History of Chinatowns documented at museum


By Alison Gregor

Wedged among Chinatown’s herbalists, fishmongers and the stores selling satin hats with fake pigtails is a lantern-shaped gallery that sheds a little light on the sometimes inscrutable Chinese-American experience.

Displaying artifacts donated and salvaged, the Museum of Chinese in the Americas doesn’t just touch on the history of Manhattan’s well-known neighborhood, but that of Chinatowns spread from Canada to Mexico to Peru.

The history project that grew into the museum started in 1980, but the history of the Chinese people in the Americas, traced back four centuries, is one that is still in the budding stages of its documentation. Even so, the tiny museum, with a gallery designed by acclaimed Chinese-American architect Billie Tsien, is luring some sophisticated museum-goers.

“These are experiences or impressions of Chinese-Americans as Chinese-Americans, not just as Chinese immigrants to America,” said Ken Liu of Boston recently. “There is a blending of two cultures.”

Liu is writing a novel based on the 19th-century Asian-American experience in the United States. Though he has read the history of Chinese-Americans in this country, he said the museum gave him a sense of their physical reality.

His friend, Lisa Tang agreed, ogling a high-heeled slipper, all of four inches long, made by Chu Foke in the early 20th century for her bound feet. After immigrating to the United States, Foke removed her bindings, and her feet expanded to a normal size but never quite recovered.

“They were really walking on stumps,” Tang marveled. “That is quite striking.”

Many of the artifacts in the museum’s permanent exhibit were salvaged, and therefore, remain somewhat of a mystery, said Cynthia Lee, the museum’s Deputy Director of Programs.

Liu was particularly struck by a “family photograph” on display that captured the fragmented existence of many immigrant families, not just Chinese-Americans. Images of loved ones were cut out of various photos and pasted onto a print of those family members who could actually be assembled in a studio.

The composite photograph was salvaged from the trash of a photographer’s studio and exhibited in anonymity for years, Lee said. That is, until Lee’s godmother visited the museum and recognized a young girl in the photograph.

“We tracked [the young girl] down, and it turns out that this, indeed, was her family,” Lee said. “She hadn’t met her older sister pictured in the photograph with her until she was 20 years old.”

Around 1965, Manhattan’s Chinatown went through a radical change: Immigration laws were amended to permit entire families to enter the United States, and 99-year leases in New York City were expiring. Many of the Chinese bachelors, who had never found wives for lack of female Chinese immigrants, began retiring, moving and throwing out their valuables.

The streets of Manhattan’s Chinatown were lined with artifacts – a museum waiting to happen. The New York Chinatown History Project took advantage of that mass disposal. Members found trunks of silky Cantonese opera robes, storefront signs in Mandarin, and diminutive handmade furniture crafted to fit into tenement housing stock and storefronts with limited space.

Julien Celdran, a Frenchman visiting the museum recently, said it was small but full of captivating details. He particularly appreciated a display about Chun Kong Chow, whose family was allowed to slip into the United States in 1928 through an exception to the Exclusion Act, which forbade entry of Chinese laborers.

Chun went on to become a successful merchant and leader in Chinatown, known for such achievements as getting the city to put up bilingual signs and to clean the streets regularly.

“There are details about people’s lives,” Celdran said. “Before this, I didn’t know much about the history of these people, just clichés.”

Perhaps the idea of the Chinese laundry is a cliché, but the image of clothes packaged in brown paper and tied in string induced nostalgic feelings in Al Sbardone, an Italian-American psychologist originally from Boston.

“They jumped out at us, because it’s such a memory from childhood,” Sbardone said. “I hadn’t seen one of those packages in – I don’t know – a couple hundred years. And that’s exactly what they looked like.”

Just like in Boston, Manhattan’s Chinatown grew up intimately connected to an Italian immigrant neighborhood, but Sbardone wasn’t sure if that was just coincidence.

“We liked our shirts laundered and pressed, I guess,” he chuckled.

There are plenty of surprises at the museum – for instance, the beginnings of an evolving display on Chino-Latinos, or those Chinese immigrant communities in Latin American countries.

All the captions in the main gallery are in English, Mandarin and Spanish. For those who can read Mandarin or Spanish, those captions, some relating slightly different stories, add a little more to the museum experience, Lee said.

The Museum of Chinese in the Americas is the only one in the Northeastern United States striving to capture the complex history of Chinese-Americans, said Museum Associate William Dao.

Divided by different dialects, generational differences and diverse regional assimilation patterns, the Chinese-American community is difficult to document, he said.

Currently on display at the museum is an oral history project done by children at Dr. Sun Yat Sen Middle School. It includes audio tapes and a video of oral histories recorded by students.

One woman relates how her pigtail was shot off by Japanese soldiers in World War II.

Judy Antell of Brooklyn was visiting the museum recently as part of her research for a guide to New York City for parents. She and her 5-year-old daughter, Nora Brown, were sketching an elegant Chinese opera robe.

“There’s a lot for kids to do here,” Antell said, recommending it for children over five.

But, gallery hunts and drawing exercises aside, those who may get the most from a visit will be adults eager to learn more about the history of Chinese people in the Americas. And if museum docents have their way, the word “Chinatown” will no longer be synonymous with inscrutability, as it was in the famous last line of the eponymous movie: “It’s Chinatown, Jake.”