Posts Tagged ‘Chinese’

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The act was finally repealed in 1943, when the war with Japan created a powerful incentive to befriend China.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.

Chinatown, my Chinatown

Friday, September 18th, 2009

Why so many posts about Chinese Americans? It just worked out that way.

On the Times City Room blog, Peter Kwong of Hunter College has been answering questions about the gentrification of Chinatown. In discussing “the decline of New York’s Chinatown as a viable living, working and shopping area for new immigrants,” he cites the closing of the garment factories (despite paying low wages, they can’t compete with China) and the rise of real estate speculation. He worries that Chinatown will turn into “an ethnic theme park without its ethnic population.” This has certainly happened to some Italian American neighborhoods. Chinatown also suffered quite a bit from the events of 9/11, but he says the process started before then.

If you haven’t noticed any gentrification, he points out what to look for, and in a second round of discussion he gives a brief overview of the neighborhood’s history. Highly recommended for anyone interested in the patterns of immigrant settlement and evolution of neighborhoods.

Brooklyn and the Chinese immigrant

Monday, August 31st, 2009
Chinese laborer Goon Bow; photo from Brooklyn Historical Society

Papers for Chinese laborer Goon Bow; photo from Brooklyn Historical Society

Finally, I made it to the Brooklyn Historical Society‘s exhibit Living and Learning: Chinese Immigration, Restriction & Community in Brooklyn, 1850 to Present, which, happily, has been extended to October 18.

Through a series of panels with photos and a couple of census books, the exhibit discusses the reception that Chinese immigrants found in New York in the late 19th century and how they began to make Brooklyn a home. The caricatures are appalling, but they’re not only directed at the Chinese; apparently, there was something of an Irish resistance to Chinese immigration, and defenders of the Chinese did not hesitate to stereotype the Irish in comparison. And Chinese laundries not only offered economic competition but carried a more insidious threat: if men did laundry—women’s work—the sacred concept of manliness was in danger.

Overall I found it a very interesting introduction to the history of Chinese immigration to New York, with a rare focus on street-level Brooklyn and the churches and businesses that were part of Chinese life at the time.

The exhibit also takes a brief look at Sunset Park today, and on the historical society’s website you can download the oral histories of some Chinese-American residents of Sunset Park.

If you’re counting the days until the grand opening of the Museum of Chinese in America on Sept. 22, definitely pay a visit to the BHS.

Paper sons

Sunday, July 19th, 2009

More on Chinese Americans: Alison Leigh Cowan in the Times writes about the strategies of hopeful Chinese immigrants after the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, which barred most unskilled laborers from China. Immigrants would use study aids to pretend that they were the children of Chinese who were legal residents—or just to make sure they could prove who they actually were. Desperation to get into the United States is nothing new.

You can look at the notebook pages through the Times link above; it even includes a map of the family’s ancestral village. For more on this topic, one commenter recommends the book Paper Families by Estelle T. Lau.

Happy Year of the Ox

Monday, January 26th, 2009

The Lunar New Year starts today, but festivities continue through the week. The Queens Library in Flushing will host a free day of events on Saturday, Jan. 31.

From 10:30 am to 12:30 pm: Learn how to prepare Japche, a delicious noodle dish from Korea, or miniature spring rolls from China; learn how to make Chinese red envelope lanterns (first-come, first-served basis, supplies limited!). (I’m not sure whether these events will be conducted in Korean, Chinese, English, or a mixture.)

At 1 pm,there will be traditional Korean drum and dance with Vongku Pak; at 2:30 pm, a ribbon dance and song from China; and at 3:30 pm, the Chinese Lion Dance.

The library is located at 41-17 Main St, Flushing. The event is funded by The National Endowment for the Humanities.

Changes in the ethnic press

Friday, January 23rd, 2009

As a former newspaper copy editor, I lament the alarming decline of print journalism. Still, change is inevitable, and some news publications will adapt well—or they already have. Kirk Semple in The New York Times* today reports on plans to shut down the Ming Pao Daily News. This is not quite as terrible as it sounds, because Ming Pao produces a free almost-daily newspaper that is expected to continue, and there are three other Chinese-language dailies in New York.

It seems to me that Semple is pushing a bit of a skeptical attitude toward  Ming Pao’s prospects. It may be warranted; barely a day goes by that I don’t refer to the world going to hell in a handcart. But for people who care about disappearing newspapers, the most important thing is to think creatively about the future. Fighting change is futile; trying to influence it is the way to go.

In 2001, according to the Gotham Gazette, the New York ethnic press comprised nearly 200 magazines and newspapers in 36 languages—the largest number in the city’s history. I’m sure that has declined substantially; I’ll try to find out. You can link to some of them through New America Media; that’s a handy resource that wasn’t available in 2001.

*Now, if the New York Times were to go online only—a possibility I refuse to take seriously—it would drastically alter my life. But I can see a bright side to that.

Start the new year on Main Street (Flushing)

Sunday, December 21st, 2008

Flushing, Queens

Jack Eichenbaum will lead a Municipal Art Society tour of Flushing’s Chinatown on New Year’s Day. According to their website, “In less than a generation, this immigrant destination and commercial center has come to rival its Manhattan antecedent. Taiwanese rather than Cantonese at its core, Flushing’s Chinatown plays host to a variety of overseas Chinese groups. Rezoning and greater land availability support unusual real estate developments that include office buildings, hotels, residential condos, specialty shops, cultural institutions and malls. Lunch is available in more than 100 Asian restaurants nearby.”

I took the churches of Flushing tour with Jack Eichenbaum last year, and it was very interesting.

(There’s a late gift idea, too. Municipal Art Society gift certificates are good for walking tours and programs. For more information, call Tamara Coombs, director of programs & tours, at 212-935-3960, ext. 294, or email tcoombs [at]

Meet at 1 pm Thursday, Jan. 1, at St George’s Church, 39th Ave and Main Street. You can take the 7 train to Main Street and walk one block north. $15, $12 MAS members.

Times Square portraits

Wednesday, November 12th, 2008

In last Saturday’s New York Times, Kirk Semple wrote about the artists from China, mostly men, who draw portraits and caricatures in Times Square. Sometimes more than 200 artists are vying for tourist business; prices range from $5 to $30. It’s an interesting life, but not a highly lucrative one.