The Jail Money Trap
New York magazine|December 20, 2021 - January 02, 2022
The Museum of Chinese in America was desperate to buy its building. The city found a reason to pay for it— one that threw Chinatown into a years-long fight.
Esther Wang

NO ONE WOULD argue that the past two years have been good for Manhattan’s Chinatown. Weeks before the first case of covid-19 was found in New York, local shopkeepers saw their traffic plummet—a disturbing indication of what was to come for a neighborhood where many survive on the slimmest of margins. As the city went into lockdown, businesses shuttered. Unemployment skyrocketed. And soon residents were dealing with other anxieties as the news filled with stories of Asian New Yorkers who were attacked on the street, incidents fueled in no small part by a president who delighted in blaming China for the pandemic.

Somewhat perversely, though, it has been a good time for the bottom line at what has become one of Chinatown’s most contentious institutions: the Museum of Chinese in America. MOCA closed to the public when New York locked down— and by the time it reopened its doors this past summer, the usually cash-strapped nonprofit was in its best financial shape in years. In early 2020, it got hundreds of thousands of dollars in recovery aid after its archives suffered a fire. Then came millions in grants from the Ford Foundation and philanthropist MacKenzie Scott. The biggest windfall of all, though, has been a $35 million grant from the city. The money will allow MOCA to buy the building it has been renting for more than a decade, construct a theater there, and expand its operations. With free admission and a new show called “Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting the Tide of Racism” that includes murals depicting events like the murder of Vincent Chin, it might have seemed ready to meet the political moment, too.

But as MOCA President Nancy Yao Maasbach prepared to welcome journalists and luminaries to the show’s opening in July, about two dozen protesters gathered on the sidewalk. Fresh-faced high-school students and Chinese grandmas with sensible haircuts hoisted signs that read museum of corrupt Asians and the museum of corporate art washing and hey MOCA! return the $35 million to the community! “Sanqian wubai wan,” they yelled—35 million.

Maasbach, dressed in a silky butter yellow gown and cream-colored heels, exited the building and faced the protesters. “That’s not true, and that’s not true, nothing’s true,” Maasbach said, jabbing her finger at the signs. “They didn’t give us any money!” She turned to a cluster of middle-aged immigrant women. “They’re using you,” she said to them in Mandarin before walking back indoors.

“Thirty-five million dollars says that’s bullshit!” a protester yelled. “MOCA thinks we’re stupid!” said another. For two hours, the protesters, led by a coalition that includes the workers-rights group Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association, booed anyone who stepped through the museum’s doors. “Boycott MOCA!” they chanted. “Protect Chinatown!”

It was the most visible protest against the museum to that point, but it wasn’t the first—because that sanqian wubai wan came with associations some see as unforgivable. MOCA got the money as a giveback from the city, triggered by the de Blasio administration’s plan to close the jail complex on Rikers Island and construct four new jails in different boroughs. In Chinatown, that will mean demolishing the Manhattan Detention Complex on White Street—the jail known as the Tombs—and replacing those buildings with a nearly 300-foot-tall tower. The city unveiled the details in 2018; while the move to close Rikers was widely applauded, de Blasio’s plan to replace it with what critics have called “skyscraper jails” was supported by some and fiercely opposed by others. Residents complained that the mayor’s office had rammed the plan through; prison abolitionists argued new jails would perpetuate a broken system. The city calls the money it gave MOCA a “community investment,” one of many given out in an attempt to make an unpopular plan more palatable; in Chinatown, a park and a senior housing complex got some money too. But the $35 million earmarked for MOCA is by far the most promised to a single institution, not just in Chinatown but anywhere in the boroughs.

Rumors had swirled for months that MOCA would benefit from the new jail. When the news about the givebacks came out in October 2019, it went off like a bomb. To many in Chinatown’s activist class, the announcement had the sting of a betrayal. One artists’ collective called for its peers “to stop working with and supporting the institution.” Corky Lee, a well-known local activist and photographer who died this year from covid, said both MOCA and local councilmember Margaret Chin had sold out Chinatown. The museum was forced to cancel a long-planned group show after almost 20 participants withdrew their work, citing museum leadership’s “complicity … with the jail plan.” Then, right before the July opening of “Responses,” more artists pulled out of that show for the same reason.

Maasbach insists that MOCA has always been against the jail plan. She says she did not ask for money connected to the jail, though some of her critics point to audio of a city meeting that seems to suggest otherwise. Despite the boycotts and protests, it took Maasbach and the rest of MOCA’s leadership more than a year after the city’s 2019 announcement to issue a public statement unequivocally against the jail. Meanwhile, the backlash widened; protesters started taking aim at the fact that MOCA’s board co-chair is Jonathan Chu, a commercial developer and the scion of a Chinatown real-estate dynasty that some see as hastening gentrification.

Perhaps it’s all just a PR disaster, a simple failure on the museum’s part to communicate what it was doing and why. MOCA still has plenty of supporters, including some of the best-known Chinese Americans in New York and beyond—people like the playwright David Henry Hwang. “To focus the anger and the calls for justice on an organization which is actually doing good and necessary work, I do think it’s the wrong target,” said Hwang, who once served on the museum’s board. “We suffer from invisibility. MOCA goes away, we’re just more invisible.”

MOCA has become a proxy for debates about who gets to decide what happens to Chinatown. It has come to represent something bigger than itself to both its critics and its boosters—an embodiment of how the idea of Chinese Americanness has grown and splintered over time. Once a scrappy organization dedicated to telling the stories of a working-class community, the museum is now fighting accusations that it has turned its back on those same people. Maasbach insists the city funding will allow MOCA to serve Chinatown better, with more room for community programming. The conflict raises the question: Whose needs and identity are highlighted when we talk about “Chinese in America,” and to whom do we owe our political commitments?

Today, when Maasbach talks about the jail—and she makes it clear she hates talking about the jail—she has the bewildered, slightly bitter air of someone who thought she would be the hero of the story only to find herself cast as the villain. The protesters’ narrative threatens to have real consequences: Former MOCA staff are criticizing her leadership. Relationships with artists have become strained. People she has never met are saying they want her fired. “I sit there,” Maasbach said, “and I’m like, How did this crazy thing happen?

HOUSED IN TWO stories of a Centre Street building full of reclaimed wood and exposed brick, MOCA is neither an art museum nor strictly a history museum. Its permanent exhibit, “With a Single Step,” is a visual sweep from the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act to civil-rights-era activism, while recent temporary shows History Project, the museum was founded in 1980 by Jack Tchen, a young historian, and Charlie Lai, a community activist. The two had met a few years earlier at Basement Workshop, freewheeling art and organizing hub that was then on Lafayette Street, where young activists were attempting to define what an oppositional Asian American identity could look like. They found a neighborhood in flux: The old-timers who knew Chinatown as a bachelor society were dying off, while thousands of immigrants were arriving every year, ushered in by the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act.

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