After more than a year of closure due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) reopened today, July 14, with a celebratory start to the exhibit Answers: Asian Americans’ voices resist tides of racism. But as visitors inside pondered artistic responses to anti-Asian hatred during the pandemic, around 100 protesters gathered in front of the Chinatown museum and accused the institution itself of “racism”. They called for boycotting the institution to “promote the displacement” of the same community it wishes to represent.
While visitors enjoyed calming music and dance performances in In the museum lobby, they could see protesters pushing their signs against the windows and hear them chanting slogans like “Boycott MOCA” and “Chinatown is not for sale.” Protesters, who surrounded the museum’s main entrance on Center Street, also booed guests who arrived at the opening, confronting them with chanting “Shame on you.”
These stark contrasts demonstrate the growing divide between the museum and local organizations, including artist groups, in Chinatown. For months, these groups protested the museum’s acceptance of a $ 35 million grant as part of a prison expansion plan that would reorganize and expand an existing 15-story detention complex nearby. These funds were earmarked for a permanent home and performing arts space for MOCA, which suffered a devastating fire in its archives last year. The funds are part of a ‘community restitution’ program included in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close the notorious Rikers Island prison complex and replace it with four detention centers based in the city’s boroughs .
“They are trying to ignore us because they don’t want to admit to themselves that they are part of such a racist and hateful institution that uses the Asian-American community to support each other while beating it up at the same time,” said Jihye Simpkins, one of the protest organizers and member of the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side.
Among the museum’s most vocal opponents are artists who are to be featured in the museum’s scheduled exhibitions.
On Monday, July 12, artists Colin Chin and Nicholas Liem sent a letter to MOCA asking to remove their works from the museum’s current collection and exhibition, citing its “complicity” with mass incarceration and gentrification. of Chinatown. The series of photos removed from the artists
“With our photos showing murals by Angela Davis, Yuri Kochiyama and other social justice activists, we found the actions of MOCA and the title of the exhibition Answers: Asian Americans’ voices resist tides of racism being a hypocrite in the greatest sense of the word, ”Qia read in the artists’ statement. “It is for this reason that we have not only decided to withdraw our work from the fair, but also to publicize actions that were only recently known to us. “
In March of this year, citing similar reasons, 19 members of the artist collective Godzilla withdrew from a retrospective of their work at MOCA, forcing the museum to cancel the exhibition.
When first approached at the opening event, MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach declined to comment, saying “You are not my favorite person.” But in a written statement to Hyperallergic on Monday in response to Chin and Liem’s removal from the exhibition, Yao Maasbach wrote: Artists are withdrawing from MOCA’s new exhibition ANSWERS: Asian Americans resist tides of racism was guided by disinformation.
To this, Simpkins replied, “MOCA says they are opposed to the new prison, but what are they doing to stop it? Accepting $ 35 million for the prison expansion plan is not opposition. “
Another major conflict between the museum and members of the Chinatown community revolves around Jonathan Chu, real estate mogul and MOCA co-chair, whom protesters accuse of helping gentrify the neighborhood. Activists claim that as the owner of Jing Fong Restaurant, a 40-year-old staple in the community that closed in March, he refused requests to cancel rent, leaving the restaurant with no other choice but to close its 800-seat location. (the largest unionized restaurant in Chinatown) and move to a smaller space. In an email to Hyperallergic, a representative for Chu disputed the allegations, writing, “The owners of Jing Fong made the decision themselves to relocate their restaurant. Any suggestion to the contrary is in direct conflict with what the owners of Jing Fong themselves have made clear.
Speaking to Hyperallergic in March, Claudia Leo, spokesperson for Jing Fong, said China Arcade LLC, the company owned by Chu, had “offered rent relief” and explained that the closure was the result of the drop in income during the pandemic.
Since March, activists from the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and other groups have been protesting twice a week in front of one of the Chu buildings in the neighborhood, demanding the reopening of the Jing Fong banquet hall and the rehiring of approximately 180 workers made redundant.
John Chen, a former worker from Jing Fong, was among the protesters today. He carried a sign in Chinese that read, “The Chu family, father and son, are destroying Chinatown. In a conversation with Hyperallergic, Chen said he has been relying on unemployment benefits since the restaurant closed, unable to find a new job (activist Kai wen Yang helped translate the conversation).
“How can we continue to live in this city if we can’t find a job? Chen asked. “We are losing our neighborhood.
Protesters urge Chu to agree to a plan proposed by former Jing Fong to buy the restaurant. Some, like Chin Liem, are also calling for him to be removed from the MOCA board.
When approached again for comment, Yao Maasbach referred Hyperallergic to Henry S. Tang, an investment banker and friend of the museum who attended the reopening.
“The closure of the restaurant is a problem between the owner and the tenant. It’s not related to MOCA, ”Tang said. “MOCA was organized for the community 50 years ago. He is not responsible for the gentrification of Chinatown; he is responsible for the modernization of the district. Tying these issues in a whimsical way is a disservice to the community. ”
Although emotions were running high, protesters said reconciliation with MOCA is possible if it chooses to decline the city’s $ 35 million grant or “give it back to the community.”
“We want to get this money back,” Simpkins said. “Chinatown has been devastated by the pandemic and MOCA has done nothing to help the community. “