For years since moving to New York, I’ve been meaning to visit the Museum of Chinese in America. Even back when they were in a seedy looking building down in Chinatown, with their doors constantly blocked by a proliferation of fortune tellers, it’s been on my list. But like many things, it didn’t happened. When they got their new building north of Canal Street, it reminded me that I wanted to drop in for a visit, yet still it didn’t happen. When I happened by an ad not too long ago for an exhibit about the portrayal of Asians in American comic books, and the lives of Chinese-American comic writers and artists in the industry, it finally got me off my butt and into the museum.
Like many a cheapskate New Yorker who finds himself a little deficient in the funding, I took advantage of the museum’s free admission Thursday, sponsored by Target. The museum is small but packed with info, starting with the arrival of Chinese immigrants during the 1800s and the challenges they faced in their new home. From the Exclusion Act to racist novelty toys, the museum is a study in tremendously bad (in my opinion) cultural policy. From there, the museum highlights portrayals of Chinese Americans in pop culture, including movies, burlesque, and even restaurants. Then it’s on to the shifting role of Chinese first as allies we need to learn to discern from those evil Japanese and later as mysterious Communist threats to our way of life. Eventually, you get to more positive stories of Chinese-American successes and advances in the United States.
The exhibit I came specifically to see was housed in two rooms. The first was dedicated to exploring the traditional portrayal of Asians in comic books and looks at the most common Asian stereotypes: the kamikaze, the mastermind, the dragon lady, the guru, the helpless lotus, the silent thug, and so on. Part of the room was also dedicated to exploring the work of Asians — most notably superstar Larry Hama — who struggled to make a name for themselves in an industry that was so willing to portray Asians as the most ridiculous of stereotypes.
The second room was much smaller and covered Asian-American writers and artists making a name for themselves in the world of independent and alternative comics. While the exhibit doesn’t cover anything that you wouldn’t be familiar with if you already have a fascination with comic book and pulp fiction history, it’s still great to see it all in one place and so in your face, as it were. Overall, the museum is pretty nice, though a bit small for the price one pays for regular admission, so I recommend catching it on free Thursday or looking for discounts (New York — you never have to pay full price in this town) then just making a donation at the museum. At the same time, ten bucks isn’t painful, so maybe you should just help out and pony up. Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in U.S. Comics, 1942-1986 and Alt.Comics: Asian American Artists Reinvent the Comic runs through February, so if you are around, get down as soon as you can to check it out.