By Russell Leung, AsAmNews Intern
More than a year after it shuttered, New York City’s Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA) reopened on Thursday — with both fanfare and controversy.
The longtime Chinatown fixture has been dealt a series of blows: In January 2020, its archive building suffered a catastrophic fire, destroying 5% of its collection. Two months later, it was forced to close due to the pandemic. For a while, the future of the museum seemed uncertain.
“I’m really pleased,” MoCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach said to AsAmNews Wednesday despite a protest held outside targeting the musuem. “It’s kind of a day that we weren’t sure was going to ever come.”
The museum’s reopening features a new exhibit, titled Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism, as its centerpiece. The multimedia collection includes a visual timeline of anti-AAPI racism, video testimonials from Asian Americans and a space for visitors to share their thoughts. Museum admission will be free throughout the exhibit’s run, through September 19, thanks to a June donation from MacKenzie Scott.
The museum’s reopening preview on Wednesday projected a celebratory atmosphere, with a musical performance by string duo ARKAI and a dance number from J CHEN Project. However, the mood just outside the museum was far from cheerful. A crowd of protesters from the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side gathered at the entrance and loudly voiced its displeasure with the museum’s reopening throughout the event.
Demonstrators called for a boycott of the museum due to it allegedly “promoting displacement and racism towards the community that it claims to represent,” according to a statement by the Coalition. They held signs with slogans such as “Destroying Chinatown is anti-Asian violence” and “Museum of Corrupt Asians,” while participating in chants of “Chinatown is not a museum.”
Protesters directed much of their ire at MoCA Board Co-Chair Jonathan Chu, a landlord who owns several properties in Chinatown. They accused him of gentrifying the neighborhood as well as forcing the owners of Jing Fong, one of the few Chinatown restaurants with unionized staff, to shut down the business, located in his building.
“This struggle is not just focusing on MoCA,” Mahir Rahman, an organizer for Coalition member Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, said. “We are doing an economic boycott that will force Jonathan Chu to come to the drawing table.”
The Coalition also accused the museum of accepting a $35 million “bribe” from the city in exchange for support of a new jail being built in the neighborhood. As New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio seeks to close down Rikers Island, notorious for its mistreatment of inmates, he has proposed replacing it with four new jails spread throughout the city.
This week, two artists, Colin Chin and Nicholas Liem, cited the museum’s “complicity” with mass incarceration and gentrification in a letter requesting for their work to be removed from MoCA’s new exhibit.
“No matter what neighborhood it might be,” the artists wrote, “we cannot support new museum buildings if they come with a new jail, nor a Chinatown where workers are deprived of their livelihoods for the sake of property development.”
Yao Maasbach flatly denied to AsAmNews the Coalition’s various allegations against the museum.
“I value voice and protest because sometimes that’s the only way for change,” Yao Maasbach said. “But everything they’re saying is a lie.”
Yao Maasbach asserted that Chu has improved the neighborhood through his properties and investments in the local community rather than harmed it. She also said MoCA received a $40.5 million capital grant from the city to purchase its space; it has nothing, she said, to do with the construction of a new jail.
The allegations of supporting mass incarceration and gentrification are politically motivated, Yao Maasbach said.
“Every time someone brings it up, I say, ‘I would love to grab a cup of coffee and tell you the facts,’” Yao Maasbach said. “But you can tell right away if people have an agenda, because they don’t want to know the facts.”
The Coalition is demanding that MoCA returns the so-called bribe and that Chu reopens Jing Fong. Chin and Liem also asked that Chu be removed from the Museum’s Board of Directors.
Only then, the Coalition promised, will the boycott end.
“I used to think of it, just like much of the community used to think, that it was a museum that really devoted itself to talking about the issues that affect everyday people in Chinatown,” Rahman said. “They’ve chosen to ignore the struggle of the workers.”
AsAmNews has Asian America in its heart. We’re an all-volunteer effort of dedicated staff and interns. Check out our new Instagram account. Go to our Twitter feed and Facebook page for more content. Please consider interning, joining our staff, or submitting a story or making a contribution.