A Trip through My History: Why Asian American Cultural Institutions are Important

Written by Isabelle St. Clair.

Growing up in New York City, I was fortunate enough to be exposed to a myriad of museums at a young age. The Metropolitan Museum, the Museum of Natural History, and the Brooklyn Museum were frequent school field trip destinations. Visits to the Children’s Museum of Manhattan and the American Museum of Natural History were rainy day weekend pastimes. The New York Transit Museum and the Museum of the City of New York were go-to places for visiting friends and family. I didn’t have to go far to learn about art, culture, and history. And I loved it. But something was missing.

Most of the institutions I visited had few or no works by Asian Americans or about their history in the United States; they featured works—not surprisingly—by white men and a few white women. Although there were works by Asian artists displayed at the MET and collections of Asian artifacts at the American Museum of Natural History, they were inadequate in telling me about a whole history and culture of people I identify with.

I visited the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) for the first time this summer and have since gone back four times, each with a different friend or family member. I had not realized how important such a cultural institution was until I actually went inside and wandered through its galleries. Why I had put off visiting it remains a mystery to me. Now that I know about it, it seems like it has always been on par with the other museums just a few miles away.  

A wall of Chinese immigration documents

A wall of Chinese immigration documents

Within MOCA’s small space is a wealth of information about the Chinese American experience. The museum’s main exhibit, titled A Single Step: Stories in the Making of America and one display from 2009 to 2020, is organized chronologically and thematically. Each room houses a different era and each era adds a layer to our history.

Part of the exhibit on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

Part of the exhibit on the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882

The exhibit begins with the first Chinese immigrants in the United States, documenting the roles Chinese workers played in the Western expansionism and industrialization. The next room features, almost exclusively, the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and its impact on Chinese American communities. The following rooms look at the rise of Chinatowns, the propagation of “Yellowface,” and the creation of Chinese-American community spaces. The last rooms present the impacts of World War II and the social movements throughout the 1960s and 1970s on Chinese-American communities. Though the walk through the gallery is not very long, the walk through history is heavy and never-ending.

Speakers hang above different parts of the exhibit. One can listen to different, recorded accounts of Chinese Americans and their stories.

Speakers hang above different parts of the exhibit. One can listen to different, recorded accounts of Chinese Americans and their stories.

My walk through time, however, was not focused solely on the past. The exhibit on “yellowface” focused mostly on the movies from the 1950s and 1960s, but it hardly seemed outdated. The practice of whitewashing East Asian and Asian American characters continues to happen today. It was disheartening to say the least, but by the end of the tour I no longer felt this way. In the following exhibits, MOCA beautifully captures the activism and the resistance by Asian American leaders to combat racism and discrimination. While change was, and still is, slow, it left me feeling hopeful that Asian American history is on a course towards equality and justice.

At times I tried to visit the gallery with a goal in mind, trying to digest the information in bits rather than in gulps. On one visit I tried to only focus on the voting rights of Chinese Americans, out of curiosity, but quickly realized that voting rights is not a solitary issue. Each piece of the exhibit, each strand of the story, contributed to my understanding of voting rights. Though I was impressed to learn that Clara Elizabeth Chan Lee (b. 1886) was one of the first Chinese American women to vote, a detail I may have overlooked had I not sought out that issue. Each work in the space has its purpose: to explore a piece of Asian American history that has been largely overlooked.

Pictures and pieces featuring the first Chinese American community organizations

Pictures and pieces featuring the first Chinese American community organizations

For me, walking through the space is always hard. It’s hard to learn about histories that I should have been taught in middle school or high school. It’s hard to unlearn a lot of the misconceptions middle school and high school fed me about Chinese American history. But by the end, by the time I reached the present day, I knew that I was on the right path to exploring and figuring out my place within the United States. And there was no doubt I was proud that the people who came before me had and will continue to have such a rich history.

Though I won’t implore all of you to visit MOCA, I do think it is important to reflect on the types of cultural institutions we visit. The Metropolitan Museum of Art is always fantastic with its Monet’s and Degas’, but it does not always give space to artists that we can all identify with. Only museums like MOCA can acknowledge and remember the stories we may not want to hear, but need to.

The entrance to the Museum of Chinese in America, located in NYC’s Chinatown

The entrance to the Museum of Chinese in America, located in NYC’s Chinatown