We continue our spotlight on Chinatown with a post about one of the neighborhood's leading cultural institutions: the Museum of Chinese in America. Originally founded in 1980, MoCA moved into its current Centre Street home in 2009. Designed by artist Maya Lin (who created Washington D.C.'s iconic Vietnam Veterans Memorial), the museum is small but striking, and showcases the history, heritage, culture and experiences of Chinese-Americans through technology, photographs, art and relics. MoCA also regularly offers programs for kids and families.
My husband is Chinese-American and our daughter is biracial, yet we had never visited MoCA as a family, so I was very excited to go on this outing with them.
The museum's permanent exhibit is With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America, which chronicles the influence of Chinese immigrants on the U.S. from the 1780s to today. Organized into nine sections, including "Welcome to Chinatown!," which features examples of "yellowface" in mainstream culture, and "Building Community," consisting of items from Chinatown stores, it's clearly aimed at older visitors, I'd say 12 and up. Luckily, the subtle video projections held our toddler's interest long enough for us to be able to explore.
I was particularly intrigued by the stories of struggle and the blatant racism Chinese immigrants experienced in the U.S. Growing up in the South, I realize that my perception of racism can be rather narrow. My incredibly Americanized husband was also drawn in by the exhibit and surprised at how much of the history related to his own family's story. The collective history of Chinese in America is told through archival photos, vintage postcards, newspaper articles, court documents (sadly, there was lots of discriminatory legislation, like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act) and everyday artifacts, as well as families' personal stories.
Given the content and the fact that there are no hands-on activities, With a Single Step is not very preschooler-friendly. When visiting MoCA with younger children, it's best to take advantage of one of its special weekend family programs, which often coincide with major Chinese holidays or celebrations like Lunar New Year or the Mid-Autumn Moon Festival. These all-day fetes feature cultural storytimes, craft projects like making lanterns or moon cakes, opera or theater performances, and special family-friendly tours. MoCA also hosts guests such as kite-makers, noodle-pullers, and origami and calligraphy artists, and lots of workshops and lectures aimed at adults. Check the website for an up-to-date schedule of events.
If you're interested in having your kids learn Mandarin, MoCA also offers language classes on Saturday mornings for children ages 1 to 9. Visit the website for schedule, pricing and registration information.
A new temporary exhibit, Lee Mingwei’s The Travelers and The Quartet Project, opens on October 20. The dual installation will include 100 notebooks designed by Mingwei, which he lent to family, friends and acquaintances for them to record their travels, and then were subsequently passed on to others so they could do the same. The Quartet Project is described as an interactive sound installation. Again, these will probably be best for more mature visitors. However, on Saturday, November 12, there will be a related family workshop called Finding Home, in which children can consider the meaning of home through poetry writing, art making and a kid-friendly tour of the exhibit. It's free with museum admission but an RSVP is required.
MoCA's lobby doubles as the museum's shop, where you'll find Chinese art, T-shirts, toys and books. We purchased a board book which teaches kids everyday Mandarin words. I'd never seen it in any other store and our daughter just loves it.
Since children under 12 get in free and adults pay $10, the Museum of Chinese in America is affordable and worth a visit if you happen to be strolling through Chinatown. Bonus: Everyone visits for free on Thursdays.
The Museum of Chinese in America is located at 215 Centre Street between Howard and Grand Streets, 212-619-4785. Open Monday and Friday 11am-5pm, Thursday 11am-9pm, Saturday and Sunday 10am-5pm.
Find out about other must-see New York City museums or see our other posts about Chinatown.