Among all of the arts and culture institutions that were hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic. the Museum of Chinese in America had a particularly devastating 2020. On January 23, shortly before the city grinded to a virtual halt in March, the Mulberry Street building that housed MOCA’s collections and archives caught fire. As the pandemic unfolded, anti-Asian sentiment also rose rapidly. Statistics gathered by advocacy groups show that across the country, over 2,000 Covid-related anti-Asian-American hate incidents were reported between March and June.
Meanwhile, growing tension in US-China geopolitical relations has put Chinese-Americans at the center of policy debate. Most recently, the Trump administration’s threat to ban WeChat, a social media app owned by the Chinese company Tencent, has raised concern among those who use it to connect with their roots in China. Bedford + Bowery spoke with Nancy Yao Maasbach, the president of MOCA, about a rethinking of Chinese-American narratives, the role of Chinese-Americans in the Black Lives Matter movement, and the museum’s reopening plans.
How has the recovery process for the collections and archives been going?
I wish I could share that it was a simple process. But extracting the items out of a building that was pretty much destroyed, and mobilizing and partnering with the city was stage one. Then the whole world shut down March 14. We still had things in four different places. And they had just started the process of getting stabilized. What we were hoping would be a four-to-eight-week process to get things stabilized and then brought back to the museum is still in process. Now it’s four to five months later and they’re at two stabilization places. Now we’re about to start the beginning process of getting them back to the museum. We’re hoping to get everything back to the museum by September 30. The repair process is going to be upwards of six years. From single photographs to collections, all 85,000 items need to be properly conserved. These are important artifacts in the Chinese-American history and narratives.
How has the pandemic impacted the museum and its employment?
Probably because we’re the Museum of Chinese in America, we also keep track of what’s happening in the Greater China area and diaspora. We got a hint of what was happening in Wuhan as early as December. And with Trump calling it the Wuhan virus and the Chinese flu, we really saw schools cancel their trips to MOCA at the beginning of January. We were concerned that that was slightly discriminatory in terms of their decision making. They thought that Wuhan and therefore Chinatown would have the first outbreak, which doesn’t really make a lot of sense, especially since Chinatown, New York is predominantly third generation. If you’re really concerned about the Wuhan-American group, it might be more in Flushing or Sunset Park.
In terms of employment, we had just lost six people at the end of 2019. We haven’t replaced them because we want a strong financial statement by the end of the year. Now we have 13 full-time and six part-time employees. We didn’t let anybody go. We applied for the PPP [Paycheck Protection Program], which helped us cover their salaries for a few months. And now we’re just trying to make sure we can maintain it.
You mentioned in a talk that MOCA has always been a museum of conscience, seeking justice and equity in the American narrative. It also serves the role to supplement what’s been or not been happening in the classroom. Has the pandemic, the growing tension of US-China relations, and the anti-Chinese racism given you new thoughts to what Chinese in America mean?
Absolutely. I always struggled with the wording. I used to say I’m American-born Chinese because that’s an acronym that people know. Even Chinese people say, “Oh, she’s an ABC.” And it’s supposed to mean that I’m more Americanized or whatever it is. But what I noticed over all the years is that a lot of Americans of Chinese descent refer to themselves still as Chinese. It’s really tricky, especially if the US is your home, the place of your citizenship, and where you’ve been for the majority of your life. Andrew Yang also refers to himself as Asian. And I find that to be a problem. It doesn’t help the American narrative because Asian and Chinese are forever considered foreign. We actually perpetuate the very basic nomenclature in this wording. We need to say we are Americans of Chinese descent. It’s a little wordy, so people often say Asian-American or Chinese-American. But then you also hear the argument, “Why do I have to add Asian? Why can’t I just be American?” That’s because the country is not ready for you to be just American. You need to first be Asian-American. My parents always said they were Chinese. But lately, they have been saying they’re American, because they realize they don’t have a full voice in this country.
Kamala Harris has been chosen as Biden’s running mate. One of her parents is [an] Indian immigrant and the other one is a Jamaican immigrant. It’s all about her being a person of color. And yet no one has been referring to her as a woman of Asian descent. It’s really more about her Jamaican, Black side of the family that makes her a representation of a new America. We have such a long way to go, but I think we should do it.
There is an article that was published on Sixth Tone in May that discusses a reimagining of “museums of identity” in a post-Covid world. It specifically talks about MOCA and how its current permanent exhibition is still very much centered on the national histories of China and the US, and portrays China and the US as an “us versus them” narrative. What do you think about this critique?
I don’t think that’s totally accurate, because the permanent exhibit is really about the immigration story of Chinese coming to the US and that story is about the push and pull factors in their immigration stories. It’s the history of Chinese people coming to America. So of course, it’s got to have China components. Some people who visit don’t always see the current exhibits, the one that changes every six months. That’s what we really hope to bring in and supplement: the parts that are about Asian-American art, about new movements and ways of new identity, and the population that’s much more transnational after the 1980s.
Has that given new thoughts to the narrative that MOCA wants to portray?
Absolutely. We’ve been working on, for the last year, a new concept of what the core permanent exhibit looks like. So we’re going to create a much different infrastructure. That’s why we’ve been thinking so much about who we really are. Up until 1965, there has been a lot of hardship in the Chinese-American narrative. There is a lot of eating bitterness, loss, and separation. Chinese in America have been so resilient, so the 120 years of trauma and hardship story isn’t told in a way people can empathize or sympathize with. We really are thinking a lot about how that experience created a conscience and an identity, and what happened after 1965 [when the Immigration and Nationality Act was passed, which allowed masses of immigrants from China to come to the US] that really created success and contribution. Before then, people were always working hard for the next generation. But after ’65, we start seeing people focusing more on, say, “What do I love to do? Who do I love? I want to have those tricky conversations with my parents because I love this person and he’s not Chinese.” Or, “I really want to pursue music.” It’s like after three generations, you can actually do something you love to do.
The Black Lives Matter protests have triggered a debate within the Chinese-American community. On one side there’s Chinese For Black Lives, advocating for the rights of minorities and of Black people. But on the other side, there’s also a new right-wing group in the Chinese community where they are supporting the police. What do you think about the roles that Chinese-Americans play in the American political context?
I do see a trend in people who are active on the opposite ends of the spectrum. Younger Asian-Americans– those who are second, third generation, those who have lived through the civil rights movement or those who have experienced liberal schooling in the US– are more sympathetic. Maybe they’ve been thinking about that identity and the history of 400 years of oppression. They are the active voices in the Black Lives Matter movement because they’ve been exposed to that knowledge and information. There are also some of the moderates; even though they may have been a little bit more conservative on the political spectrum, [they] are coming to understand the crystallization of the George Floyd situation. I see a lot of people who are my age and [in] their 30s and 40s, as children of immigrants, start opening their mind up to the oppression and the difference that exists between children of Asian-American immigrants and Black men and women who have grown up with the systemic racism that exists in this country. And then you have far, far more conservative and traditional ones. And I cannot say that I blame them. I tried to be empathetic about where they are. It’s like, “We’re working really, really hard. We just came here, we sacrificed everything to get here. Why would we want to give the police less? Then there’s going to be more crime, and we’re going to feel less safe.” They’re already a target because of anti-Asian discrimination. For those groups, you have to meet people where they are. It’s about opening up that conversation without being judgmental. We have to understand everyone’s distinct journey to meet them where they are and use painful and critical conversations. To the more conservative, I’d say think about how you feel if you’re walking down the street at midnight, and you see three young black men walking toward you. How do you feel? I think if they have any ounce of fear in their system, that’s because of systemic racism.
What’s your plan and vision for MOCA when it reopens?
Museums are still not officially allowed to open, but we’re going to do an exhibit in our windows. We have about 60 feet of windows for a window exhibit that will slide out like a block party. It’s on October 16, 17, and 18. And we’re going to schedule 15-minute slots so people can walk by the windows. We’re going to close part of the street and unveil our new collection space, which is around the corner from the museum in 3 Howard Street. All of the collections will be re-housed there by that time. It’ll be our space to continue to repair the work. So we’ll have interior tours of that as part of the block party. We’re also partnering with a local restaurant and I can’t tell you which one. There’s going to be outdoor dining, and it would be really, really fun. This interview has been edited and condensed.