The Museum of Chinese in America sits on a quiet stretch of Centre St. fringing Soho and Chinatown, and initially I mistake its glossy front for another boutique, except the two nattering men in uniform outside seem incongruous on an empty street. “Is this the…?” I’m still confused by the museum’s name at this point, but they make welcoming noises and I duck inside, still flustered.
The museum had been recently redesigned by the architect Maya Lin, who lined the walls and floors with dark wood to make the interior feel intimate and historical, like an old house. Passing the lobby, you enter into a room with a time line mounted on the wall that winds through the museum, highlighting the more important developments in Chinese-American history to act as a narrative backbone the visitor follows, from which spring curious objects, including a book for make-up artists on how to apply proper yellowface (like blackface, but you know, with taped eyelids), and a toy gun in which the pressed trigger activates the figurine of a European man to pull a the queue of a “Chinaman” and kick him from behind, popping the toy bullet from his mouth. In the next room, a neon sign advertising chop suey glows red above photographs taken by the German émigré Arnold Goenthe, who took street photos of the area but doctored out European-Americans to heighten “exotic pictorial affect.”
The time line eventually leads to another room detailing the change in attitude come World War II, reversed in reaction to Mao’s ascension, and then flipped again around the introduction of the term “model minority.” Tables in the middle of the last room contained more artifacts, among them a documentary clip about Long Tack Sam, a forgotten vaudeville magician who worked with Cary Grant and Orson Welles, and portraits from the Hapa Project (hapa is slang for those of mixed race with Asian or Pacific Islander roots). Under a boy’s photo: “I am part Chinese and part Danish. I don’t usually tell people I am Danish though, because they think I’m a pastry.”
I left the museum surprised by what it contained, and disappointed by my own inability to recognize history not celebrated in popular imagination. In showing once mundane items we now deem absurd (I’m still hung up over that pop gun), the museum insists on the importance of inheritance in building a modern identity, and I am grateful for its reminder.
Livia Huang, CC ’12