The Stories Lost in the Museum of Chinese in America Fire

We tend to think of museums as holding the rare, the valuable, the precious. But MOCA was formed to tell the stories no one else thought were worth telling

70 Mulberry Street, Manhattan, destroyed by fire, January 2020. Courtesy: EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images

70 Mulberry Street, Manhattan, destroyed by fire, January 2020. Courtesy: EuropaNewswire/Gado/Getty Images

I have, at home in my closet, an old green trunk. The corners are reinforced with metal held on by grommets, a few of which are missing. A yellowed, peeling paper covers the interior. A small label, also peeling, says that the trunk has been ‘vulcanized’. The only thing that identifies it as anything other than anonymous, and the only reason I’ve held onto it over the years, is a small paper tag that says it was salvaged from a ‘bachelor’s apartment’ on Mott Street in New York’s Chinatown.

Almost ten years ago, when I was assistant curator at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in New York, the museum needed to close its off-site storage in Brooklyn and de-accession some redundant or cumbersome objects. Yue Ma, the collections manager, offered a few pieces to staffers and, in the case of some old magazines, to members of the community. I took the trunk home. It’s bulky and I’ve never used it for anything except storage, yet I’ve carried it through two house moves. I’ve often wondered whether it’s time to let it go, whether it’s even important.

MOCA’s Collections and Archives. Courtesy: MOCA; photograph: Jing Zhao

MOCA’s Collections and Archives. Courtesy: MOCA; photograph: Jing Zhao

That question was answered for me last week when a fire consumed the upper floors of 70 Mulberry Street in Chinatown, the former P.S. 23 school building where MOCA houses the 80,000 or so objects in its collection. The extent of the damage is still being determined. People initially feared that the fire had wiped out the collection, but at least a third has been salvaged by staff and volunteers.

It’s a bitter reminder that precarity has always marked the collection. MOCA was founded in 1980, just as Chinatown’s ‘bachelor society’ was coming to an end. The thousands of mostly male, unmarried Chinese workers – who had been unable to bring their families to the US because of exclusionary laws and unable to start them here because of the gender imbalance and anti-miscegenation laws – were now elderly, living alone in tenement buildings and dying.

MOCA’s Collections and Archives. Courtesy: MOCA; photograph: Jing Zhao

MOCA’s Collections and Archives. Courtesy: MOCA; photograph: Jing Zhao

At around the same time, the Asian American Movement was sweeping through the nation: an artistic and political renaissance that forged a radical new relationship to identity. Young activists Charles Lai and John Kuo Wei Tchen noticed trunks like mine left on the streets, often filled with people’s treasured possessions: wooden combs and ivory picks, Cantonese opera costumes and instruments, family photographs and political newspapers. They saw a community, an entire generation of Chinese Americans, on the verge of vanishing.

Their initial idea was to temporarily house these vital objects: to collect and donate them to a historical society or a museum that could care for them properly. But each time they approached an institution, they were rejected. So, with a little grant money and a lot of volunteer help, they started the New York Chinatown History Project: an organization that morphed over the years into the Museum of Chinese in America.

MOCA’s Collections and Archives. Courtesy: MOCA; photograph: Jing Zhao

MOCA’s Collections and Archives. Courtesy: MOCA; photograph: Jing Zhao

At the time I started working at MOCA, I knew none of this history – of the activism that defined 1970s Chinatown, of the bachelor societies, of anti-Chinese legislation. And yet, I knew it. What MOCA gave me was not so much new information as a way to articulate what I’d felt my entire life. My family came from Guangdong six generations ago, something that always shocked people, and that I wore as an odd curiosity. But it is only shocking because the Chinese Exclusion Act made six generations of family continuity nearly impossible, created those bachelor societies and effectively exterminated many Chinese communities – its intended effect.

I approached my job at MOCA with a hunger. I wanted to know all these histories, because each thing I learned brought me closer to myself, made me legible. I scoured the collections, spending hours in those musty former classrooms at 70 Mulberry, under the vaulted, tin-stamped ceilings, digging through box after box. That was where I first encountered Yellow Pearl, the collective art, music and poetry folios that were a landmark of the Asian American movement; where I leafed through the photographs of Paul Calhoun and Bud Glick, two photographers hired by MOCA in the 1980s to document the fading bachelor society; where I saw a red, hand-painted sign for a ‘Chinese Laundry’ that was almost certainly the source for Martin Wong’s painting Chinese Laundry (1984); where I read an early issue of Chinese American, the first bi-lingual Chinese newspaper on the East Coast, published by the activist Wong Chin Foo in the 1880s, which helped coin this very identity. And there was so much more that I loved: old typewriters, Hong Kong posters for Wong Kar-Wai movies, signs for lawyers and restaurants in Chinatown that had closed, and a dim sum cart. It’s unbearable to think how many of those objects are now lost.

MOCA recovery work. Courtesy: MOCA; photograph: Edward Cheng

MOCA recovery work. Courtesy: MOCA; photograph: Edward Cheng

I have a deep urge to return the trunk to MOCA, if and when they are ready to receive it. Now I understand that I couldn’t get rid of the trunk because it was unthinkable to leave it on the street, to see it discarded for a second time. As it transpires, I was merely holding it, acting as a repository until it was needed.

There is nothing special about that green trunk – that’s exactly why it needed to be saved. We tend to think of museums as holding the rare, the valuable, the precious. But MOCA was formed to tell the stories no one else thought were worth telling, of people who themselves were discarded by America when they weren’t of use. What could be more radical than to insist the real treasures belonged to people who immigrated to cook and sew garments, who missed home and gambled and sang in the park on weekends, and who, if we hold onto the traces of their lives, might share with us their stories?

Ryan Lee Wong writes, teaches, and organizes exhibitions on Asian American politics and culture. He has served as a Visiting Scholar at the A/P/A Institute at NYU, a Visiting Critic at RISD, and Assistant Curator at the Museum of Chinese in America. He holds an MFA from Rutgers-Newark, and serves on the board of the Jerome Foundation.

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