Fire Destroys NYC’s Iconic Museum of Chinese in America Where 85,000 Priceless Treasures Were Kept

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Recovery efforts are currently underway for the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) in Manhattan days after being ravaged by a five-alarm fire. 

The fire originally started on the fourth floor and then spread to the fifth floor and into the roof area of MOCA’s building on 70 Mulberry Street in New York’s Chinatown on the night of January 24, FDNY’s Chief of Fire Operations Thomas Richardson said in a statement.

The museum, which is owned by the city of New York, has been compiling items from households of Chinese immigrants over approximately 40 years, according to the New York Times. Aside from the valuable historical archive, the building also houses facilities such as a dance center, a senior citizens’ center, a vocational training office and an athletics association.

 

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What’s cuter than a Christmas card? A Christmas card with a birth announcement, straight from MOCA’s Collection! Please check out the Rice Bowl Restaurant Christmas card with birth announcement inside that reads: “The Chin Family/Vivienne W. Chin/She is the first baby in our 27th generation/ Wishing you a Merry Christmas and A Happy New Year” 🍚 The Rice Bowl Restaurant, opened by Chin Suey Bing, was located at 44 Mott Street in New York City’s Chinatown. In 1939 it was considered one of the fanciest restaurants in Chinatown. It was also one of the first banquet halls in the neighborhood to have air conditioning and required all male diners to wear jackets and ties. The restaurant closed in 1970. 🍚 The Chins of Mott and Mulberry Streets had many other businesses – Rice Bowl Realty, Cathay Hardware, Walter’s Sandwich Shop, to name a few – and the family has touched many individual lives through their various businesses and professions. 🍚 As we count down to Christmas, there’s still time to give. Your donations support MOCA and its ability to preserve family memories like the one you just read. Please consider a year-end tax-deductible donation to MOCA. Link in bio.

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Situated in three rooms on the second floor, MOCA’s Collections and Research Center contains an archive of around 85,000 Chinese American cultural items that document the Chinese experience in the United States. The museum’s biggest fear was that the relics get damaged from water and soot.

 

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Holidays are all about celebrating with friends and family, but many can’t. Therefore, we dedicate this post to the military, firefighters, police officers, doctors and other first responders who sacrifice their own time during the holidays to serve the public. Here’s a photo from MOCA’s Collection of Anita B.Y. Yen with her two sons, George Yen Eng and Steven Yen Eng on Christmas Day, 1951. Ernest K.H. Eng, Anita’s husband, was away from home on military duty in Japan. Ernest K.H. Eng was born in Norfolk, VA in 1920 and died in 2010. He was drafted into the U.S. Army during WWII and also served in the Korean War. He was once the ranking U.S. military representative in the negotiations between the Nationalist and Communist Chinese after WWII. Mr Eng was a guest at the White House and was honored in 1999 by President Bill Clinton. He was also one of the subjects interviewed in the documentary, “We Served With Pride”, which honored the contributions of all Asian-American military veterans of WWII. A resident of Atlanta since 1974, Ernest Eng has always served his family and the community with pride and will be forever missed for his generosity and positive attitude. On this Christmas Eve, we at MOCA wish you and your loved ones a Merry Christmas!

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The International Ladies’ Garment Workers’ Union (ILGWU) was one of the largest labor unions in the U.S. Founded in 1900 by local union delegates, it represented about 2,000 members in cities all throughout the Northeastern region. The union grew in geographical scope, membership size, and political influence, resulting in it becoming one of the most powerful forces in American organized labor history by the mid-century. On June 24, 1982, nearly 20,000 Chinatown garment workers, belonging to the ILGWU, went on the largest strike in the history of New York’s Chinatown. Contractors employing the women had rejected the newest contract negotiated by the ILGWU, which attempted to undercut rules regarding holiday and overtime pay, as well as non-union manufacturing. The rally in Columbus Park was unlike anything the neighborhood had ever seen, with thousands of Chinese immigrant women rallying together as one. Within a few days, the majority of Chinatown contractors pledged to sign the union contract. The union organized a second rally on June 29, as large as the first one, with threats to strike against any contractor that did not sign. It only took a few hours for all contractors to pledge, and the strike ended in victory. In honor of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, MOCA is running 150,000 miles with 1,500 runners sharing 150 stories Countdown to the TCS NYC Marathon on November 3, 2019: 62 Days To support the MOCA team please donate at https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/moca-spike-150 📸 credit: A booklet for members of International Ladies’ Garment Workers Union Local 23-25, describing union rules and member’s rights and benefits. Courtesy of May Chen, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection

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Leong-Yau Chan, also known as Yushan Chan, was born in China in the 1900s. He received his bachelor’s degree at Peking University in 1921 and then journeyed to the U.S. to earn his master’s degree at New York University in 1930. He was appointed as a professor at National Zhongshan University in 1931, after which he served in several important positions in the Kuomingtang military. He returned to the U.S. in the early 1940s and lectured at NYU from 1941-43, during which time he was also the secretary of “the Chinese Military mission to U.S.” Chan would later run the Chinese-American World Publishing Corporation in New York’s Chinatown. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ Chan was married three times, bearing one child with his first wife and one child with his second wife. He was married to his third wife, the aunt of this collection’s donor, for forty-two years. The collection features a series of letters from his second wife, Fang. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In her letters, she speaks sorrowfully of their separation across Hong Kong and Washington D.C., writing to him about the things their baby daughter had been doing, such as beginning to eat rice. Fang also wrote a short autobiography, describing how she and Chan fell in love, how they fled to Hong Kong to marry when the Japanese conquered Guangzhou, and the process of bringing Fang and their children to the U.S. – a dream that was extinguished when the bombing of Kai Tak Airport in Kowloon prevented Chan from reuniting with Fang and their daughter. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ Photo Credit: Leong-Yau Chan letters. Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection, courtesy of Michael Calvert. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ In honor of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Museum is running the MOCA Spike 150 cross-country relay of 150,000 miles with 1,500 runners sharing 150 stories. The final leg of the relay is the TCS NYC Marathon. ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀ Countdown to the TCS NYC Marathon on November 3, 2019: 45 Days ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ ⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀⠀ To support the MOCA team, please donate at: https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/moca-spike-150

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In 1866, brothers Lee Won Moon and Lee Toy Moon established the “Lee Family Association,” located in San Francisco. Like traditional Chinese family and village associations, it offered members security and support during a period when thousands of Chinese had just begun immigrating to California to work on the Transcontinental Railroad. The Association offered members loans, secured burial plots, and helped settle disputes. Over the next few decades, unaffiliated Lee Family Associations sprang up in Chinatowns across the country. In 1927, 46 cities sent delegates to the association’s first national convention, where they all agreed to consolidate into one entity. While new generations of Chinese Americans tend not to seek the support of such associations any longer, the Lee Family Association still holds regular conventions and the Lee Federal Credit Union boasted $30 million in funds as of 2007. In honor of the 150th anniversary of the completion of the Transcontinental Railroad, the Museum is running the MOCA Spike 150 cross-country relay of 150,000 miles with 1,500 runners sharing 150 stories. The final leg of the relay is the TCS NYC Marathon. Countdown to the TCS NYC Marathon on November 3, 2019: 58 Days. To support the MOCA running team please donate at https://www.crowdrise.com/o/en/campaign/moca-spike-150 Photo Credit: Lee Family San Francisco Chapter Membership card, 1927, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.

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The collection, which spans 160 years of history, includes artifacts, memorabilia, artwork, documents and oral histories. There are also one-of-a-kind relics such as ticket stubs from turn-of-the-century Chinatown theaters, tickets for boat passages, menus documenting the changes in Chinatown’s restaurants over the years, historic family photographs, traditional wedding dresses from the early 20th century and even an 1883 document about the Chinese Exclusion Act.

The loss of the archives also comes at terrible timing, as this weekend marked the traditional celebrations for the annual Chinese Lunar New Year.

While an investigation is still ongoing, the NYPD has stated that the cause of the fire was not “criminal.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Monday that New York City has ensured that the tenants displaced by the fire will be provided temporary locations and offered MOCA space to store recovered artifacts in city-owned locations. The Department of Records and the Department of Cultural Affairs are also reportedly working with cultural institutions and archivists to assist in recovering the items.

MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach told the Gothamist that the recovery of the archival material will be “very expensive.”

“We’re talking about thousands of boxes of things that might have soot, might have water damage. The type of sponge you use on each piece and everything (else) is costly,” she was quoted as saying.

About 35,000 pieces of the archives have been digitized and the backups were recovered, the museum confirmed on Saturday. The Museum of Chinese in America has since launched a crowdfunding campaign to raise money for the recovery of the archives. As of this writing, the museum’s GoFundMe page has raised $84,000.

“Amazing volunteers, conservators, museums and the arts and culture world have come out to offer help,” Maasbach added, pointing out that they may also rely on some donated labor because “we do want to save money—we’re a nonprofit and we don’t have that much to go around.”

Feature Image via @czarineyee (Left), mocanyc (Right)

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