Maya Lin to design Chinatown museum

By Aili McConnon

When Charles Lai created the New York Chinatown History Project in 1980, he planned to spend three years documenting the history of Chinese-New Yorkers. He discovered a surprisingly vast amount of material and 25 years later he is still researching the legacy of his Chinese-American pioneers. Tuesday he began a new chapter: he will soon share this immigrant story with a wider national and international audience with the help of world-renowned architect Maya Lin.

The Museum of Chinese in the Americas — the new name Lai gave his organization in 1995— is the East Coast’s first and only Chinese American history museum. It just announced plans to add a new space in Lower Manhattan five times its current size. Maya Lin will design the interior.

“The community has been dying for a bigger space to house this jewel of Chinese-American history,” said Cynthia Lee, the museum’s program director. “It has been ridiculous trying to fit over 100 years of history into 2,500 square feet.” MoCA collects documents, artifacts, rare papers, and cultural and folk history.

MoCA’s current cramped quarters are in the second floor of a nineteenth-century public school at 70 Mulberry St. The new 12,350 sq. foot museum space will occupy the ground floor and basement of 147-150 Lafayette St., a former industrial machine repair shop. The building, between Chinatown and Noho, also has an entrance on 211-215 Centre St. The other tenants in the seven-floor building include a garment manufacturer, a photographer and investment professionals.

The new museum, to be tentatively opened in late 2006, will include expanded exhibition galleries, a community tearoom and a multi-purpose room for lectures, meetings and school programs, as well as a proper museum shop. In its current location, the shop occupies one bookshelf. The new museum will also be senior and wheelchair accessible, important for the many elderly people who come to contribute their oral histories and struggle with the stairs in the current facility. The owners will keep the current museum space for the extensive archives and library, used by historians, educators and students.

“We are so excited to be working with Maya Lin to create a new vernacular of what it means to be Chinese-American,” said Lee. Maya Lin, most famous for designing the Vietnam War Memorial in Washington D.C., also recently sat on the jury for the World Trade Center memorial.

Lin was not available for comment because she was in transit to London, but she did say in a prepared statement that the initial design discussions have been “engaging and stimulating” and: “I think MoCA is taking a great step not just into a new space but into a new place for the organization itself and I am proud to be a part of it.”

Lai said Lin is looking to avoid the “stereotypical” Chinese pagoda design common in Chinatown and that she is so enthusiastic to work on the new MoCA museum that she has cancelled a few other projects in order to do so. He said she is the “best match possible” for the project given her professional expertise and her own Chinese-American heritage.

The new museum will allow MoCA to expand its mission to “turn stereotypes on their head,” said board member Betty Ming Liu. “This space will tell universal American stories through one particular community.”

MoCA has been a pioneer in creating interactive exhibitions and programs that encourage historians, students and every day people to discuss cultural stereotypes of Chinese-Americans and other immigrants, said Lee. Many take these stereotypes for granted, but they impact the daily lives of those being stereotyped, she said. Currently 16,000 visitors come per year and MoCA expects the number of visitors will triple by 2009.

The expansion will cost at least $6.5 million, 65 percent of which has already been raised. Two million has been donated by the city ($1 million from the mayor’s office and $1 million from the City Council). The other $2 million came in private donations. MoCA also hosted a benefit dinner on Sept. 28th to celebrate its 25th anniversary and the new expansion plans. Lai hopes the Lower Manhattan Development Corporation and the September 11th Fund, among others, will help them find the remaining $2.5 million they need. He is also considering raising the museum’s $3 admission cost, he said.

Lai has wanted to expand the museum since it opened in 1980. But it has taken a quarter century to accumulate adequate funds, to develop a base of substantive, exciting programs and to nurture the external support of the Chinatown community and New York.

In March 2004, the L.M.D.C. began a study to create an independent cultural center in Chinatown, what Councilmember Alan Gerson dubbed would be “the Lincoln Center of Chinatown.” 147-150 Lafayette was not one of the eight potential sights identified at that time.

The larger project ran across funding obstacles, Lai explained. People kept asking, “You have four classrooms, and now you want to build a $34 million dollar building?” An independent building was not financially feasible, he said.

With the new lease signed for 147-150 Lafayette St., MoCA hopes to start renovations as soon as possible. Their late 2006 opening goal may be ambitious considering Lin is still developing the plans for the space.

Even if it takes time, Lai, Lee and the other MoCA staff and supporters are thrilled to be part of the larger city effort to help strengthen the cultural fabric of Downtown. “The essence of our museum is an immigrant story-telling facility,” said Lai.

Lee is excited that MoCA will soon reach out to even more schoolchildren and visitors. Chinese-American history was not a subject taught when she was in elementary school and high school. “But in order to understand what it means to mean American we need to know all of our histories,” she said.

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