Museum of Chinese in America

A Journey from the Middle Kingdom

The Museum of Chinese in America is located at 211 Centre Street. This location was originally an old industrial machine repair shop. The museum’s new home is designed by Maya Lin, a first-generation Chinese American who designed the Vietnam Memorial in Washington D.C., while she was still an undergraduate at Yale University. Despite the size of the museum, it still contains an enormous amount of information of all the Chinese people who have ever been here in the United States.

At the entrance of the museum, there is a quote by the Taoist philosopher Laozi as he comments on his life’s journey: 千里之行, 始于足下, which means ‘A journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step’. The quote hangs over the core exhibit of the exhibition “With A Single Step”. Following the layout of a traditional Chinese house where all the rooms are connected through the courtyard, each section of the exhibition is connected with chronological and thematic threads. As you enter the exhibition, you start in the courtyard and you eventually end up back in the courtyard.  In each section of the courtyard, there are “Core Portraits” of Chinese people who correspond to the era in which they lived in.  Some of the famous Chinese people that are portrayed are Chinese Americans from the past such as Anna May Wong, the first Chinese American actress, Yung Wing, the first Chinese American who graduated from an American university and Chinese Americans in the present such as Jin Qian Xuesen, an important scientist who made major contributions to the space aeronautics programs in the US and in China, Michelle Kwan, a world-class figure skater, and Yoyo Ma, a cellist.

I have found that I have come to question myself on whether Chinatown is either a place or a state of mind. From this visit, I have come to the realization that Chinatown resides both in its mental and physical presence.  As I walked through the entire museum, there was one part of the museum that really struck me. That portion was a recreated general goods store. The room in the museum is called the General Store.  It includes discarded objects collected from old stores in Chinatowns across the United States. Chinese-Americans formed strong communities in Chinatown neighborhoods within many cities.  These include New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles and Chicago. The exhibit shows the importance of such stores in these communities. General stores are, at once, a supplier of everyday and specialty Chinese goods, pharmacy, post office, travel agency, and community center. There is also a renovated General Store in Chinatown that is located at 32 Mott Street. This one general store kept connections with other Chinatowns and even distributed goods to other Chinatowns. In the back of the general goods store at the Museum of Chinese in Americas, there was a clear glass window that peered outside into the street. I remember the guide as he said that the window is a symbolic wall of connecting the past with the present. I looked out through the window and saw the outside pavement, I realized that I was looking through the eyes of a Chinese immigrant. I was staring outside into the future (the present) and hoping for the best. Later on when I walked outside, I stared back into the general goods store and I saw the past. I imagined ghostly figures conducting business in the goods store, and I was thinking how is it possible for such a general store to contain so much life? As I thought about the general store and the livelihoods that people maintained there, I then realized how fortunate I am to be living in the present.

The past always serves as a reminder of our accomplishments and our failures. I am proud to call myself a Chinese-American. As Laozi has said, I have only took a single step in my journey of a thousand miles.

Museum of Chinese in America website