The irreplaceable items lost in Museum of Chinese in America’s fire

Highlights from one MOCA collection that includes over 400 handmade dresses, illuminating how some women used fashion to express identity, culture, and traditions.

You may have heard that last week, a fire broke out at 70 Mulberry Street. The building was owned by the city and was home to many community centers – a dance center, a senior citizens center, an athletics organization, and a job training center. But 70 Mulberry was also the first home of the museum now called the Museum of Chinese in America. And although museum operations had since moved to their current home at 215 Centre Street, nearly all their archives were still housed in that building on Mulberry.

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) preserves and presents “the history, heritage, culture and diverse experiences of people of Chinese descent in the United States.” They explore over 160 years of Chinese immigration to America and tell the stories of those who have indelibly influenced the fabric and culture of this country.

They consider themselves a national home of Chinese stories, and those stories have often been told through the museum’s archives. Their collection began before the museum even had an official name, when founders Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai noticed that longtime Chinatown residents were throwing away ephemera from their lives – old newspapers, paper fans, magazines, letters home, recital programs and restaurant menus. They began to collect this material, eventually expanding their scope and storing all these treasures at 70 Mulberry.

Aftermath of the fire at 70 Mulberry. Credit: Karlin Chen in Bowery Boogie.

And it’s this invaluable collection of materials that may now be irretrievably lost. In the words of Hua Hsa, who wrote a recent article in the New Yorker, the archives feature “hand-painted signs that weren’t created as art, suitcases that were only meant for a one-way passage across the ocean, tiny mementos that outlived the reasons for their aura. It was all so worthless, yet so priceless.” These items are part of the fabric of daily life for New York immigrants and they reveal the very human stories at the heart of larger trends in culture, public policy and social life.

At the Museum at Eldridge Street, we consider MOCA our friends and our partners in telling this intimate history of immigrants’ lives. We’re proud to bring visitors to a synagogue in Chinatown and to tell the story of how a new group immigrants have created new lives for themselves in this once-Jewish neighborhood. It’s these stories that MOCA continues to document and celebrate – although the massive wave of Jewish immigration that created our landmark synagogue has ended, MOCA’s stories are far from finished.

Flyer for an upcoming Lunar New Year event at MOCA.

And now, their recovery efforts have just begun. Today starts the first day that volunteers will be allowed inside the burned building, to begin the long process of assessing the damage and recovering what’s possible (follow the efforts on their Twitter account). How can you help? Donations are always useful. And they’re open to all volunteers looking to give their time, expertise or resources to this effort. If you’re interested in lending a hand, email If nothing else, consider visiting their museum soon and supporting the meaningful work they do.

Collections like MOCA’s speak about one particular piece of the American experience, but they’re an essential part of our national identity. Consider supporting this community pillar however you’re able.


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