Immigration and Art at the Museum of Chinese in America

The plight of undocumented immigrants has been in the news a lot recently, and there’s been much concern about the future of immigration in the United States. This issue particularly hits home for New Yorkers, who have tremendous pride in their city’s identity as a refuge for immigrants. Today, New York City’s population is approximately 8.5 million, and more than 35% of that is foreign-born. That diversity adds to the city’s rich cultural fabric, and gives us much to celebrate. It’s also a difficult time, as we see the worry of our immigrant neighbors in tough political times.

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), located in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, has taken a subtle but powerful approach to the issues specifically faced by undocumented immigrants during these trying times. In October, MOCA opened a new exhibition titled FOLD: Golden Venture Paper Sculptures. The art in FOLD was created by undocumented Chinese immigrants who were arrested when the ship they were on, the Golden Venture, ran aground near the Rockaways region of the borough of Queens in 1993. Many of the ship’s 286 immigrants were detained in the York County Prison for multiple years. During their time in the prison, the detainees began making sculptures out of paper and other simple materials they had access to. The sculptures were first given as gifts to the lawyers and others who supported the Chinese immigrants as they sought freedom in the United States, and many more sculptures were made and sold to fund their legal efforts. FOLD contains 40 beautiful and unique sculptures that are now part of the museum’s permanent collection.

The sculptures are beautiful. Some are deceptively simple, while others are impressively detailed despite their humble materials. The artists used a variety of techniques to manipulate the paper – rolling, meticulously folding, paper mâché. There are American themes, especially bald eagles and the Statue of Liberty, as well as those with roots in the artists’ own Chinese culture. There are also caged birds, speaking to the situation the artists found themselves in.

Here are some of my favorite sculptures from the exhibition.

If you have the chance to visit the exhibition in person, I urge you to watch the short video on the Golden Venture as well. It was well worth the time. The exhibition is only open through March 25, 2018, so you still have time to see it. Instructions for getting to the museum, as well as other details important for planning a visit can be found on the museum’s website, located here.

Historic Citizens Savings Bank Building: NYC Landmark

Visitors to Manhattan’s Chinatown and nearby streets are sure to see some unique and interesting architecture. On the edge of Chinatown, close to the entrance of the Manhattan Bridge, is a New York City Landmark building: the historic Citizens Savings Bank. Later known as the Manhattan Savings Bank, the building is now occupied by HSBC. (HSBC purchased Citizens Savings Bank’s successor in 1999.)

Citizens Savings Bank is an example of Beaux-Arts architecture and was designed by architect Clarence W. Brazer. The building was completed in 1924 and was designated a city landmark in 2011. It’s not a huge building, but it’s solidly built, with a domed roof. Today, it’s surrounded by modern buildings, making its architecture stand out in comparison.

Above the entrance is this sculpture and clock designed by Charles Keck. It portrays a Native American, a sailor, and an eagle. (Additionally, if you look closely at the photo above, you may be able to see the small stone “beehives” on either side of the sculpture – I learned that beehives symbolize thrift.)

There are also these imposing lions stationed near the entrance – I think they are a much more recent addition.

Although the building still operates as a bank, the employees graciously allowed me to enter and take a few interior photos. From my research, I learned that the somber interior was meant to instill confidence in the bank’s ability to protect depositors’ money. Banks in the 1920s generally did not have insurance for deposits, and it was not uncommon for banks to fail. Depositors wanted to place their money in banks that seemed safer, and architecture could be used to create such an image. There are still some original architectural design details in the bank’s interior, such as the dome and the subtle messages painted in each corner near the ceiling. Would these messages give you confidence in the bank?

Want to see this New York City landmark for yourself? The bank is located at the corner of Canal Street and Bowery on the edge of Chinatown. It’s several city blocks’ walk from the subway. Take the B or D train to Grand Street, the F train to East Broadway, or the J, Z, or 6 train to Canal Street.

Want more detail about the building, the bank’s history, and the NYC landmark designation? The entire city landmark commission report is found here.

 

Celebrating the Lunar New Year in Flushing, Queens

New York City has the largest Asian-American population in the United States (at latest count approximately 12% of the city’s 8 million residents), so it’s unsurprising that the city is host to numerous Lunar New Year events. Most tourists attend Lunar New Year events in Manhattan’s Chinatown neighborhood, but other boroughs also hold Lunar New Year parades and other celebrations. This year, I decided to watch the Lunar New Year parade in Flushing, Queens. Over half of the Asian-American population lives in the borough of Queens, and Flushing is home to a second Chinatown.

The parade may not be quite so grand as the one in Manhattan, but it was a wonderful celebration of the community. My favorite things in the parade were the brightly colored dragons – they always drew cheers from the crowds as well.

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There were also some child-sized dragons. See what I saw inside the dragon’s head?

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Here are some of the marchers in the parade, dressed in various traditional costumes.

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On a serious note, there was also this brightly decorated car, accompanied by people carrying signs about domestic violence. They were marching with a community organization that provides support for victims of domestic violence.

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Finally, there were plenty of people in various stuffed costumes, from a character from a cartoon to buddhas – and let’s not forget the roosters, as this year is the year of the rooster!

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Want to explore Flushing’s Chinatown for yourself? Take the 7 train all the way to the end of the line, to the Flushing-Main Street station. When you come above ground, you will be in the midst of Chinatown.

Stage Design Exhibition at the Museum of Chinese in America

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I only recently visited the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) for the first time. Located in Manhattan’s Chinatown, the museum was designed by artist and designer Maya Lin. Here is how the museum describes its mission on its website: “MOCA … is dedicated to preserving and presenting the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.” I thoroughly enjoyed my visit and know I will be returning regularly to see new exhibitions. (In fact, I hope to return sometime soon as the museum offers some intriguing walking tours of Chinatown, described here.)

Currently, MOCA is host to an exhibition titled Stage Design by Ming Cho Lee, which continues until September 11, 2016. Ming Cho Lee, who was born in Shanghai, China, is a professor at Yale University’s School of Drama. He is one of the most preeminent living set designers in the United States. In 2013, Ming Cho Lee was presented the Tony Award for lifetime achievement. He was previously awarded the National Medal of Arts in 2002. The exhibition, which included some of Ming Cho Lee’s sketches, scale models of set designs, and photographic images of completed stage sets going back to the 1960s and 1970s, was fascinating. The exhibition’s design and focus allows visitors to gain a little insight into his design process, as well as noticing how his design aesthetic has evolved over the course of his career.

Here are a sampling of some of the scale models in the exhibition. Each one is beautiful – truly works of art in their own right. I’ve identified the performance and date in the caption for each photograph. (Each scale model is in a clear case, which can create challenges for photographs – I apologize for the reflections!)

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Myth of a Voyage, Martha Graham Company, Alvin Theatre, New York, NY (1973)
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Peer Gynt, Shakespeare Theatre Company, Lansburgh Theatre, Washington, DC (1998)
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Richard III, New York Shakespeare Festival, Delacourte Theater, New York, NY (1966)
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A Moon for the Misbegotten, Long Wharf Theatre, New Haven, CT (2005)
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Set for Act 2 of The Firebird, Pacific Northwest Ballet, Seattle, WA (1989)

Interested in seeing more of this exhibition, as well as the rest of the museum? If you have the opportunity, I encourage you to do so. Because of MOCA’s location in Manhattan’s Chinatown, it’s easy to get to the museum. Just take the 6, N, Q, R, J, or Z train to the Canal Street station. The museum is located at 215 Centre Street, just a block north of Canal Street, between Howard and Grand Streets. There are also buses with stops close by, including the M9, M15, and M103 bus lines.

Note: MOCA is closed on Mondays. The museum offers free hours the first Thursday of each month (except holidays), but the adult tickets are a very reasonable $10 entry fee otherwise.

NYC’s Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas Festival

New York City is a city of immigrants, generation after generation. It epitomizes what is best about the tradition of immigrants coming to the United States in search of the American dream. The city’s neighborhoods tell that history as well, with new waves of immigrants coming from different locations each generation. The Museum at Eldridge Street, located in Manhattan’s Lower East Side, has chosen to commemorate that rich, diverse history in its annual Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas Festival.

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The Museum at Eldridge Street got its start as a Jewish synagogue in 1887, serving the surrounding community of Jewish immigrants making their way from Eastern Europe. In fact, the Eldridge Street Synagogue was one of the first synagogues built in the United States. As the United States restricted immigration after World War I and the city’s Jewish population eventually scattered to other parts of the city, the synagogue’s congregation shrank, and the main sanctuary fell into disrepair. In recent decades, however, the building has been restored and turned into a museum, although religious services continue to be held every Sabbath and Jewish holiday. The Eldridge Street Synagogue has also been designated a National Historic Landmark.

The festival, held in June each year, celebrates the diversity of the Eldridge Street neighborhood. In incorporates the food and culture of Jewish, Chinese, and Latin American (particularly Puerto Rican) immigrants, as evidenced by the festival’s name: Egg Rolls, Egg Creams, and Empanadas. (For those who have never heard of an egg cream before, it is an old-fashioned drink made of milk, seltzer water, and chocolate sauce – despite its name, it contains neither eggs nor cream!)

Part of the festival is held in the street outside the museum. Some tents sell food from the three featured cultures, including egg rolls, egg creams, and empanadas. Other tents offer activities for children, including a yarmulke (or yamaka) decorating station and another one where girls and boys create masks for a Chinese dragon parade. There are also a number of musical and dance performances. I was fortunate to arrive just in time to see a demonstration of Chinese opera, which is beautiful and dramatic. These are a few of the photos of the performance, which took place with the crowd surrounding the two characters.

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As I entered the museum, there were two men demonstrating their writing skills. This man wrote visitors’ names in beautiful Hebrew script.

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His neighbor demonstrated traditional Chinese calligraphy for museum guests.

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From there, I went further into the sanctuary and up into the balcony to appreciate the synagogue’s impressive architecture and beautiful stained glass windows.

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At this point, I thought my tour of the museum was finished, but a volunteer directed me downstairs to the basement, where the museum has a permanent exhibit tracing the synagogue’s history. There were these documents from the founding of the synagogue, along with one of the seven original Stars of David that were placed on the roof of the building during its construction.

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I was also intrigued by this two-sided Tzedakah Box. The box was originally mounted on a wall that separated men’s and women’s entrances to the weekday chapel. There were six separate slots, each marked with a particular charity that corresponded to a day of the week, and synagogue members would drop money into the appropriate slot. I found it interesting that it was more intricate on the one side than the other.

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Further handiwork demonstrations were offered as well, including several women exhibiting Chinese paper folding projects and two other women showing off intricate bobbin lace.

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Although the festival is only held once a year, you can still visit the Museum at Eldridge Street throughout the year. (Keep in mind that the museum is not open on Saturdays, the Jewish Sabbath.) The Museum is located at 1200 Eldridge Street, just south of Canal Street. If traveling by subway, you can take the F train to the East Broadway station; the B or D trains to Grand Street; or the N, Q, R, J, Z, or 6 trains to Canal Street. For further directions, see the museum’s website here.