History Comes Alive in New York Chinatown

  • During Fall Break, students in Professor Quan Tran’s “Asian Diasporas since 1800” (ER&M324 &WGSS 325) visited Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown on an optional field trip generously funded by the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program.

    The day began early with a train ride from Union Station into New York City. After 2 hours of smooth traveling and lively conversations on board the Metro North, the group took the subway to Canal Street and headed to Red Egg Restaurant for a hearty dim-sum meal.

  • Fully energized and refreshed by the delicious food, the group then headed across Centre Street to the Museum of the Chinese in America (MOCA). Founded in 1980, MOCA “brings 160 years of Chinese American history to vivid life through its innovative exhibitions, educational and cultural programs.” One of these programs is the walking tour of Chinatown, which the group thoroughly enjoyed thanks to the knowledgeable guidance of museum guide Alex Ho.

  • A scene of social life in a corner of Columbus Park with the statue of Sun Yat Sen in the center

  • Pausing at the Transfiguration Catholic Church in the Five Point neighborhood to learn about Catholicism in Chinese Americans’ life.

  • Admiring an original Tong Association signage

  • Standing in front of Nom Wah Tea Parlor, a vintage dim-sum parlor dating back to the 1920s.

  • The walking tour ended at MOCA’s Collections & Research Center on the corner of Mulberry and Bayard Streets. The Center is located on the second floor of the former Public School 23 building. Here the group learned from the Director of Collection, Yue Ma, how archivists and museum curators work behind the scene to collect and preserve the diverse experiences and histories of people of Chinese descent in the United States.

  • In an old classroom decorated with salvaged signs of Chinatown businesses that no longer exist, students also had the opportunity to put on archival gloves and peruse through the Chinatown 9/11 Collection. This moving collection contains Chinatown residents’ diaries, interview transcripts as well as photographs about their 9/11 experiences and the impacts of that sad event in their lives. A quick tour of the different kinds of historical documents and objects stored in the Center’s holding rooms further piqued students’ curiosities about the stories that have yet been told.

  • After visiting MOCA’s Collection & Research Center, the group enjoyed some independent time before heading back to the museum to view two interactive exhibits: “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America” and “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy: Stories of Chinese Food and Identity in America.” The former is a long-term multi-media exhibit that guides visitors through nearly three centuries of Chinese and Chinese American presence and experiences in the United States.

  • The latter is a special interactive exhibit that invites visitors to sit at a beautifully set dining table. Decorating the table are ceramic sculptures specially commissioned by MOCA to interpret the regional culinary inspirations of each of the 33 Chinese and Asian American chefs whose stories about food, identity, migration, and cultural belonging are featured in a collage of video installation. The personal kitchen tools of these chefs were also on display with accompanied stories of everyday food preparation, which further enhance the intimate feel of the exhibit.

  • Viewing and hearing about food certainly worked up an appetite. The group appropriately ended the day with a family-style meal at a nearby Vietnamese restaurant called Nha Trang, one of the many sites where the Chinese and Vietnamese diasporas overlap in Lower Manhattan

History Comes Alive in New York Chinatown

November 1, 2016

During Fall Break, students in Professor Quan Tran’s “Asian Diasporas since 1800” (ER&M324 &WGSS 325) visited Lower Manhattan’s Chinatown on an optional field trip generously funded by the Ethnicity, Race, and Migration Program.

All in all, it was a fun-filled day full of learning opportunities. Students’ reflections capture some of the things that they have learned.
According to Jane Zhang: “From the walking tour, I was interested to learn that many different immigrant narratives came together in Chinatown. The relationship between the Eastern European immigrant, African American slaves, and Chinese immigrants helped shape the space in ways that I thought the name “Chinatown” didn’t capture or imply. Seeing the exhibition on Chinese in America helped show how “Chinatown” was often perceived as an area of the “other,” even though it originally was an area of racial mixing.”
Paul Lee adds: “I loved the tour of Chinatown, as it really helped me make connections between historical events and processes, and the present day New York that I was witnessing. As a Chinese-American, I began to draw historical and imagined connections between the struggles and successes of those who came before me, and my own struggles and successes today. I also particularly enjoyed exploring the MOCA archives. It was like having the insider’s scoop on how museum exhibits are curated and come to life. It was meaningful exploring the 9/11 archives, as I still remember that day when I was 5 years old. Through looking at photographs and reading oral histories, I found it striking how much solidarity and patriotism existed within the Chinese American community at large. As for the special food exhibit itself, I was amazed by its ability to weave art and personal storytelling so effortlessly together, and felt a sense of glee as I saw bits of myself and my family in the stories and food I learned about. To be completely frank, Icould hardly pull myself away from the room. Last, but not least, I genuinely appreciated being able to spend quality, out-of-classroom time with my classmates and professor. I value the personal connections we made throughout the day and I am sure it will contribute to my experience both in and out of the classroom in the future.”
Oriana Tang adds: “I really liked being able to actually be physically immersed in the environment we were learning and talking about. My family goes to Chinatown fairly frequently, so it was fascinating to understand the history of streets that I recognized…. It was also amazing to get a behind-the-scenes look at the inner workings of the museum and to get to handle the raw materials of the exhibits outside of seeing them on display because it gave me a sense of what it must be like to examine historical artifacts and piece together the narrative joining them. And of course, I really enjoyed the exhibits themselves. I liked hearing the stories of everyone in the “Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy” exhibit and I liked seeing the artifacts that made up the timeline of Chinese in America in the other exhibit. I especially liked reading about all of the important Chinese Americans who have contributed to the U.S. in some way since the colonial days. It was both touching and saddening to see how important Chinese Americans have been to American history and how frequently their contributions were ignored or glossed over. Finally, and somewhat unrelatedly, I liked getting to know everyone better by spending time with them outside of a classroom setting.”