News / USA

Museum of Chinese in America Shows a Little-Known History

A mid-century postcard for tourists to New York City's Chinatown
A mid-century postcard for tourists to New York City's Chinatown

Multimedia

Like other non-white ethnic groups from outside northern Europe and the British Isles, Chinese immigrants to America faced prejudice and exclusion for many years.  In 1980, the New York Chinatown History Project was founded to collect documents, photographs and other materials telling their story. That was the beginning of the Museum of Chinese in America, which re-opened last fall at a larger site in Chinatown in downtown Manhattan.

The atrium at the center of the new Museum of Chinese in America, designed by Maya Lin
The atrium at the center of the new Museum of Chinese in America, designed by Maya Lin

Designed by Chinese American architect Maya Lin, the new museum is built around a sky-lit, brick-walled atrium that’s meant to evoke the central courtyards of old buildings in China. Another room recreates a traditional Chinese apothecary, the kind found in Chinatowns the world over.

The lead exhibit, “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America,” tells a history little-known either abroad or in the U.S., where only one-percent of the population is of Chinese ancestry.

In the 1700s, a handful of Chinese sailors on trading ships were the first Chinese visitors to America. But beginning in the 1840s, a flood of Chinese laborers arrived to help build the cross-country railroad, starting from California.

“We all know about the Chinese coming and building the railway from the West Coast, the European workers, the Irish, building the railway from the East Coast, and meeting in Promontory Point, Utah,” Museum director S. Alice Mong said in an interview. “But even before that, the Chinese were coming here to mine.”

That was during the Gold Rush, when prospectors found gold in the hills and streams of the western U.S. and Canada. Poor Chinese men, drawn by the lure of what they called “Gold Mountain,” the Chinese term for California in those days, arrived in San Francisco and headed as far northwest as Alaska and British Columbia.

But once the Gold Rush was over and the railway built, the laborers were no longer welcome.  A new labor movement, backed by racist political groups, rallied - and sometimes rioted - against the immigrants who were seen as taking American jobs.  The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 was the only U.S. law ever to block immigration and naturalization on the basis of national origin.

At the time, says S. Alice Mong, “There was an economic recession in the United States, and the Chinese were asked to go home: 'You've helped us build the railway, now go home.' Unfortunately with many of these workers, there was no home to go to. And they could not bring their families, because they were not citizens. So, that's kind of the genesis of Chinatown throughout the United States, [in] San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York. They became ghettos.”

Racism and anti-miscegenation laws meant that Chinese immigrants could not blend in gradually, as the Irish and Italian immigrants began to do.  And as Mong notes, there were few ways to make a living, other than working as a servant: "Laundry and restaurants.”

Artifacts from a typical Chinese American 'hand laundry'
Artifacts from a typical Chinese American 'hand laundry'

Hand laundries provided some independence for their owners, but it was hard, dirty work.  The museum displays a typical iron, weighing nearly four kilograms, for pressing wrinkles out of clothing. Workers lifted them hundreds of times a day.

Chinese restaurants, some with "real" Chinese food and others with bland, Americanized dishes for white visitors, were another path to independence.

Popular culture portrayed Asians as mysterious, sneaky and possibly dangerous, or as comical. Hollywood's racial codes forbade Anna May Wong, the first Chinese-American movie star, from kissing a white actor.  The American-born daughter of a laundry-owner, Wong was limited to racially stereotyped roles, such as a cruel “dragon lady,” or submissive Oriental “butterfly.”

S. Alice Mong says, “She died a broken woman because she never really found acceptance by America, her home. And ironically she had a chance to go back to China in the 30s, and she also didn't find acceptance there, because the Chinese in mainland, found her role, which she could not choose, to be kind of degrading.”

Laws against immigration and mixed marriages began to ease during World War II, when China was a U.S. ally.  But the advent of communism in China in 1949 led to new suspicions of Chinese-Americans, and especially in the early years of the Cold War, the Federal Bureau of Investigation compiled files on many innocent citizens.

Visitors like 14-year-old Maciej Buko of Florida say the museum reveals an unfamiliar history.

“Most children know about the African-American segregation, and the Jim Crow laws, but no one really hears about Chinese-American segregation, or the propaganda that was against them,” he said.

Race discrimination in jobs, housing and education and housing segregation remained commonplace throughout the United States in the 1950s. S. Alice Mong notes that even Asian Americans with advanced degrees couldn’t always find jobs in their field.  Not until the civil rights movement of the 1960s, and the equal opportunity court cases and laws that followed, did racial barriers begin to fall.

Since then, Chinese-Americans have become prominent in every field, from the arts to science, government and athletics. Capsule biographies arrayed along the walls tell their stories, too.

“Nobel-winning scientists like Steven Chu, Secretary of Energy, people like Yoyo Ma, I.M. Pei.,” Mong says. “Vera Wang, Anna Sui, Michelle Kwan. So, we're seeing these Chinese Americans really making great strides."

She says the museum now aims to become the national museum of Chinese in America, drawing visitors from around the U.S. and abroad. Online, it sponsors the Chinatown Film Project, where people from all around the world are invited to submit films about their own Chinatowns.

You May Like

Beloved Lion Killing Sparks Virtual, Real Life Outrage

Twitter, as usual, was epicenter for anger directed at Palmer, with some questioning his manhood, calling for him to be released into the wild More

Video Booming London Property Market a Haven for Dirty Money

Billions of dollars from proceeds of crime, especially from Russia, being laundered through London property market, according to anti-corruption activists More

Video Scouts' Decision on Gays Meets Acceptance in Founder's Hometown

One former Scout leader thinks organization will move past political, social debate, get back to its primary focus of turning boys into good citizens More

This forum has been closed.
Comments
     
There are no comments in this forum. Be first and add one

Featured Videos

Your JavaScript is turned off or you have an old version of Adobe's Flash Player. Get the latest Flash player.
Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’i
X
July 29, 2015 9:34 PM
Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Booming London Property a ‘Haven for Dirty Money’

Billions of dollars of so-called ‘dirty money’ from the proceeds of crime - especially from Russia - are being laundered through the London property market, according to anti-corruption activists. As Henry Ridgwell reports from the British capital, the government has pledged to crack down on the practice.
Video

Video Hometown of Boy Scouts of America Founder reacts to Gay Leader Decision

Ottawa, Illinois, is the hometown of W.D. Boyce, who founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910. In Ottawa, where Scouting remains an important part of the legacy of the community, the end of the organization's ban on openly gay adult leaders was seen as inevitable. VOA's Kane Farabaugh reports.
Video

Video 'Metal Muscles' Flex a New Bionic Hand

Artificial limbs, including the most complex of them – the human hand – are getting more life-like and useful due to constant advances in tiny hydraulic, pneumatic and electric motors called actuators. But now, as VOA’s George Putic reports, scientists in Germany say the future of the prosthetic hand may lie not in motors but in wires that can ‘remember’ their shape.
Video

Video Russia Accused of Abusing Interpol to Pursue Opponents

A British pro-democracy group has accused Russia of abusing the global law enforcement agency Interpol by requesting the arrest and extradition of political opponents. A new report by the group notes such requests can mean the accused are unable to travel and are often unable to open bank accounts. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video 'Positive Atmosphere' Points Toward TPP Trade Deal in Hawaii

Talks on a major new trade agreement among 12 Pacific Rim nations are said to be nearing completion in Hawaii. Some trade experts say the "positive atmosphere" at the discussions could mean a deal is within reach, but there is still hard bargaining to be done over many issues and products, including U.S. drugs and Japanese rice. VOA's Jim Randle reports.
Video

Video Genome Initiative Urgently Moves to Freeze DNA Before Species Go Extinct

Earth is in the midst of its sixth mass extinction. The last such event was caused by an asteroid 66 million years ago. It killed off the dinosaurs and practically everything else. So scientists are in a race against time to classify the estimated 11 million species alive today. So far only 2 million are described by science, and researchers are worried many will disappear before they even have a name. VOA’s Rosanne Skirble reports.
Video

Video Scientists: One-Dose Malaria Cure is Possible

Scientists have long been trying to develop an effective protection and cure for malaria - one of the deadliest diseases that affects people in tropical areas, especially children. As the World Health Organization announces plans to begin clinical trials of a promising new vaccine, scientists in South Africa report that they too are at an important threshold. George Putic reports, they are testing a compound that could be a single-dose cure for malaria.
Video

Video 'New York' Magazine Features 35 Cosby Accusers

The latest issue of 'New York' magazine features 35 women who say they were drugged and raped by film and television celebrity Bill Cosby. The women are aged from 44 to 80 and come from different walks of life and races. The magazine interviewed each of them separately, but Zlatica Hoke reports their stories are similar.
Video

Video US Calls Fight Against Human Trafficking a Must Win

The United States is promising not to give up its fight against what Secretary of State John Kerry calls the “scourge” of modern slavery. Officials released the country’s annual human trafficking report Monday – a report that’s being met with some criticism. VOA’s National Security correspondent Jeff Seldin has more from the State Department.
Video

Video Washington DC Underground Streetcar Station to Become Arts Venue

Abandoned more than 50 years ago, the underground streetcar station in Washington D.C.’s historic DuPont Circle district is about to be reborn. The plan calls for turning the spacious underground platforms - once meant to be a transportation hub, - into a unique space for art exhibitions, presentations, concerts and even a film set. Roman Mamonov has more from beneath the streets of the U.S. capital. Joy Wagner narrates his report.
Video

Video Europe’s Twin Crises Collide in Greece as Migrant Numbers Soar

Greece has replaced Italy as the main gateway for migrants into Europe, with more than 100,000 arrivals in the first six months of 2015. Many want to move further into Europe and escape Greece’s economic crisis, but they face widespread dangers on the journey overland through the Balkans. VOA's Henry Ridgwell reports.
Video

Video Stink Intensifies as Lebanon’s Trash Crisis Continues

After the closure of a major rubbish dump a week ago, the streets of Beirut are filling up with trash. Having failed to draw up a plan B, politicians are struggling to deal with the problem. John Owens has more for VOA from Beirut.
Video

Video Paris Rolls Out Blueprint to Fight Climate Change

A U.N. climate conference in December aims to produce an ambitious agreement to fight heat-trapping greenhouse gases. But many local governments are not waiting, and have drafted their own climate action plans. That’s the case with Paris — which is getting special attention, since it’s hosting the climate summit. Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at the transformation of the French capital into an eco-city.
Video

Video Racially Diverse Spider-Man Takes Center Stage

Whether it’s in a comic book or on the big screen, fans have always known the man behind the Spider-Man mask as Peter Parker. But that is changing, at least in the comic book world. Marvel Comics announced that a character called Miles Morales will replace Peter Parker as Spider-Man in a new comic book series. He is half Latino, half African American, and he is quite popular among comic book fans. Correspondent Elizabeth Lee reports from Los Angeles.
Video

Video Historic Symbol Is Theme of Vibrant New Show

A new exhibit in Washington is paying tribute to the American flag with a wide and eclectic selection of artwork that uses the historic symbol as its central theme. VOA’s Julie Taboh was at the DC Chamber of Commerce for the show’s opening.

VOA Blogs