Connor Borden: Visiting the Museum of Chinese in America

historical poster advertising meeting against Chinese

Tucked away in SoHo, just before arriving in Chinatown, visitors and residents of New York alike can find an inspired place dedicated to the history of Chinese-Americans. At the Museum of Chinese in America, or MOCA, the collection of memorabilia combines to impart a complex mixture of feelings: shame, nostalgia, disgust, delight, sadness, joy, confusion, gratefulness, anger, and many others I can’t pretend to understand.

The history of Chinese in America is one of pain. This comes as no surprise to many; the reality is that the United States has proactively and vigorously attempted to keep Chinese folks away. And even when they are allowed to stay, Chinese Americans were, as they are now, faced with many unjust obstacles.

“Chinese? No! No! No!” poster, 1892.

Many pieces from the museum are jolting, but one stood out for its relation to NYU. This excerpt is from a “Letter from Ralph E. Pickett, Associate Dean at New York University’s School of Education, 1955” written to NYU student and former U.S. Navy serviceman Tung Pok Chin which reads,

“While it is true that life under military control is different from life as a civilian, it is also true that, in this country, we have had all too many examples of the actions of Communists and communist sympathizers which have come perilously close to being traitorous…[O]ur government…must be sure that in any individual case a sympathy for people in a communist-controlled country does not become in overt alliance with our country’s enemies, whether that alliance be deliberate or unwitting…I tried to urge upon you the wisdom of taking cautiously the stories you were getting from your friends and relatives in China…you…potentially, are far too valuable a citizen of this country to allow yourself to become embroiled in these exceedingly complex political questions. All too often one finds that he has been used for the ends that political connivers have in mind and that his own idealistic attitudes have been ruthlessly manipulated” (found at the Museum of Chinese in America, Courtesy of Tamiment Library/Robert F. Wagner Labor Archives, New York University Libraries).

The overtones (and often overt feelings) of fear, oppression, secrecy, and surveillance forced Chinese Americans into Chinatowns for respite and refuge. And, put eloquently in the excerpt below, we often forget as we ogle these spaces what their purpose is to so many:

“Chinatown” it is called.

With meat and celery, soy and rice –

We feed them to make some pennies

We feed them to save here and to send home

They seek us to fear.

They seek us to fancy.

They seek the fantastic.

This is our commons and our cage.

Our there, we can’t work.

Our there, we can’t live

except behind our shops.

So, we create Chinatowns.

For them,

a diversion.

For us,

a refuge.

Our Chinatown, their Chinatown.

Woven like a braid.


an other to the other,

yet intertwined.

(Written and on display by the curators of the MOCA)