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.

Chinese Food Inspiration at the Museum of Chinese in America

One of my favorite museums in New York City is the Museum of Chinese in America, located in Manhattan’s Chinatown. The long-term exhibition, tracing the history of the Chinese experience in the United States, is excellent. But I always look forward to the temporary exhibitions. (I previously wrote about one of those temporary exhibitions here.)

The current temporary exhibition, titled Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America, is the best one yet. The main part consists of a large space, set up to resemble a dinner table. Around the table are 33 place settings, each representing a Chinese or Asian-American chef. At each place is a small ceramic sculpture symbolizing that chef’s food influences, as well as a card giving more information about the chef’s personal background, food inspirations, signature dishes, favorite ingredients, and choice of ultimate comfort food. Museum visitors are invited to sit down at each place and learn more about the chefs.

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It’s worth taking a closer look at some of the beautiful ceramics. There are larger pieces in the middle of the table that symbolically represent various geographic good influences. Then, each chef’s place setting has a smaller ceramic sculpture that includes the geographic symbols from the larger pieces. All ceramics in the exhibit were created by two ceramic artists: Heidi Lau and Lu Zhang.

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Symbolizing Beijing (Jing) influence
Symbolizing Sichuan (Chuan)
Symbolizing Sichuan (Chuan) influence
Symbolizing Chino-Latino influence
Symbolizing Chino-Latino influence
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Symbolizing Taiwan

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Around the room, large screens hang on the wall. Visitors can sit at the table and listen to some of the chefs talk about their personal experiences with various topics, such as immigrating to the United States, growing up Chinese or Asian-American, and their food influences. The videos really add another layer to the whole experience – being able to see and hear the chefs that you are reading about, maybe even as you sit at that chef’s place at the table.

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MOCA’s website has the following explanation of the exhibition’s title, which I found compelling: “In Chinese the saying Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy refers not only to the delicate balance of flavors that defines Chinese cooking but also the ups and downs of life.”

Once visitors finish in the first room, there is a second, smaller room across the lobby that offers another approach to the exhibitions theme. In the smaller room, each chef loaned the museum an item from his or her kitchen. The artifacts are very practical, but also very personal. On a surface level this room may seem less impressive, but if you read the descriptions for each item you begin to understand the chefs’ connections to the food they create.

For example, Wilson Tang loaned these moon cake molds to the museum:

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And Ken Hom has loaned his cleaver:

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Want to see Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy in person? The exhibition was originally scheduled to end on March 26, 2017, but it has been so popular that the museum has extended it to September 10, 2017. The Museum of Chinese in America is located at 215 Centre Street in Manhattan.

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.