Posts Tagged ‘Chinatown’

Imagine yourself drinking beer in 1870

Saturday, 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.




They came, they built, they persevered

Thursday, 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.

Chinese American museum expands

Saturday, July 11th, 2009

The Times reports that the Museum of Chinese in America has moved to a much larger space at 211-215 Centre St in Manhattan. Its new home, designed by Maya Lin, is in a former industrial machine repair shop.

Exhibits are still moving into the building, which is open Thursdays only through the summer. (They also offer walking tours of Chinatown on Saturdays.) The grand opening is set for Sept. 22. Until then, you can read a lot more about it in the Times. It sounds terrific!

Neighborhood Faces

Monday, May 11th, 2009

Dan Ziskie has taken some nice photos in Chinatown. The New York Times has put up a slideshow, Neighborhood Faces.

Three immigrant perspectives

Sunday, February 8th, 2009

Today’s Times City section has three stories of Moving Sidewalk interest:

Caroline Dworin writes about the men at a Serbian-American social club in Glendale, Queens, and their displeasure with impeached Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich;

Sophia Hollander writes about a project to define the boundaries of Manhattan’s Chinatown, whose Chinese population is decreasing and which faces the threat of high-rise development due to a recent rezoning that protects large swaths of nearby neighborhoods;

and Joseph Huff-Hannon interviews Marcos Silva de Paula, a Brazilian immigrant who was making a decent living as a shoeshine man until the economic collapse, and whose family now plans to return to Brazil.

Gearing up for Chinese New Year

Wednesday, January 14th, 2009

The Museum of Chinese in America will give a walking tour, with shopping and tasting, from 1  to 2:30 pm Saturday, Jan. 17, to show Chinatown’s preparations for the Year of the Ox, which begins January 26. Tickets are $15 ($12 for seniors and students), and the tour meets on the second floor of the museum at 70 Mulberry St. If you can’t make it, they’ll also have walking tours on Jan. 24 and 31.

Farther south, on Sunday, Jan. 18, the Staten Island Zoo gears up for the holiday with “unique crafts and special feeding and presentations showcasing the zoo’s Chinese horoscope animals.” That’s a cool idea, and it’s a nice little zoo with a great batch of rattlesnakes. Activities run from 1:30 to 3:30 pm, and admission is $7 for adults, $4 for children. The zoo is at 614 Broadway on Staten Island. You can get there on the S53 bus from Bay Ridge or by taking the S48 bus at the ferry terminal; see their website for directions.

Chinatown noir

Saturday, November 15th, 2008

Back in October, Steven Kurutz of the Times interviewed writer Henry Chang, who was born and raised in Chinatown, about his detective novels Chinatown Beat and Year of the Dog. This is a great opportunity to get a peek inside a Chinatown that’s not open to tourists, to say the least. “I tried to make the atmosphere as real as possible,” Chang says.

Chang will read from Year of the Dog, published this month by Soho Press, at 7 pm Thursday, Nov. 20, at the Museum of Chinese in America, 70 Mulberry St, 2nd floor. Free.

Year of the Fish: irresistible

Sunday, August 31st, 2008

I don’t like fairy tales; they tend to be told in broad strokes, and I like details & complexity. But Year of the Fish, a film by David Kaplan now showing in Manhattan, completely won me over. It’s a Cinderella story set in Chinatown and done in Rotoscope animation, where the movie is shot with actors and then traced frame by frame.

The layer of animation is crucial, because otherwise you’d be looking at the reality and alert to any break in plausibility. But the animation (and the narration by the fish) allows the story not only to indulge in supernatural elements but to make use of many details of the here and now.

What really makes it work for me are the faces of the people—they all look like people I know or I’ve seen. I see that some reviewers feel there’s too much of a conflict between gritty modern detail and fairy tale sentimentality. As far as I’m concerned, that’s what’s great about it. And, in the end, it shows a moving generosity to all its main characters, even the rotten ones.

Plus, it’s persistently beautiful.