As Museum of Chinese in America reopens, protesters say Chinatown deserves better
A loud protest against the long-awaited reopening of the Museum of Chinese in America on Wednesday provided a glimpse of how Chinatown’s future may depend on more than recovering from the pandemic, but also bringing together a divided community.
After being closed for more than a year, the reopening of the museum was the scene of a protest by activists and community groups against the co-chair of the museum’s board, Jonathan Chu, a prominent Chinatown owner accused of the closure of a beloved dim sum restaurant. which employed more than 100 workers.
Dancers performed in the lobby of MOCA to open a new exhibit titled “Answers: Asian American Voices Resisting Tides of Racism” as a few inches across the museum’s glass walls, the protesters chanted “Boycott MOCA” through a megaphone and leaned posters against the windows.
“Destroying Chinatown is anti-Asian violence,” one poster read, while others depicted Chu’s head on Godzilla’s body.
“They totally sold the community for their own profit and that’s exactly what we don’t need now,” said Nelson Mar, president of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union which represents workers in Jing Fong. “And that’s exactly what divides this community.
MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach told reporters at the museum’s press preview that she blamed both a political agenda of the protesters as well as “a consequence of exclusion, as there has so many divisions created by old administrations, by legislation “.
Chu owns the Elizabeth Street building which for many years housed the famous 800-seat Jing Fong Banquet Hall. Earlier this year, the owners of Jing Fong, the Lam family, announced on Instagram that they were closing the restaurant due to the impact of the pandemic on income, after more than four decades of operation in the building. Chu. A spokesperson for the Chu family said the restaurant had not paid rent since the start of the pandemic.
One of the few unionized restaurants in town, the Jing Fong Workers Union and other supporters demanded that Chu give the restaurant owners more time to pay off the rent, to bring back the extremely popular banquet hall that was being used. around 10,000 customers a week before the pandemic and save workers’ jobs.
In May, the Lam family applied to transfer Jing Fong’s liquor license to a much smaller 125-seat space at 202 Center Street, the former home of Red Egg, Bowery Boogie reported.
“The owners of Jing Fong made the decision to leave the space and move to another location in Chinatown. It was their right and the Chu wish them luck, ”said Eric Phillips of Edelman PR, spokesperson for the Chu family, in a statement Wednesday.
Protesters also called on MOCA to return $ 35 million the museum received from the Blasio administration as part of the city’s efforts to build a new jail on the site of the Manhattan detention complex a few blocks away. of White Street houses. The proposed new prison is part of de Blasio’s $ 9 billion plan to close Rikers Island, the city’s main prison complex, and replace it with four prisons located in the borough.
Protesters call MOCA funding a “bribe” to support controversial plan, which Blasio’s administration said was intended to fund the museum’s permanent home as part of $ 391 million “in investment in the neighborhood “to” support the communities surrounding the prisons with new affordable housing, youth programs, community and cultural centers.
“MOCA and its chairman of the board, Jonathan Chu, have taken enormous steps to speed up the movement in Chinatown – MOCA through its complicit support for the prison it is proposed to be built here, and Jonathan Chu in its closure of Jing Fong restaurant, ”said Mar, president of the 318 Restaurant Workers Union.“ So we are here to say that it is criminal that they reopen MOCA and not reopen Jing Fong, while Jing Fong is clearly the driving force behind this community. “
Maasbach said the protesters were confusing unrelated issues. “Jing Fong has nothing to do with MOCA,” she said, adding that she spoke to some of the elderly protesters who told her they were paid by the city council candidate. Christopher Marte, a vocal opponent of the new prison.
In a phone interview, Marte denied that the protesters were paid for by his campaign, noting that the hard-fought primary for the council seat had already ended with him in the lead.
Maasbach said the museum strongly supports his community and called the protest “divisive” and “unfair”.
“The mayor had a program with Rikers Island and the borough’s prisons. We have no information or knowledge about mass incarceration or penal reform. We are a social history museum about Chinese Americans. So for them to confuse the two, it’s unfair, ”Maasbach said.
She added that the museum has never received any other capital funding from the city and will not survive without the money: “We are going to die. MOCA cannot be sustained. We pay $ 600,000 in rent here. We have a budget of $ 2.8 million, “Maasbach said, and called the city’s funding” the money MOCA deserves. “
Even before the pandemic hit New York City, the museum was battling a devastating fire in January 2020 in its archives space in a community building at 70 Mulberry Street, where the museum’s 85,000 archives were in jeopardy.
Then the rise in xenophobia and violent anti-Asian attacks, combined with the city’s shutdown, made the past year and a half incredibly difficult for the museum’s mission, she said. It wasn’t until recently that the museum’s fortunes turned, with a surprise gift of $ 5 million from MacKenzie Scott, the ex-wife of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos.
“We appreciate the voice in protest because sometimes you need a voice to protest to create change,” Maasbach added. “But what they are expressing and protesting is all based on false information and amalgamating different issues.”
MOCA reopening exhibition, “Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tides of Racism,” which runs through September 19, includes a timeline of “Historical Moments in the Treatment of Asians and Asian Americans” as well as media: posters , videos, art, music, oral histories – of Asian Americans persevering during the pandemic. Details on tickets and timetables here.