Friday, January 31, 2014


 Photo courtesy of Anne Lowe
      In the heart of New York City’s Chinatown—the largest Chinatown in the USA, streets bustle with restaurants and chop suey joints, vegetable markets sell snow peas and ginger, exotic pears, lichee nuts and comquats and busy fish stalls offer seafood so bright and fresh and shiny you can smell the sea’s brine. Chinese New Year will be celebrated in the streets and its celebrated dining places on January 31.
     Here, at 215 Centre Street, Museum of Chinese in America presents a fascinating journey into the history and culture of the Chinese people and their thorny relationship with America.
     Through artifacts, collections of memoirs, photographs, videos and exhibitions of art, visitors and students may study and research the events and chronicles of the Chinese in the Western Hemisphere.
     An introductory video disc transports us back in time to the 1600’s before Chinatown was Chinatown and the region was home to Native Americans who traded with the Dutch at Werpoes Hill and Center Street; by 1626, the Dutch had purchased Manhattan Island and small farms dotted the area. Tanneries used the standing water in nearby swamps and provided employment and pollution around the area that is Worth, Centre and Mulberry Street in the late 18th century and butcher shops occupied Mott, Pell and Bayard Street.  The neighborhood was crowded, filled with the stench of the slaughterhouses and the poverty of the poor. Free blacks and escaped slaves moved into the area in the 1830’s, labored in the tanneries and were active in the abolition movement. Then Irish and German immigrants arrived in America in the 1850’s, crowding tenements and Italians and East European Jews followed them. Today, the area is becoming though visitors may tour the past in the Tenement Museum at 970 Orchard Street, the St. Paul Chapel dating from 1766, that miraculously survived September 11, and the Eldridge Street Synagogue built in 1887. Though Chinese traders and sailors brought tea and silk to our ports in the early 1830’s, permanent Chinese residents in the neighborhood in the 1850’s only numbered about 150.
      Displays of artifacts and memoirs illustrating the dispersion of the Chinese to the Western Hemisphere mesmerize. The Chinese immigrated from the coastal provinces of Guangdong and Fujian, fleeing a deteriorating economy, floods, food shortages, government corruption and violence. Called Collies or “Bitter Strength,” in Chinese, they came to find their Gold Mountain. Many arrived in San Francisco in 1849—thousands of others traveled to Peru, Trinidad, California, Montana and Oregon seeking a new life in a new world. They labored in gold mines and later ten thousand men were recruited to build the first transcontinental railway while others washed, ironed, served food and harvested crops. The immigrants found lives of harsh manual labor and prejudice based on race.
     When the Union Pacific and Central Pacific joined tracks at Promontory, Utah on May 10, 1869, the Transcontinental Railroad transformed the West—no longer needed by the railroads the immigrants were used as replacement labor in a depressed economy.  Mob violence and discriminatory laws followed and many Chinese fled to larger cities; their ghettoized neighborhoods becoming known as Chinatowns. By the 1880’s, the number of Chinese in New York was close to one thousand—the foundation of the largest Chinatown in America. 
     The United States reacted to the hostility toward the Chinese by passing the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 which prohibited laborers from entering the United States.  Merchants were exempt under Section Six of the act.
     A current exhibition features The Lee Family of New York Chinatown Since 1888. Harold L. Lee and Sons, Inc. outlines the growth of a small foreign exchange company, founded in 1888, to it’s success today as a national insurance agency. This year is the agency’s 125th anniversary.
     The Exclusion Act was finally lifted in 1943 and China, our war-time ally, given a small immigration quota. In 1968, the quota was increased, the population grew and today, Chinese citizens are prominent in the arts, science, technology, medicine and politics.
     Amongst the highlights in past exhibits were Chinese American Designers such as Vera Wang, Anna Sui and Vivienne Tam and Shanghai Glamour between 1910 and the 1940s. Shanghai was a modern city by the 1920s with its fashion known worldwide.
     Currently on display is a more serious presentation  Life in Chinatown On and After September 11.  The display communicates the experience of Asian New Yorkers during and after the World Trade Center attacks through documents, images and artwork and is dedicated to those that lost their lives.
      Chinese American art historians and students founded the museum in 1980, as the New York Chinatown History Project, to show the “Chinese experience as part of the larger history of America” MocCA’s mission is “to reclaim, preserve, and broaden understanding about the diverse history of the Chinese people in the Americas.”
Happy Chinese New Year

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Saturday, January 18, 2014


     When I was in my teens, I studied Shakespeare with a teacher who read Hamlet to us, relished the monologue and as she read the words pronounced them “trippingly on her tongue.” This probably encouraged my love of words.
     Words and how they’re used may shape, enlighten, or defame. Influence elections. Judge human frailties.  Prod, push and urge fanaticism. Cause one nation to fight another. Incite murder. Words are debated, memorized, and changed as they pass from one generation to the next. Whispered, sung, and shouted. Sighed over and repeated when chosen to encourage love or lust. Thought about and constantly rewritten when used in fables, stories, plays, histories and religious texts.

     The Torah: The Five Books of Moses that Christians call The Old Testament is studied by Jews and Christians today. The New Testament is read by the faithful in many interpretations throughout the world—the King James Bible, from the year1611, one of the most popular. The Koran, the sacred text of Islam is believed to contain the revelations made by Allah to Mohammed.
     Charles Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species explained the evolutionary process. Controversy followed and is still debated because it disagreed with the literal interpretation of the Book of Genesis in the Bible.
      Democracy, Capitalism, Socialism and Communism have many roots: The Republic written in 380 BC by Plato, Thomas Paine’s The Rights of Man, and On Liberty by John Stuart Mill, The Declaration of Independence and The Constitution. The Communist Manifesto written by Karl Marx brought about changes in government in many parts of the world. The words in these documents all reverberate in our day.
     Jacob Riis wrote How the Other Half Lives bringing attention to the poor in the United States. Betty Friedan’s The Feminine Mystique and the Second Sex by Simone De Beauvoir changed the lives of women. Harriet Beecher Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl written by Harriet A. Jacobs under a pseudonym and The Narrative of Frederick Douglass focused on the lives of enslaved African Americans and led to the unforgettable words of Martin Luther King. The Jungle by Upton Sinclair—a novelist and social reformer—exposed the horrors of the Chicago meat packing industries and Silent Spring by Rachel Carson alerted the public to the dangers of environmental pollution.
     Shakespeare’s plays influenced our view of history and are still selling tickets today. (Personal note: When I saw Henry the Fifth at the Globe Theatre in London, I found myself enthusiastically cheering for the English before the realization struck—I was an American and should have been cheering for the French who helped during our revolution.)
     Examine the ancient history of enemy warfare and learn about the first documented manuscript, titled The Art of War, written in 400 BC, by Sun Tzu, a Chinese military strategist and philosopher who advised the use of deception as an instrument of conflict. The book includes a chapter on counter-intelligence. “All war,” Sun Tzu wrote, “is based on deception.” Sound familiar?
     In the play Amadeus, the author Peter Shaffer, accuses Antonio Salieri, a court musician—who taught Beethoven Liszt and Schubert—of jealousy leading to the murder of Mozart. Didn’t happen but the power of Shaffer’s words persuaded many in the audience. John Patrick Shanley’s Doubt, a play about a priest who is suspected by a nun of molesting a child led to discussion by playgoers that sometimes lasted for days. Did he or didn’t he? The argument goes on.
     By the end of a narrative—document, biography, history, fiction—no matter the genre, a connection between the writer and reader will encourage conversations with others about motivations, the truth of what has been written, and what the story means to them—each takes something different away from the page. We may not write a book that will last through the ages, we may not become a 21st century Jane Austin or Charles Dickens but we can write books that will bring enjoyment, discovery, escape and the hunger for another manuscript.


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Wednesday, January 15, 2014



Thought about a trip my husband and I took to Melbourne several years ago. A complimentary ride on Melbourne’s City Circle introduced us to a city famous for its network of trams. Wide streets, tree-lined boulevards, gardens and history awaited us as we traveled along Flinders Street in a colorful burgundy tram with gold and cream trim

The city’s first horse trams began on a suburban line in 1884; cable trams were initiated one year later. In 1889, electric trams took over and the City Circle Line has served tourists and city residents since 1936.

We spot the City Circle logo and board at Treasury Gardens; the oldest in Melbourne.  Directly to the rear is Fitzroy Gardens and Captain James Cook’s Cottage commemorating the English navigator, his life and his voyages in the southern hemisphere.

The next stop is the Gold Treasury Museum; we’re interested in its permanent collection Built on Gold. Eight of the vaults that stored the gold bullion now show how Victoria’s precious metal fashioned Melbourne’s destiny—the diggings, bush rangers who attacked the diggers on their journey to Melbourne to sell nuggets or dust, buyers working the fields who offered diggers a lower price than banks and bullion merchants and escort troops who charged one shilling per ounce of gold.

By switching to Tram No.16 at Swanton Street and St. Kilda Road, visitors may travel to the Shrine of Remembrance—a memorial completed in 1934—dedicated to men and women who made the ultimate sacrifice to preserve freedom. A climb to the top of the complex is rewarded with magnificent views of Melbourne’s skyline. Tram No.16 also carries beach lovers to St. Kilda where Melbourne’s citizens walk and cycle along the palm lined shore, sit at outdoor caf├ęs, and gaze at Port Phillip Bay’s panoramic scenes.

Back on the City Circle Tram the following day, we arrived at Melbourne’s Aquarium where Giant Sharks and Sting Rays reside in a 2.2 million litre oceanarium then onward to La Trobe Street where Flagstaff Gardens is located on the highest sector of land in the city. A shiver of fear attacks when we stop at the Old Melbourne Gaol, the site of 135 hangings between 1842 and 1929 including that of infamous bush ranger Ned Kelly.
The tram turns on Spring Street where the Princess Theatre home welcomes generations of theatre goers, luminaries and ghosts. Notably, the ghost of the baritone “Frederici,” who died of a heart attack while performing Mephistopheles in Gounod’s opera Faust; another shiver when I learn he returned to take his bow.

We wait for Tram No. 55 on Elizabeth Street; the tram will deposit us at the Queen Victoria Market. More than 1000 stalls offer meat, fish, bakery products, fruit, vegetables and an abundance of general merchandise and knick-knacks. Cafes are close to the Queen Victoria and Sundays a wine market is in residence.

This is the second century of electric trams in Melbourne; it provided us a delightful and inexpensive overview of Melbourne and the inner suburbs. 


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