It may not be one of the famous behemoths flanking either side of Central Park, but the Museum of Chinese in America was one of my favorite NYC museum experiences. Currently on exhibition is Sour, Sweet, Bitter, Spicy, which is worth the trip by itself.
Although this exhibit is supposed to have ended, it’s so popular that the museum is extending it through September 30th. You sit down at a very long dinner table and take in the stories of famous Chinese and Chinese-American (as well as other Asian cultures) chefs as they play on big screens on either end of the table. Each place setting has the usual utensils, but instead of a menu is a short biography of each of the featured chefs, including what he or she considers to be their inspiration, signature dish, comfort food, and essential ingredients. Accompanying each is a 3D glazed clay model of the chef’s signature dish. I could have spent all day immersed in the stories of food and culture.
Another part of the exhibit, housed in a separate room, holds artifacts from various chefs that they consider a culinary talisman of sorts. Objects range from a favored wok or chef jacket to charming knick-knacks, such as a figurine of a Chinese kitchen God who watches over those who cook. In addition, in one corner of the room is an iPad set up with interviews with the various chefs that you can listen to with headphones. Some of the interviews are over an hour long, which makes for a good rainy-day activity or when museum traffic is slow.
The rest of the museum’s exhibits are equally interesting. In one room you can learn about eastern medicine in a model apothecary shop, and in another you can see a reproductions of opium balls that were used to transport and store opium. Another room focuses on Chinese holidays, especially Chinese New Year. Ethnicity and identify are the focus of another room, with quotations from mixed-race Asians. My favorite quote: “What am I? Shouldn’t you be asking my name first?”
One of the most intriguing features of the museum is an interactive exhibit featuring notes and quotes from the museum’s patrons. Visitors are asked to identify as first, second, third, or fourth generation Chinese, and how they feel about America. Blue index cards indicate feeling hopeful, pink are for those who feel fearful, yellow is uncertain, and white is neutral. Visitors then write about why feel the way they do, and then place the cards on the wall, cross-referencing which age bracket they fall under with which generation of immigrants they identify with. The result is a very visually appealing mosaic with pithy, insightful comments about American through the lens of immigrants.
MOCA is cheaper than your average museum; $10 for general admission, $5 for seniors and students, and completely free the first Thursday of each month.
By: Sarah Henry
p.s. in case you missed it, here’s 5 things Jess loves in Chinatown!