from the Museum of Chinese in America’s 2018 exhibition “Chinese Medicine in America: Converging Ideas, People and Practices.” (Photo by Wang Ying/Xinhua)

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