Why some in this neighborhood oppose a museum dedicated to their culture

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Why some in this neighborhood oppose a museum dedicated to their culture
Protesters demonstrate in New York on July 21, 2021, in front of the Museum of Chinese in America, where Jonathan Chu, a landlord, is on the board. In Manhattan’s Chinatown, anti-gentrification protesters are furious over funding granted to a museum that they say doesn’t represent their community. James Estrin/The New York Times.

by Kimiko de Freytas-Tamura

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- NEW YORK — Twice a week, Li Zhen Tan, a former dim sum server, plants herself in front of the Museum of Chinese in America in Chinatown and joins the fervent chants of dozens of others like her who have congregated there.

“Bloodsuckers! Sellout!” she yelled recently, using a handkerchief to dab sweat from her face as the sun beat down. A man nearby shouted into a megaphone, alternating between English and Cantonese: “They think that because they speak better English, that they graduated from Ivy League schools, that they are better than us.”

The invectives were aimed at a museum that has struggled to survive since it was founded in 1980 to preserve and exhibit the history of Chinese Americans. It received a big boost when the city awarded the institution $35 million out of $50 million distributed to local community projects in Chinatown in return for the expansion of a jail there.

But the generous award has placed the museum at the center of a greater dispute over gentrification and inequality, a kind of class warfare between those of Chinese descent who have established themselves economically and socially over generations and newer working-class immigrants like Tan.

The protesters — a collection of artists, local residents, workers, anti-gentrification activists and union leaders — want the museum to return the money, which they say should be spread among the hundreds of small businesses and restaurants in Chinatown that have suffered from the pandemic.

Many residents believe that to preserve the story of Chinatown, it makes more sense to safeguard the actual neighborhood than a historical record of it — and to not do so may endanger Chinatown’s viability, putting it at risk of shrinking as Little Italy has in recent decades.

Those businesses include Jing Fong, a dim sum parlor that closed down in the spring partly because it could not hammer out an adequate deal with its landlord, Jonathan Chu, a co-chair of the museum board.

Cavernous and cacophonous, Jing Fong was the largest Chinese restaurant in Manhattan and had a casino-like atmosphere, where, under the dizzying lights of chandeliers, eager customers swallowed plates of food and called for more, said Tan, 60, who moved from Guangzhou, China, to the United States in 1997 and worked at the popular restaurant for over a decade.

Jing Fong employed more than 100 workers, and about 10,000 people ate there every week. Its closure, Tan said, has “ripped the soul out of Chinatown.”

The museum drew 50,000 visitors a year before the pandemic. In comparison, the Tenement Museum, a small museum that is nearby on the Lower East Side, had 250,000.

The protests over the award to the museum led a number of artists to show solidarity by removing their work from the latest exhibits, to the disappointment of Chu and Nancy Yao Maasbach, the museum’s president, who say they are being scapegoated for grievances that are unconnected to them. They were not involved in talks with the city over the jail plan, but they said the museum could not afford to turn down the money.

They are hoping to buy the building it rents on Centre Street, a step that would help attract donors to the museum, which survived a fire last year that damaged its archives.

“People don’t understand why they’re angry sometimes, right? And they’re looking for a target,” Maasbach said.

Maasbach and Chu are both third-generation Chinese American New Yorkers, educated at Yale and Harvard, respectively. Both worked in finance. Chu is one of Chinatown’s biggest landlords and a scion of a real estate magnate from Hong Kong.

With Chu a common denominator in both matters that have enraged the community, battle lines are being drawn between supporters of a museum that comes with a certain cachet and those of a dim sum parlor — two opposing sides fighting over which of the institutions is more valuable, more representative of Chinatown and therefore worth saving as the neighborhood gets shorn of its identity because of gentrification.

The Museum of Chinese in America, its backers believe, is vital to the community even though it caters largely to visitors. Its mission is to promote the history of the Chinese American experience and bring darker aspects of it, like the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, to a wider audience beyond the confines of Chinatown.

Lucy Kan, 60, a museum patron and a second-generation Chinese American, said she had not been aware of the Chinese Exclusion Act until she first visited the museum.

“I thought, ‘Oh, gosh a lot of this was out there without us knowing about it,” she said. “The Asian American experience is not widely taught, so I want my grandkids and their children to know about it.”

Her husband, Victor, who is originally from Shanghai and is also 60, said the couple, like many other immigrants, “were working so hard, and trying to assimilate that we didn’t know our collective history and experience.”

But for many locals, the museum does not feel like it belongs to Chinatown.

“It’s been in Chinatown for many, many years, but it really hasn’t played a huge role in the day-to-day lives of people in the community, and has done really very little in terms of drawing visitors and businesses to Chinatown,” said Nelson Mar, who is the president of a union representing Jing Fong workers, including Tan.

The debate over the museum funding goes to the heart of the question of Chinatown’s identity, said Setha Low, director of the Public Space Research Group at the Graduate Center at the City University of New York.

“This Chinatown is for whom? Does it become Chinatown for the Jonathan Chus?” she asked. “Bringing in too much aesthetic of a certain class means it will lose the authenticity, that feeling you get when you go there that you’re in someone’s community that is meaningful, and you’re being allowed to share that experience.”

The debate is particularly contentious because Chinatown has changed rapidly in the past decade, raising fears that it will be reduced to a few streets.

“If we keep going down the path we’re going right now, Chinatown is going to disappear,” said Truman Lam, who is part of the family that owns Jing Fong.

The transformation was largely spurred by the collapse of the garment industry. The local population is also aging, and as rents have risen, newer immigrants are moving to Chinatowns in Queens and Brooklyn. Though the city’s Asian population grew at the fastest rate among race and Hispanic origin groups since 2010, the population decreased significantly in Manhattan’s Chinatown, according to the recent census.

Even before the pandemic, large restaurants struggled because of high rent and taxes, and that was the case for Jing Fong, Lam said.

All these changes have made Manhattan’s Chinatown even more dependent on tourism and outsiders.

Jing Fong had just two years or so left on its 30-year old lease with Chu, its landlord, when the pandemic hit. Revenues slumped by more than 80% and did not bounce back because people were still postponing celebrations.

Owners of Jing Fong said that they would have stayed on had they been given a choice, but that Chu appeared to already have other plans in mind. Chu declined to say what he would do with the space.

“Anybody who runs a restaurant knows that the bigger your seat count is, the more economic risk you have,” Chu said. “At the end of the day, the easiest person to blame is the person who owns the ultimate space.”

But Chu has remained committed to the Museum of Chinese in America, even though it faces arguably bigger financial challenges than Jing Fong.

It employs a dozen full-time staff members and has struggled to receive donations and funding for years. In early 2020, a rickety old building that housed the museum’s collection of some 85,000 items and archives caught fire. The museum estimates that over 85% of the collections — luggage, clothing, personal papers, mementos — needs restoration.

Maasbach, who has led the museum since 2015, said she had been unsuccessfully applying for capital grant money from the city’s Department of Cultural Affairs for the last six years. Fundraising has been difficult, she said, because the museum does not own the building it is in — it pays $600,000 in annual rent on a $3.5 million budget.

“It cannot get to the point where it is today without constant support from government,” Chu said.

That is where the city’s jail plan came in. When Mayor Bill de Blasio started his campaign to dismantle the crumbling jail complex at Rikers Island by spreading inmates across four boroughs, city officials needed the support of City Council members. Margaret Chin, who represents Chinatown, agreed to a new 29-story jail tower, in exchange for various investments in the community, including the museum. Chu and Maasbach were not party to the agreement or any talks with the city.

“We have been fighting to build a museum in Chinatown, for a very, very long time,” said Chin, who negotiated the jail deal with the city. She is acquainted with Chu, who is also a member of Manhattan Community Board No. 3, which falls under her district. “And like, who are these people?” she added, referring to the protesters.

Meanwhile, the owners of Jing Fong are trying to open a smaller version of the restaurant, with less staff and a markedly different atmosphere.

The new location, at 202 Centre St., will be right across the street from the museum.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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