On January 23, 2020, nearly two weeks after the first known death from what the New York Times referred to as the Wuhan Coronavirus, a fire tore through the upper floors of 70 Mulberry Street. Built in 1892—the year the Geary Act added a decade to the Chinese Exclusion Act, the first law banning a specific ethnic group from immigrating to the United States—70 Mulberry sits diagonal from Chinatown’s Columbus Park, where seniors bow erhus and play cards, and tourists watch the seniors. The five-story, red-brick former school building housed a number of community organizations, including a dance company and an employment assistance center. It was also home to the archives of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA). The museum feared the fire irreparably damaged some eighty-five thousand items. If the flames spared the archives, the hoses would not; firefighters pumped water into the building for more than twenty hours.
Eight days and a Lunar New Year later, I walked out from the museum into Chinatown, all Tyvek and 3M, my disposable coveralls biting at the tops of my thighs and diapering at the ass, my respirator mask fogging my glasses. The museum told us we weren’t likely at risk of exposure—to what, I don’t remember them saying—but insisted that the ten or so of us volunteering that morning to rescue the archives wear protective gear. As I ferried materials from the building to a nearby vacant office for temporary safekeeping, I felt self-conscious, aware that I looked like a contagion-movie extra, like a racist YouTube prank. (“WE WORE PLAGUE GEAR IN CHINATOWN!” says title.) By then six people in the US had tested positive for the coronavirus. Across the globe, anti-Chinese sentiment was on the rise, as I heard in reports from France, Australia, Japan, and Hong Kong (against mainlanders). Responses were mixed. The Chinese people selling handbags on Canal Street gave me a quizzical look. A family of Italian tourists pointed at me gleefully, but they seemed liable to point at anything. A bloated man in a leather duster mockingly covered his mouth and pantomimed diving out of my path into a Chase vestibule. I thought about coughing at him to see what would happen. I wasn’t that angry, but I am half-Chinese and was happy to get into a fight if he thought he could get away with that.
I’m too old to do the knucklehead New Yorker shtick anymore and momentarily represented the museum in any case, so I made my rounds without incident. On my second trip to the building, the museum’s press officer stopped me. He asked me if I’d talk to a reporter from China Global Television Network, which he specified as Chinese Central Television’s international arm. A white woman with a British accent approached me with a microphone, white cameraman in tow. I felt charitable if exhausted, so I spouted something barely coherent to these white people asking me, on behalf of what I suspected was an almost entirely Chinese audience, why I was helping. There’s no awareness of Chinese American history, I mumbled. The anchor smiled, nodded for more. I murmured something about material embodiment and community and respecting the people whose family histories are collected by the museum.
I believe the gist of what I said. I know of no equivalent of the archive, a product of some forty years of collecting Chinese Americana. It is a pack rat’s loving portrait of what it has meant to be Chinese in this country over the past century or so, among its holdings garment-worker union booklets and hand-drawn maps of Chinatown, 20th-century stock certificates and scrapbooks commemorating September 11. I also have more quotidian affections for the museum. Giving my soundbite, I remembered my own bit of Chinese Americana kitsch: I would drop off taro bubble tea for a high school girlfriend as she interned for MOCA, back when the museum was housed entirely at 70 Mulberry. They hadn’t yet opened the fancy Maya Lin–designed space on Centre Street, where, two Augusts ago, I watched my mother give a talk about her sculpture practice. I’d never seen her speak in public about her work, let alone about being Chinese. The following month, I got drunk and watched MC Jin, the Chinese American rapper turned multihyphenate, film a stand-up special there in a family-friendly bid for career rejuvenation. Jin fascinated me growing up, an Asian guy who looked and acted like my friends but, unlike them, was so murderously good at rapping that he won seven Freestyle Fridays in a row on BET’s 106 & Park and got a deal with Ruff Ryders. His single “Learn Chinese” tanked and Jin left for Asia, becoming a recurring figure in Hong Kong and China’s rap scenes—competing, for instance, on the hit Chinese reality show The Rap of China as MC Hip Hop Man, a gold mask barely hiding his identity. At MOCA, he was just a Chinese dad who had settled on Staten Island, doing crowd work with aunties and earnestly praising Will Smith as a role model.
I considered the American predicament of being Chinese: you are often an accomplice to power, but you are also often close to being forgotten entirely.