A poignant exhibit at MOCA in Chinatown at 215 Centre Street describes the brutal experience of Chinese immigrants in America.
Alex Ho, our Educator, spoke with empathy and passion about Chinese American history. He is living proof of the complexity and diversity of the Chinese American experience. As a second generation Taiwanese American, he did not grow up knowing the history the museum presents.
Separate rooms tell immigrant stories at different points in time. The exhibit, WITH A SINGLE STEP, comes from an old Chinese saying, “The journey of a thousand miles starts with a single step.”
By the mid-1800s, there was mass emigration from mainland China, due to wars, starvation and political corruption. Illiterate manual laborers were lured to America by the Gold Rush and the building of the Transcontinental Railroad. It was backbreaking work – they literally moved mountains and got paid next to nothing.
In 1869, the railroad was completed. While the railroad barons made fortunes, they left their workers jobless and homeless. Americans saw them as a threat to their own employment and so began the period of resentment toward Chinese workers. Posters popped up everywhere: SHALL WE HAVE CHINESE? NO! NO! NO!
Chop suey and chow mein restaurants started as early as the 1900s and some restaurateurs actually become millionaires. In the 1920s and 30s, there was another mass exodus because of the Japanese occupation of China.
An entire room is devoted to the laundry business! Despite long hours and grueling work, the Chinese could be their own bosses, work with their families, and enjoy success.
But media images could be cruel. Paintings and posters often portrayed the Chinese as menacing, greedy brutes, with excessively long nails and evil faces.
With World War II (Chinese Americans were part of our troops) through the Civil Rights movement, hostility toward the Chinese began to wane. Today Chinese Americans are among our nation’s top students and business entrepreneurs.
As counterpoint to the sobering immigration history, the museum has many joyful exhibits. Children will especially love a health exhibit’s giant mouth whose teeth can be flossed!
And Alex can rest assured we walked away from MOCA feeling the depth of its humanism and compassion.
To learn more, visit mocanyc.org or call 855-955- MOCA.