Community and Collaboration in Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving

The Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving exhibition at New York City’s Museum of Chinese in America helped celebrate the museum’s 35 year history while also looking at concepts of Chinese identity in America.  Open from September 25, 2014 to March 1, 2015, the exhibition examined the museum’s history, how the organization has changed, and why the museum’s work is still important in today’s society.

The exhibition included about 250 objects from MOCA’s collection, encompassing photographs, personal letters, historical objects such as shop signs, and oral histories, all of which were meant to “embody and evoke the lives, complexities, and aspirations of Chinese American communities in New York Chinatown and beyond.” [1] There are eight sections centered around major questions, such as Where does Chinatown end? How do you become American? What does it mean to be Chinese? How does memory become history? These questions, combined with objects from the museum’s archives, promote an inquiry-based approach where visitors can both learn about the history of Chinese in New York and America as well as question what identity means and how it is formed.


One of Waves of Identity's key exhibition questions.
One of Waves of Identity’s key exhibition questions.

The exhibition was influenced by and created in conjunction with the New York Historical Society’s Chinese American: Exclusion/ Inclusion exhibition, which ran from September 26, 2014 to April 19, 2015. MOCA personnel were involved in the creation of Exclusion/ Inclusion; its lead historian was John Kuo Wei Tchen (MOCA co-founder), and its assistant curator was Cynthia Lee (previous long-time curator at MOCA and Waves of Identity project advisor). Additionally, Exclusion/ Inclusion used some of MOCA’s artifacts in their exhibition, including vintage Chinatown store signs.

Working with the New York Historical Society on their exhibition forced MOCA staff to think about their own museum’s history and societal role. Herb Tam, curator and director of exhibitions at MOCA, explained that they questioned “If New York’s oldest museum [New York Historical Society] was telling the history of Chinese in America, what was left for us to do?” [2] This led MOCA to revisit their collections and seek new ways to portray the rich Chinese American stories their objects could tell. The exhibition coincided with the museum’s 35th anniversary in January 2015 and provided a way for curators and visitors to reflect on the history and community role of the institution. Funding for Waves of Identity was partly provided by the National Endowment for the Humanities through the New York Historical Society’s Exclusion/ Inclusion exhibition, although I struggled to find details about this particular aspect of the museums’ relationship.

The collaboration between these two institutions and their related exhibitions served to garner more attention to the Chinese American story and role, both in New York City and beyond. However, in the press Waves of Identity didn’t garner nearly the amount of attention that Exclusion/ Inclusion did, and was often overshadowed when the two exhibitions were mentioned in the same article. However, Waves of Identity was still reviewed favorably. It was praised for the, “sense of community that is felt throughout the exhibit” [3] and for “engaging visitors in a dynamic dialogue on identity.” [4].

Central to the exhibition is what it means to be Chinese American. The exhibition’s title is influenced by the Chinese proverb “Each wave of the Yangtze River pushes at the wave ahead.” [5]. This reflects different waves, or generations, of immigrants and how they affect each other; there is a constant, fluid relationship between the past, present and future. At the heart is the concept of identity and how it can change depending on place, time and other factors. Thus the exhibition is relatable to anyone, not just Chinese Americans. MOCA Interim Executive Director Janice Won explains that “All of our visitors should leave here with even more questions about who they are, themselves, their relationship to Chinese in America, and [should] really dig deep and understand their own perspectives of Chinese in America.” [6]

Waves of Identity is a relevant and insightful exhibit. It not only engages generations of visitors, but is also approachable by many audiences, not just Chinese Americans. Identity is a fluid idea and can be difficult to define, especially by different generations of immigrants across time and space. Waves of Identity helps make the Chinese American story in New York City relatable through personal objects and stories and also serves as a platform for all visitors to begin thinking about their own identity.


[1] “Waves of Identity: 35 Years of Archiving” Accessed April 27, 2015.

[2] “Waves of Identity 35 Years of Archiving” (Seoul: Museum of Chinese in America , 2014), 6.

[3] “Just for Fun: Uptown & Downtown – Different Perspectives on the Chinese in America” Accessed April 17, 2015.

[4] “The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)” Accessed April 27, 2015.

[5] “Waves of Identity 35 Years of Archiving” (Seoul: Museum of Chinese in America , 2014), 4.

[6] “Waves of Identity,” YouTube Video, 3:30, posted by “SinoVision English Channel Archives,” October 2, 2014,

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