Imagine yourself drinking beer in 1870

January 19th, 2013
Lower East Side Tenement Museum

The Lower East Side Tenement Museum has a new tour: Shop Life, which includes the re-creation of an 1870s German saloon along with stories and pictures from other retail businesses that have been part of 97 Orchard Street over the decades.

The saloon is a beautiful warm space, although dimly lit—and, our guide Claudia told us, in the days of kerosene lanterns it probably would have been dimmer still. Besides a fine wooden bar and nice furniture, there’s a table in the corner laid out with the same food you find in Germany today—sausage, eggs, bread. (Unfortunately the repast was only a model—while it would be wonderful to have a live experience in the saloon, with food and drink and music, that would be too much to ask of the museum. But you can find Germans drinking beer at Der Schwarze Kölner in Fort Greene.) Beyond the saloon is a little office room, then a tiny kitchen, then a well-furnished small bedroom. 

Claudia raised some good points about the importance of the wife’s unpaid labor (a great book about female lives & labor back in the day, if you’re interested, is Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect Before Her) and the controversy about New York’s blue laws, which forbade alcohol sales on Sunday—in German culture, the day the families liked to enjoy a few beers together after church.

The last room features an interactive exhibit that offers a variety of information and stories to read and listen to. I would have liked to meet the 15-year-old girl who mastered the new typewriter model in 1900, opening up her career horizons. The onward pace of the generations comes through in this exhibit; by the 1930s, many of the Lower East Side shopkeepers no longer lived in a room behind their business, but in Brooklyn or elsewhere. In many cases, America was indeed a springboard to the middle class.

As with the other tours at the museum, it’s about putting yourself in a space and hearing stories to help you imagine. The guides are good about reminding us of things affecting life for nineteenth-century immigrants that might never occur to us today.


We had a great time at Shop Life, and then went for soup in Chinatown.




Bringing Indonesians together

October 21st, 2012

I’m interested in how groups (ethnic or otherwise) find their center, a place to congregate—what is the magic ingredient? For Indonesians in New York, it’s Upi Jaya restaurant in Elmhurst, Queens, at least according to Doug Clark in the New York Times. According to this, “What draws everyone is the cooking of Upi Yuliastuti, 57, the owner of the restaurant, as well as its only cook.”

Folk artists share performances in Queens garden

August 23rd, 2012

The Gift of Wisdom, part of the Locating the Sacred Festival, is a collaboration among immigrant artists who are masters of their respective traditions. Artists from the New York Foundation for the Arts Folk Artist Development Program will perform from 2 to 4:30 pm Saturday, Sept. 15, at the Queens Botanical Garden in Flushing. This sounds like a wonderful opportunity to learn about the spirit of these traditions, in a beautiful place to boot.

Performances, according to the website, include “a devotional Odissi dance (classical dance form of India) by Mala Desai, a Hindustani classical composition on sitar by Ikhlaq Hussain, powerful songs of praise for elders on the kora (African harp-lute) by Alhaji Papa Susso, and a seasonal improvisation on the kayagum (Korean zither) by Yoon Soon Park.” RSVPs are requested but not required.

The Locating the Sacred Festival, which involves more than 300 artists, is a 12-day, 25-event arts festival coordinated by the Asian American Arts Alliance.

They came, they built, they persevered

May 24th, 2012

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.

We’re all Irish today?

March 17th, 2012

I’ve been thinking about St. Patrick’s Day and wondering why it’s such a big observance in the United States, and I found this piece by Peter Behrens in the New York Times to be interesting. He reviews the unwelcome faced by Irish immigrants in the 1840s—one of the first groups considered dark and unworthy of this great country, yet now a part of America that is not only embraced but embraced with a big beery hug. “This March 17,” he writes, “on this side of the water, we ought to be celebrating immigration, not Irishness.”

Immigrant Heritage Week 2011

April 9th, 2011

Photo by Steve Bonilla

Immigrant Heritage Week is April 11–17 this year, and the Mayor’s Office for Immigrant Affairs is joining forces with StoryCorps in a project to give immigrants an opportunity to tell their stories. The festivities will also include the announcement of the winners of the American Dreamer Awards, “created to celebrate the significant accomplishments and contributions made by an individual or organization to better the lives of immigrants and immigrant communities in New York City,” according to the mayor’s office website.

In addition, a survey of immigrant entrepreneurs and small business owners is being taken in an effort to improve services.

In the past, Immigrant Heritage Week has included a wide array of activities at sites across the city. There doesn’t seem to be a calendar of events this year—budget cuts? Insufficient attendance in previous years? There is, at least, an event called “The Culture of Joy & Resilience” at 2 pm Saturday, April 16, at the St. George Library on Staten Island. It’s the kickoff of a project that will tour libraries across the borough, bringing “a series of four exhibit panels, each profiling a community-based folk art expression, to rotate among several neighborhood library branches.”

A world of music in the city

February 12th, 2011

mex_parade_10The Center for Traditional Music and Dance is presenting Sounds of Immigrant New York, a ten-part lecture series involving a variety of ethnomusicologists.

Monday, Feb. 14: Jane Sugarman presents a performance of Albanian music in New York City by CTMD touring artists Merita Halili and the Raif Hyseni Orchestra at the CUNY Graduate Center.

Thursday, March 3: Elizabeth McAlister presents Haitian Music from Vodou to Gospel, Rara to Hip Hop at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Saturday, March 12: Peter Manuel talks on Folk Music from India to the Caribbean and Beyond at the Queens Museum of Art.

Sunday, April 3: Mick Moloney lectures on Irish Music in the Bronx at Fordham University.

Thursday, April 7: Hankus Netsky discusses Tracing New York’s Klezmer History, A Family Affair at the Museum on Eldridge Street.

Wednesday, April 13: Evan Rapport lectures on Bukharian Jewish Music in New York City at the Center for Jewish History.

Thursday, April 21: Anne Rasmussen talks about Middle Eastern Music in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Historical Society.

Thursday, May 19: Ray Allen discusses The Transformation of Modern Carnival in Brooklyn at the Brooklyn Library.

Thursday, May 26: Su Zheng presents 150 Years of Chinese Music in New York City at the Museum of Chinese in America.

Thursday, June 16: Cathy Rag;amd discusses Music and Mexican Immigrant Life in New York City at the Museum of the City of New York.

Admission is free, except for the performance of Albanian music on Feb 14. For times and details, see the Center for Traditional Music and Dance.

Not part of the series, but also of interest:

Friday, Feb. 25: Radio Banduristan International, a show of Ukrainian music in an informal cabaret setting at the Ukrainian Institute of America.

Saturday, March 5: The Thunderbird Dancers perform Native American music and dance at the Brooklyn Museum.

Friday, March 25: Abdoulaye Diabate and Super Manden present a concert of West African Manden music at Paterson University in Wayne, NJ.

Sunday, March 27: The Ukrainian Wave Community Cultural Initiative is joining with the New York Bandura Ensemble/Bandura Downtown and the Ukrainian Museum for a program celebrating the work of composer Zinoviy Shtokalko.

Gorgeous mosaic

January 23rd, 2011

The New York Times has printed a beautiful new update on the ethnic concentrations of New York’s neighborhoods and how they’ve changed since 2000. Of course, an actual mosaic wouldn’t have so many large enclaves, but these colors don’t represent the entire population of a neighborhood, only pluralities.