The Heart of Chinatown in the Heart of a Hotel

In his role as Curator and Director of Exhibitions at lower Manhattan’s Museum of Chinese in America, Herb Tam spends a lot of time thinking about—and encouraging others to think about—the history of all of the Chinatowns in the U.S. His own personal history makes him especially well suited for this, as he was born in Hong Kong, grew up in San Francisco, and came to New York City to do his master’s degree. Now, as he adds the role of curator of the museum’s satellite exhibition at 50 Bowery to his portfolio, he’ll help the hotel’s guests learn about the neighborhood they’ll be (temporarily) calling home. Follow along for our exclusive Q&A with Herb to hear more about it!


Why was Hotel 50 Bowery a good fit for a collaboration with the museum?

The Chu family has been in Chinatown for generations and they are deeply vested in the community, just like MOCA has been since we were founded in 1980. Obviously being a hotel and being a museum are two very different things, but you can operate both with heart and sensitivity and that’s what we try to do. The exciting thing about this project for the museum is that we know a lot of tourists come to this area and may never get a taste of its history. Hopefully this exhibition can make some of these tourists realize that there are sediments of history here that are foundational to understanding New York and even American history.


Is this the first time you’ve designed an exhibit at a hotel?

Yes, this is the first time curating an exhibition within a hotel. The most challenging part was curating this exhibition before the space was even completed. Usually, the space is a given and you play off the physical characteristics that are there, but in this case we had to imagine how it would look in a space that didn’t exist.


Which of the artifacts on display in the hotel’s gallery do you personally find the most interesting, or the most meaningful?

One of the artifacts they unearthed when digging the foundation of the hotel that I found fascinating was a white ceramic pipe probably used for smoking tobacco. It’s a very delicate object with subtle design elements that evoke a seashell. In previous incarnations of this site, there was a beer hall, a theatre, a hotel, a tavern, and other more recent businesses. And through the centuries, people from all over the world and Native Americans lived in what we now call Chinatown. There is no known date for this pipe so who might have used it is really up to our imagination.


Which pieces do you think visitors and guests will gravitate towards?

People will be drawn to the beer steins and “medicine” bottles from centuries ago. It’s fun to think of people just like us from another era just wanting to have a drink to end the day, or get the night started.


What do you think of New York’s Chinatown and how does it compare to others in cities you’ve either lived in or visited?

New York’s Manhattan Chinatown is amazingly resilient, and of all the urban Chinatowns it’s the largest. It’s also the most active and complete one I’ve been to in terms of social service organizations, businesses, and residents that cater to the local community, not all of whom are ethnically Chinese. I love working in the neighborhood and learning about its history and documenting the culture that exists here now.


What’s your favorite museum in New York City? Apart from MOCA, of course!

My favorite museum in New York is the Queens Museum. I live nearby so it’s my local museum and they really take chances with their programming. Best of all, they don’t assume that their visitors won’t get challenging art or won’t engage in theoretical thinking. At the same time they have a robust education and community outreach program in which they really engage people in neighboring communities which are primarily made up of immigrants from Asia, South America, and Mexico.


Do you feel that the art scene/world in New York City is changing at all, and if so, how?

Yes the art world is always changing in New York. Certain mediums, strategies of making art, and ways of thinking about art come in and out of fashion so in a way change is constant in the art world. But clearly technology has impacted change in the art world greatly. What’s surprising and refreshing is that many of our best artists have committed themselves to making objects by hand – painting, sculpting, drawing, etc. I don’t know if it’s conscious but it feels like a reaction against how ubiquitous screens have become in our lives.


Anything else you’d like our readers to know about MOCA?

The most important thing to know about MOCA is that we are best experienced in person and we are open everyday except Monday, and open until 9pm on Thursdays. Our programs and walking tours open to door to the complex and rich history of the neighborhood.


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