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

    Former US Envoys Urge Obama to Delay Troop Cuts in Afghanistan

    Keeping troop levels up during conflict with both Taliban and Islamic State is necessary to support Kabul government, they say

    First Lady to Visit Africa to Promote Girls' Education

    Michele Obama will be joined by daughters and actresses Meryl Streep and Freida Pinto

    Video NYSE Analyst: Brexit Will Continue to Place Pressure on Markets

    Despite orderly pricing and execution strategy at the New York Stock Exchange, analyst explains added pressure on world financial markets is likely

    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.
    Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territoryi
    X
    June 24, 2016 9:38 PM
    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Brexit Vote Plunges Global Markets Into Uncharted Territory

    British voters plunged global markets into unknown territory after they voted Thursday to leave the European Union. The results of the Brexit vote, the term coined to describe the referendum, caught many off guard. Analysts say the resulting volatility could last for weeks, perhaps longer. Mil Arcega reports.
    Video

    Video Orlando Shooting Changes Debate on Gun Control

    It’s been nearly two weeks since the largest mass shooting ever in the United States. Despite public calls for tighter gun control laws, Congress is at an impasse. Democratic lawmakers resorted to a 1960s civil rights tactic to portray their frustration. VOA’s Carolyn Presutti explains how the Orlando, Florida shooting is changing the debate.
    Video

    Video Tunisian Fishing Town Searches for Jobs, Local Development Solutions

    As the European Union tries to come to grips with its migrant crisis, some newcomers are leaving voluntarily. But those returning to their home countries face an uncertain future.  Five years after Tunisia's revolution, the tiny North African country is struggling with unrest, soaring unemployment and plummeting growth. From the southern Tunisian fishing town of Zarzis, Lisa Bryant takes a look for VOA at a search for local solutions.
    Video

    Video 'American Troops' in Russia Despite Tensions

    Historic battle re-enactment is a niche hobby with a fair number of adherents in Russia where past military victories are played-up by the Kremlin as a show of national strength. But, one group of World War II re-enactors in Moscow has the rare distinction of choosing to play western ally troops. VOA's Daniel Schearf explains.
    Video

    Video Experts: Very Few Killed in US Gun Violence Are Victims of Mass Shootings

    The deadly shooting at a Florida nightclub has reignited the debate in the U.S. over gun control. Although Congress doesn't provide government health agencies funds to study gun violence, public health experts say private research has helped them learn some things about the issue. VOA's Carol Pearson reports.
    Video

    Video Trump Unleashes Broadside Against Clinton to Try to Ease GOP Doubts

    Recent public opinion polls show Republican Donald Trump slipping behind Democrat Hillary Clinton in the presidential election matchup for November. Trump trails her both in fundraising and campaign organization, but he's intensifying his attacks on the former secretary of state. VOA National Correspondent Jim Malone reports.
    Video

    Video Muslim American Mayor Calls for Tolerance

    Syrian-born Mohamed Khairullah describes himself as "an American mayor who happens to be Muslim." As the three-term mayor of Prospect Park, New Jersey, he believes his town of 6,000 is an example of how ethnicity and religious beliefs should not determine a community's leadership. Ramon Taylor has this report from Prospect Park.
    Video

    Video Internal Rifts Over Syria Policy Could Be Headache for Next US President

    With the Obama administration showing little outward enthusiasm for adopting a more robust Syria policy, there is a strong likelihood that the internal discontent expressed by State Department employees will roll over to the next administration. VOA State Department correspondent Pam Dockins reports.
    Video

    Video Senegal to Park Colorful ‘Cars Rapide’ Permanently

    Brightly painted cars rapide are a hallmark of Dakar, offering residents a cheap way to get around the capital city since 1976. But the privately owned minibuses are scheduled to be parked for good in late 2018, as Ricci Shryock reports for VOA.
    Video

    Video Florida Gets $1 Million in Emergency Government Funding for Orlando

    The U.S. government has granted $1 million in emergency funding to the state of Florida to cover the costs linked to the June 12 massacre in Orlando. U.S. Attorney General Loretta Lynch announced the grant Tuesday in Orlando, where she met with survivors of the shooting attack that killed 49 people. Zlatica Hoke reports.
    Video

    Video How to Print Impossible Shapes with Metal

    3-D printing with metals is rapidly becoming more advanced. As printers become more affordable, the industry is partnering with universities to refine processes for manufacturing previously impossible things. A new 3-D printing lab aims to bring the new technology closer to everyday use. VOA's George Putic reports.
    Video

    Video Big Somali Community in Minnesota Observes Muslim Religious Feast

    Ramadan is widely observed in the north central US state of Minnesota, which a large Muslim community calls home. VOA Somali service reporter Mohmud Masadde files this report from Minneapolis, the state's biggest city.

    Special Report

    Adrift The Invisible African Diaspora