Chinese-Americans' history ascends new stages

The tip of 740-acre Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline. Below, a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America. The tip of 740-acre Angel Island and the San Francisco skyline. Below, a permanent exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America. (Photos By Bob Chamberlin/Los Angeles Times; Maya Lin Studio/Moca (Below)
By Bonnie Tsui
Globe Correspondent / November 15, 2009

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Between 1910 and 1940, a million immigrants passed through Angel Island, a speck of land in the middle of San Francisco Bay. But the Chinese, about 175,000 of them, were singled out for detention and interrogation at the immigration station, packed into bunkhouses surrounded by barbed wire - some for two weeks, others for up to two years - before they were allowed into the United States or deported back to China.

It’s an ugly, oft-forgotten chapter of US immigration history. In 1970, the discovery of more than 200 Chinese poems painstakingly carved into the crumbling barracks walls led to the establishment of the site as a state monument.

Today, Angel Island State Park is mostly known to Bay Area locals for its exceptional views, and as a beautiful place to hike and camp. But this year, after a three-year closure and a $60 million restoration, the historic barracks got renewed attention with a grand reopening as part of the Angel Island Immigration Station museum.

Interpretive exhibits now feature luggage and furniture from the early 20th century, re-creations of bunks in the Chinese men’s and women’s dorms, and photographs of picture brides detained on their way to new lives in America. Visitors can listen to audio panels that play the wall poems in English and Chinese.

Rosa Wong-Chie, a graduate student in San Francisco, attended the immigration station’s February reopening. There, she met a woman whose mother was a picture bride who came through Angel Island when she was 18.

“There was a picture of the woman - her name’s Lena - as a baby on her mother’s lap,’’ Wong-Chie said. “When her mother passed away a while ago, she inherited a suitcase.’’ The suitcase had her mother’s belongings when she immigrated to the United States. “It’s unbelievable to have such a knowledge of what happened to her family.’’

Like San Francisco, New York has also been a longtime port of entry for the Chinese. It, too, got a significant new cultural addition this year when the Museum of Chinese in America opened the doors to its new home in September. The intimate, light-filled space is situated in a former machinist’s shop on the border between Chinatown and SoHo, and was designed by Maya Lin, architect of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington.

The museum had its beginnings in 1980 as the New York Chinatown History Project, an organization co-founded by Charles Lai and John Kuo Wei Tchen to document the oral histories of older generations of Chinese-Americans in the community. It was also active in collecting photos and other artifacts for research and educational purposes. Its old location on Mulberry Street now serves as its archives.

In its new incarnation, the Museum of Chinese in America now speaks with a decidedly more contemporary voice. It also has a lot more space to do its job as a showcase of Chinese-American history and culture. An elegant, understated facade at the Centre Street main entrance is constructed of glass, wood, and bronze, with large floor-to-ceiling windows inviting passersby to look inside. The lobby is installed with a permanent “Journey Wall,’’ a collection of bronze tiles inscribed with the names of Chinese-American families, their places of origin in China, and the US towns and cities in which they now reside.

I was lucky enough to meet Lin and S. Alice Mong, the museum director, the week before the opening. Lin was preoccupied with last-minute details. “Remind me to put a ‘PULL’ sign on the front door, otherwise people are going to be walking into the glass like I am,’’ she said, amused. The two women’s excitement about the project finally coming to fruition was palpable.

“Maya has been with us on this project for a very long time,’’ Mong said. The ultimate goal of the museum, she added, is to become a national attraction that is also a welcoming place for the surrounding Chinatown community.

Lin’s design honors that cultural heritage, but at the same time deftly brings it all to a refreshingly up-to-date and tech-savvy place. At the heart of the building is a two-story exposed-brick atrium, reminiscent of the traditional Chinese courtyard; surrounding translucent glass panels present multimedia portraits of Chinese-Americans whose stories represent specific eras. The main lobby area opens into the MOCA Salon, where visitors are invited into an interactive kiosk to contribute stories to a digital archive of the Chinese-American experience.

The other face of the museum looks toward Lafayette Street and SoHo. The display window here showcases a historic Chinatown general store, made up of salvaged artifacts from old shops across the United States. Lin has called this side the “evening entrance,’’ and it is designed to welcome guests for public exhibitions, films, and special lectures in the museum’s cultural center.

In this new location, the museum is making the move beyond Chinatown to celebrate the emergence of Chinese-Americans in mainstream American life.

Like Angel Island’s newly restored facilities, the museum draws Chinese-Americans who are curious about the history of their people in this country, but both institutions are also intended for a wider audience.

To this end, the Museum of Chinese in America’s collections range from vintage artifacts - Cantonese opera costumes, old Chinese restaurant signs, stunningly racist newspaper headlines - and personal histories of prominent Chinese-Americans to cutting-edge video installations and presentations, all anchored around the permanent core exhibit, “With a Single Step: Stories in the Making of America.’’

“With a Single Step’’ gives a timeline and overview of Chinese immigration to the United States. The historical accounts were put together by well-known Chinese-American writers, including playwright David Henry Hwang, journalist Helen Zia, and authors Ha Jin, Maxine Hong Kingston, and Gish Jen.

This all-star cast extends to a series of 10 short films about Chinatown commissioned for the museum’s inaugural. Award-winning filmmakers include Wayne Wang, director of “The Joy Luck Club.’’ “The Chinatown Film Project’’ explores the reality of the neighborhood as vibrant, gritty immigrant enclave, as well as the seductive idea of it: as the Hollywood metaphor for mystery and exoticism, as a signifier of American noir. The project has expanded its community and viewership by inviting filmmakers from around the world to upload their videos to its website. There is also a gallery dedicated to rotating exhibitions; “Here and Now’’ is currently up.

All this is to say that it’s worth it for travelers to both cities to take a day to hop a ferry to Angel Island or the 6 train to Lafayette Street. Americans of all immigrant backgrounds can welcome a look back for cultural context.

Bonnie Tsui can be reached at

If You Go

Angel Island Immigration Station

San Francisco Bay


One room in its historic barracks is open Wednesday-Sunday for self-guided exploration. For full access to the grounds and facilities, visitors must join the docent-led tour at 12:30 p.m. and 2 p.m. weekends; adults $7. Ferry service from San Francisco is limited in winter. For more information, visit the California State Parks at

Museum of Chinese in America

215 Centre St., New York


Friday- Monday 11 a.m.-5 p.m., Thursday till 9; adults $7, Thursdays free.