Learn About the Museum of Chinese in America

American museums house some of the world’s best art collections and some of the biggest assemblages of works. While the beloved National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York are must-see cultural institutions, there are more museums to discover across the country.

The Museum of Chinese in America, one of the foremost facilities of its kind in the United States, offers exhibitions, Chinatown walking tours, a slide show, and an extensive reference library and archive about the history of Chinese-Americans. Continue reading to learn more about this museum and its exhibits.

What Is the Museum of Chinese in America?

The Museum of Chinese in America’s a Chinese American history museum in New York City. It’s a 501(c)(3) non-profit cultural and educational institution that exhibits and provides educational services. It hosts public programs to present Chinese Americans’ living history, culture, heritage, and varied experiences.

A fire in January 2020 damaged or destroyed much of its collection. The museum reopened to the general populace on July 15, 2021, after being closed for over a year due to the fire.

History

Founded in 1980 in Manhattan’s Chinatown by historian John Kuo Wei Tchen and activist and community resident Charles Lai to promote the understanding of the Chinese American experience and address the concern that experiences and memories of aging older generations could very well perish without oral history, research, photo documentation, and collecting efforts, the museum started as the New York Chinatown History Project. Fay Chew Matsuda was the museum’s director from 1997 to 2006.

The museum received a portion of a $20 million grant in 2005 from the Carnegie Corporation, made possible by a donation from then-New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg.

In 2009, the museum relocated to 215 Centre Street. Maya Lin designed the space six times larger than the previous location. Matter Practice designed the permanent exhibition, With a Single Step, and Herb Tam became director and curator of exhibitions in May 2011.

The museum’s gift shop reopened in 2019 with a new partner, Pearl River Mart, an Asian American retail brand. The Pearl River MOCA Shop is a curated collection of objects that hold great significance in Chinese American culture.

A fire damaged the property at 70 Mulberry Street, where they housed the museum’s collection, in January 2020, with approximately 85,000 items plausibly affected by water damage. While it was initially thought that nearly all of them were lost, a significant portion was determined to be very salvageable several days later.

Before the fire, approximately 35,000 items were digitized and backed up. Disaster-relief specialists worked to avoid mold growth and preserve structure on much of the collection.

Collections

MOCA’s Collections and Research Center housed over 85,000 artifacts, memorabilia, photos, oral histories, documents, and works of art as of early 2020. The collection spans 160 years and includes items such as family photographs, boat tickets, historical Chinese restaurant menus, and wedding gowns.

Research Center

The museum’s former gallery space at 70 Mulberry Street is now an archival and research center. Web-based formats of gallery exhibitions and Chinese American history’s interactive timeline are among the applications available at the Research Center.

The Center also has information on topics such as diversity and immigration. In 2020, a fire damaged the Research Center.

Special Collections

Among the special collections are:

Recovering Chinatown

The museum’s 9/11 Collection includes images, videos, oral histories, brochures, posters, reports, books, T-shirts, scrapbooks, and other artworks the museum started collecting shortly after the September 11, 2001, attacks in Chinatown. Other than MOCA, you can also visit the 9/11 Memorial and Museum for more collections from the tragedy.

Fly to Freedom Collection

The Fly to Freedom Collection at MOCA includes 173 paper sculptures made by passengers on the ship Golden Venture when it ran aground on June 6, 1993. Many of the nearly 300 passengers, the majority of whom were illegal Chinese immigrants, the US Immigration and Naturalization Service detained for up to four years. Detainees made sculptures to give to pro-bono lawyers who took their cases and later passed the time while incarcerated.

Oral History Collection

MOCA conducted around 350 interviews for its seven oral history collections. Between 1980 and 2013, the project documented memories and narratives about the Chinese American experience.

Marcella Dear Collection

The Marcella Chin Dear collection, donated by an area resident and longtime museum supporter in 2006, includes dozens of textiles, numerous boxes of old records, hundreds of imported books, posters, instruments, game sets, letters and family photographs, ceramics, store signs, furniture, and tools from the family’s businesses and home. For five generations, the Chin family had lived in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

Qipao/Cheongsam Collection

Pamela Chen donated MOCA’s first qipao/cheongsam collection, which includes 77 Chinese dresses custom-tailored in the 30s and 40s and once owned by Phoebe Shou-Heng Chen (1917–1993), her mother. Angela King and her sister Fern Tse donated 367 family dresses for MOCA’s second qipao/cheongsam collection. Angela King’s mom was a fashion designer involved in designing her dresses, typically ordering specific specifications from China. In 2012, MOCA gave 262 pieces from the collection to the New York Chinese Cultural Center.

Hazel Ying Lee Collection

The collection depicts Hazel Ying Lee’s experience as a Chinese American woman aviator during the 1930s and 1940s through primary artifacts such as family letters, original personal photographs, newspaper articles, documents, and memorabilia. Frances M. Tong, Hazel’s sister, and filmmaker Alan H. Rosenberg gave it to the museum.

CMTA Collection

The Chinese Musical and Theatrical Association (CMTA) collection includes 21 stage props, 26 intricate opera costumes, 20 pairs of shoes, 24 rare musical instruments, 20 hats, six shawls, 41 fabric samples, and numerous related documents. From the 30s to the present, these items depict Cantonese opera clubs in North America’s Chinatowns. These items also show how Chinese immigrants tailored opera to modern settings and how opera clubs had become culturally significant to immigrants.

The Museum of Chinese in America will undergo a major renovation to better document an often-overlooked aspect of American history. Museums frequently focus on the past, but the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown aims to shape the future. A massive expansion is planned to combat cultural ignorance by boosting a long-ignored history.

A new cutting-edge headquarters set to open in 2025 hopes to start educating 300,000 visitors annually. It will house centuries of history and include a genealogy center, a theater, and an exhibition space. A Chinese corporal who once served in the Civil War is one of those depicted.

The new building will increase the museum’s footprint from 12,000 to more than 68,000 square feet—a puzzle representing the journey of numerous Chinese American immigrants in their search for their place in America, which is finally being learned and told on a larger scale.