In Manhattan’s Chinatown, where tensions over the displacement of long-term residents and businesses have risen considerably over the last decade, a municipal grant to a local museum is sparking outrage among some members of the community.
Founded in 1980 with a mission to preserve and display the material culture and history of the Chinese-American community in New York City and beyond, the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) long struggled to obtain sufficient funding for its operations. But when the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to grant the museum $35 million of a $50 million concession to Chinatown for the construction of a new jail facility at the edge of the neighborhood, museum leaders saw a potential solution to their problems.
Much of the money, according to the New York Times, will likely be used to purchase the building that the institution now rents for $600,000 per year. The museum hopes that ownership will enable it to attract more private donations, as well as further funding from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs, which has denied many of director Nancy Yao Maasbach’s previous requests. The museum has also been in dire need of operational investment since a fire last year damaged upwards of 85 percent of its storied collection.
For some residents of a city battered by compounding crises in 2020 and 2021, many of whom thronged outside the museum to picket its reopening, the grant is a reflection of misplaced priorities and a harbinger of future gentrification. Businesses in Chinatowns across the United States were some of the first to face the brunt of pandemic-related anxieties. Even before government-mandated shutdowns began, patronage at restaurants in many Asian-American communities fell, likely due in part to racial prejudice. Violent physical assaults against Asian-American people, including many elderly immigrants, spiked again earlier this year as misplaced grievances over a devastating pandemic and poor government responses mounted.
Manhattan’s Chinatown was struggling against larger forces long before COVID-19 entered the city. While New Yorkers of Asian descent are currently the fastest-growing racial group in the city, the Asian-American population in the historic neighborhood has dropped. Some community activists, including organizers with the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB) and CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities‘ Chinatown Tenants Union (CTU), attribute Chinatown’s gentrification to some combination of high-end residential developments, an influx of younger, more well-to-do renters, and new chain businesses without deep ties to the community. A series of painful closures caused or hastened by the pandemic, including those of the popular restaurants Amazing 66 and Jing Fong, have brought new attention to changes in the neighborhood.
The controversy over the museum’s grant is, in some ways, reflective of social and economic disparities between the neighborhood’s working-class Asian-American population and more well-to-do transplants, property investors, and patrons of higher-end eateries, art galleries, and boutique hotels. These shifts are occurring in Chinatowns across the country, from Boston to San Francisco, sometimes with mixed reactions from local business owners and families.
Jonathan Chu, the landlord of Jing Fong’s formerly rented space and several other buildings in the neighborhood, also serves as co-chair of MOCA’s board–a considerable point of tension for the museum’s detractors. As protesters gathered outside the museum this summer, calling for Maasbach’s resignation and the redistribution of the grant money, one demonstrator held a sign reading: “Museum of Corrupt Asians.” The protests have prompted the artists Nicholas Liem and Colin Chin to pull their work from an exhibition documenting Asian-Americans’ efforts to combat racism and anti-Blackness in communities across the U.S.
It is difficult to deny that the issue of MOCA’s presence in Manhattan’s Chinatown is complex, not least because of new capital investments from the mayor’s office. But the museum also plays a critical role in educating members of the public—about 50,000 of them per year before the pandemic—about the chronically under-taught history of the Chinese diaspora in the United States.
According to the New York Times, Maasbach and Chu contend that they and the museum they run are being scapegoated for pain points in the neighborhood, that aggrieved residents need someone to blame for the rising cost of living and the lack of monetary support for businesses–broader policy issues over which they have no control. In a document posted on its website, the museum stated: “To the critics, MOCA is a sign of community success that runs antithetical to the critics’ misguided and myopic worldview. Their critiques are general statements of a global political aim, which are neither credible nor genuine. Their statements are made in bad faith.” How the institution, the local government, and Chinatown residents will balance the material preservation of MOCA’s rich and rare collection with the preservation of the neighborhood’s social and cultural fabric remains to be seen.