Museum food exhibition has hidden meaning about Chinese-American past

China 24

A window into both the past and present reveals much more than meets the eye. There’s hidden meaning in the latest exhibition at a New York museum.

CGTN’s Han Peng reports from the Museum of Chinese in America.

Museum exhibition spotlights food, lives of Chinese immigrants

Museum exhibition spotlights food, lives of Chinese immigrants

A window into both the past and present reveals much more than meets the eye. There’s hidden meaning in the latest exhibition at a New York museum. CGTN’s Han Peng reports.

The exhibition is called “Sour Sweet Bitter Spicy.” It’s not just describing food, but also describing the lives– both past and present– of Chinese-Americans.

It features stories and important items from 33 chefs in the United States.

“For many Chinese immigrants to this country and possibly to other countries, the Chinese phrase ‘chi ku’ – eating bitterness is very prevalent,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, President, Museum of Chinese in America. “If someone were to say that to someone in the Chinese culture, let’s just eat some bitterness now because the hope is the future is going to be better… Prior generations have eaten the bitterness, not just your parents or your grandparents but all those generations of people who have fought discrimination.”

Chinatowns began to rise in the late 1800s, in part because of a law called the Chinese Exclusion Act. It limited immigration into the U.S., based on ethnicity. It remained in effect until 1943.

As some Chinese-Americans were attacked and many Chinese families remained separated for the rest of their lives, those who stayed gradually formed Chinatown communities, which helped them feel safe and connected.

“It’s hard not to think of ourselves as victims, and it’s hard not to keep talking about these things,” said Herb Tam, the museum’s Curator and Director of Exhibitions. “And I think what we found is, it’s very necessary to keep emphasizing that there’s this history of institutional racism that Chinese in America have had to face. But also that there’s this incredible culture that has grown out of this bitterness and this struggle.”

Earlier this year, the museum began asking visitors what they thought about the future of America. The question doesn’t mention U.S. President Donald Trump. But almost every answer posted does. Many believe what happened to the Chinese could serve as food for thought about what’s happening today.

The Trump administration says its ban on some immigration is being done out of security concerns. The reason for the Chinese Exclusion Act was mainly an economic one. Still, people are pointing out what they see as similarities between the two bans.

“The current executive order set in place on seven countries, on refugees and other citizens who are trying to come into this country, is very reminiscent of what happened in the late part of the 19th century against the Chinese,” explained Maasbach.

“The work of the museum is so important,” she said. “What if the Chinese Exclusion Act had been in our history books? What if we had learned about the Exclusion Act and then the burden of that legacy? If our voice is a little bit stronger, would we not see what we’re seeing today?”