They came, they built, they persevered

Time for a long-belated report on the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which I visited in October 2010. The museum, which was created in 1980 but expanded a few years ago at 215 Centre Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, offers a fresh perspective for those who are used to thinking about 19th- and 20th-century immigration as an Ellis Island–based experience involving Europeans coming to New York.

Among other things, the museum’s permanent exhibition “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America” tells how immigrants came to America to earn money for their families in the California Gold Rush and the building of the transcontinental railroad. A poem from the 1840s tells of someone going to America “to fight my family’s hunger. / To make them proud.” As is typically the case with new immigrants, Chinese laborers encountered a fair amount of hatred here, especially when they were hired as strikebreakers in the 1870s.

General store, Museum of Chinese in America

General store, Museum of Chinese in America

The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 essentially banned immigration except for merchants, diplomats, and students, and led to the creation of a “bachelor society,” as any laborers who did get into the Land of Liberty, or were already here, were forbidden to bring wives or marry white women. This was particularly cruel for a culture where family is everything. In the meantime, as illustrated by the re-creation of a Chinese general store (above), merchants served as a post office for laborers and a tie to the traditions of their homeland, some of which were maintained in this setting even after they had died out in China. 

The act was finally repealed in 1943, when the war with Japan created a powerful incentive to befriend China. It’s jarring to see a Life magazine page from December 1941 with instructions on “How to Tell Japs from the Chinese”—a public service to keep Chinese people from being attacked by Japanese haters. (Life calls this “a distressing ignorance,” but as far as I could tell, it didn’t protest the assault of Japanese Americans.)

I don’t want to give the impression that the museum is a rebuke to Americans. The Chinese immigrants’ experience was similar, in many ways, to those of the ancestors of most Americans today. The degree of unwelcome was much worse because of the undeniable component of racism. But the sense that I got while touring the museum by myself is that it was created by Americans of Chinese descent who are proud to tell the story of how they came to be part of this country, helping to build it in the process. Becoming an American is still an aspiration, but, significantly, it is not one that requires, or should require, giving up your cultural heritage. We are all enriched by this.

The museum also enlightened me on historical matters of which I was shamefully ignorant: for instance, the Opium Wars. (I had never before seen John Jacob Astor referred to as a “fur and opium millionaire.”) China was a booming exporter in the mid-19th century, interested only in collecting silver in return, and the British Empire became frustrated with the trade imbalance. (This may sound familiar.) The Opium Wars were fought because Britain was trying to force opium into China to create a market for something they could supply. China, not unreasonably, objected.

This is not an immigration issue, but it is illustrative of how much of world history we don’t know about if we don’t seek it out. Seeking it out at MOCA is definitely worth the trip.

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