Collections: The Big Apple’s Chinatown
APA Collections Update from Noriko Sanefuji:
In September, I took a field trip to the Big Apple to continue with my hunt for objects for the National Museum of American History’s upcoming exhibition on Chinese food. NYC’s Chinatown is one of the oldest and largest; I was not sure where to start….
Luckily, I had a guide with me, Professor Ken Guest of the City University of New York, who greeted me at the corner of Canal and Mott streets, two of the liveliest streets in Chinatown. We walked some of the historic streets as Prof. Guest explained their significance. The street “built by” Fuzhounese (Fujianese) where we hardly saw any tourists was compared to the main street.
Later, we stepped into Wo Hop restaurant, an old established restaurant, which is an old-fashioned Cantonese joint establishment in 1938. I understand it is an “Americanized” Cantonese cuisine from the World War II era. They serve all of the favorites of American diners of Cantonese food: egg drop soup, chow mein, chop suey, egg foo young etc. Perhaps, this is because the original owner was a cook for the Army during WWII. With its reasonable prices, Wo Hop is very popular with New Yorkers—frequented by civil servants, students, and actors, but hardly by Chinese customers. A true Americanized Chinese diner?
We then visited an employment agency, which was on my list of places to visit. We met with Wendy, who has been working for the employment agency since 1993. Her job plays an important role in sustaining the Chinese community. When a new immigrant arrives in Chinatown, he/she visits Wendy’s agency looking for employment. On the white board, she lists the area codes of the jobs being offered, next to them are the occupation, monthly pay, hours of work, and number of openings. One will look at the board and see if there is a job he/she would like to take.
For example, if one wants to take a cook’s job in North Carolina, Wendy will arrange the transportation by bus. When you get off the bus, the prospective worker is greeted by a restaurant employee. Thus, you can see that a new immigrant need not have fluency in English throughout the process and can start working in the new restaurant in no time. This is a well established system. Speaking about language, I was fortunate to be accompanied by my Hong Kong-born colleague, Ricky, who spoke Cantonese and was of great assistance in communicating with Wendy, who was also from Hong Kong. Wendy generously agreed to donate the white boards to the museum.
Later in the afternoon, we visited the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), which opened in its new location in 2009. Its aim is to show both the many layers of their experience and America’s development as a nation of immigrants. This very impressive, warm, and inviting space was designed by Maya Lin, best-known for designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC.
According to our guide, Exhibitions Manager Ting-Chi Wang, MOCA achieved a Silver LEED rating for being Green—for instance, they use reclaimed wood and employ natural light throughout the space. First, she led us to a two-level atrium in the middle of the museum. She explained how this is really the heart of the museum in many ways. Architecturally, this is the center of the museum. Secondly, conceptually, this is what we call a courtyard. What a courtyard really does in a traditional Chinese house is connect all of the rooms. Finally, Ting-Chi gave us a wonderful tour of the core exhibition, With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, which tells the diverse history of the Chinese American experience. It is a very rich exhibition filled with numerous photos, historical illustrations, personal accounts, and, of course, objects. In each section the museum provided the overall historical narrative, and on the other side provided personal accounts, which I thought was an interesting contrast.
I was also interested in checking out how they dealt with Chinese food. There it was—a CHOP SUEY neon sign!
Ting-Chi shared with me that the sign was specially made for the exhibition. One other clever design was that the wall panel was filled with plastic chopsticks! It was very eye-catching. I really appreciated her hospitality in showing us around the new MOCA.
Thank you everyone for your cooperation!