A Chinese cultural treasure in US is (mostly) saved from fire

Fire blows out of a window in the Chinatown section of New York, Thursday, Jan. 23, 2020.

Jason Steinhauer is the director of Villanova University's Lepage Center for History in the Public Interest and Senior Fellow at the Foreign Policy Research Institute. The views expressed in this commentary are his own. Read more opinion on CNN.

(CNN)In 2006, I worked at the Museum of Chinese in America (MoCA), in the historic building that went up in flames last Friday over the Lunar New Year. At the time, the museum had five staff and two volunteers; a small permanent exhibit was on the second floor. I held a temporary position, packaging historic menus for an exhibition titled "Have You Eaten Yet?"

The exhibit traced the evolution of the Chinese restaurant in America, from a cuisine once despised by white Americans to one embraced nationwide. The menus were beautiful: richly colored, ornately decorated and full of fascinating details including purposefully misspelled words pandering to stereotypes ("flied lice" as opposed to "fried rice") and lyrics to Broadway show tunes.
Jason Steinhauer
Each evening after work, I would walk down the steps of the building on Mulberry Street, built in 1893, and into the heart of a bustling Chinatown at twilight. It was not lost on me that a museum dedicated to Chinese immigrants occupied an old school building in Little Italy, across from Christopher Columbus Park, basketball courts and in the shadows of City Hall. It was like standing at the crossroads of America each day.
Thankfully, it appears the museum's artifacts are salvageable. Those artifacts include menus, books, magazines, theater programs, ticket stubs, photographs, scrapbooks, oral histories, passports, letters, paper fans, printing blocks, community flyers and much more. They are crucial because our fellow Americans of Chinese origin and with Chinese heritage are an important part of our ever-unfolding American story -- even if we have not always treated them as such.
    The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 denied entry to Chinese laborers, despite being less than 5% of admitted immigrants at the time. Chinese women were specifically barred, those who did arrive often sold into prostitution. Male laborers often worked for low wages and suffered from family separation, ill health and drug addiction. Chinese workers were subjected to "harassment, robberies, and mob violence" writes historian Erika Lee in her book "The Making of Asian America."
    In New York, Chinese American shopkeepers, peddlers and laborers formed a small enclave in Lower Manhattan. In the 20th century, as immigration quotas were lifted, Chinatown grew from a few thousand residents into a bustling epicenter of New York life and the largest Chinatown in the nation (by population).
    It was that rapid change that prompted the Chinatown History Project in 1980. Community members and activists salvaged photographs, scrapbooks and ephemera from dumpsters and curbsides in an attempt to comprehend how quickly things had changed. The seeds of that project would become the Chinatown History Museum, renamed to the Museum of Chinese in the Americas, and, today, called the Museum of Chinese in America.
    The MoCA collections are not solely evidence of why immigrants left China; they are evidence of why they remained in America.
    In China, there was often political upheaval, war, starvation and mass killings during the Cultural Revolution. In America, despite obstacles and discrimination, there were possibilities for independence, financial security, and communion. Those promises -- cliché though they may sound -- have brought millions of Chinese immigrants to these shores, as they have so many other immigrants, refugees and asylum seekers.
    Today, Chinese Americans continue to face discrimination: diplomats subject to assignment restrictions; scientists wrongly accused of espionage; intelligence and military personnel stripped of security clearances; and researchers purged from cancer projects. In the wake of the coronavirus, Chinese Americans have witnessed viral videos and Internet memes degrading their culture and cuisine, in addition to constant attacks against their ancestral homeland by western pundits.
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    Those tempted to see our fellow American citizens of Chinese heritage as somehow "lesser than" might benefit from a visit to MoCA. Though the museum documents local stories, the stories have national and transnational reverberations. They illustrate poignantly the changes to American society that dynamically occur around us each day.
      To quote historian David A. Gerber, American history is a collection of "individuals alternately suffering and enjoying the emancipating processes of freedom and choice." America is continually reinvented by those who make it home, a process we should not fear but rather embrace.
      We should be thankful that the MoCA collections survived. They are a reminder that though we may have vast cultural differences across vast geographies, all of us play a role in the formation of the American story.