85,000 Pieces in Beloved Chinatown Museum Likely Destroyed in Fire

Annie Correal
NEW YORK, NEW YORK - JANUARY 24: Firefighters continue to work in Chinatown the morning after a fire severely damaged a historic building that has been home to a senior center and other nonprofits for decades. The fire, which is under investigation, injured nearly a dozen people, most of them firefighters. Chinatown is preparing for Lunar New Year events tomorrow, the start of the year of the rat. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

NEW YORK — The 85,000 items, some dating to the 19th century, told the rich story of the Chinese migration to the United States: textiles, restaurant menus, handwritten letters, tickets for ship’s passage.

All of them could now be destroyed.

Officials at the Museum of Chinese in America said Friday evening that thousands of historic and artistic items it had carefully collected and curated over decades were most likely lost after a fire tore through a Chinatown building where most of its acquisitions were stored.

“One hundred percent of the museum’s collection, other than what is on view,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, the president of the museum. She said that the collection was one of a kind and that she was “just distraught” after receiving the news.

The fire broke out Thursday night at 70 Mulberry St., in a former school that educated generations of immigrants before becoming a cherished cultural landmark in the neighborhood. In addition to the museum’s storage, the building housed a senior center, the Chen Dance Center and a number of community groups.

The Museum of Chinese in America opened in its current location nearby on Centre Street, in a building designed by Maya Lin, in 2009. It had started nearly three decades before as the Chinatown History Project, and grew over time from a local project to a national one. Among the thousands of items in the collection believed to be lost is a document from 1883 about the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Other irreplaceable pieces included the carefully written letters of bachelors working in the United States to send money home “even though they didn’t live a full life because of discrimination,” said Maasbach; traditional wedding dresses from the early 1900s known as cheongsam; items brought by emigrants in suitcases that in some instances were later left anonymously outside the museum’s front door; and photographs from Chinatown in the 1980s.

“We keep replaying everything that’s there,” Maasbach said.

Maasbach said that she had been told by those coordinating the emergency response that the roof and part of the upper floors had collapsed in the building, which was determined to be structurally unsound.

No one will be able to enter and retrieve items for at least three weeks, she said she was told. The items, which are believed to have been soaked by water, are likely to be irreparably damaged by then, she said.

Ava Chin, a writer who teaches at the City University of New York College of Staten Island, called the likely loss of the archive, where part of her family’s history is stored, “absolutely devastating for the community and families like my own.”

Her voice cracking, she said, “Let me tell you what we lost: The ticket for our family’s passage to America, from 1914, my grandfather’s oral history, my great-grandfather’s ID papers.”

“It is the only — the single most important — repository of New York’s Chinese community,” she said, noting that the museum, once a grassroots effort, had assembled a history of a community that “larger institutions had tended to ignore.”

A spokesman for the city Buildings Department, Andrew Rudansky, said its inspectors had determined there was “significant interior fire damage” to the building and deemed it was not safe to occupy. The department did not issue a timeline for rescinding the order.

Nine firefighters and a 59-year-old man were injured in the blaze. The man was rescued from the fifth floor of the building and was reported to be in serious but stable condition, fire officials said. The firefighters suffered minor injuries.

The man told firefighters that no other people were inside, Thomas Richardson, the deputy chief of operations of the New York Fire Department, said during a news conference early Friday. The cause of the fire is under investigation.

As firefighters battling the fire sprayed the building with fire hoses, museum officials called in conservators and found freezer space, hoping they could salvage soaked items, according to Maasbach. But after receiving word that they would not be able to enter the building for weeks, hopes of saving the collection were dashed.

About 35,000 items in the collection had been digitized and those files were backed up, she said. On Friday evening, as water poured from the building, museum officials braced themselves to notify families who had donated items, artists and others of the destruction.

“People will be crushed,” Maasbach said.

Earlier Friday, Mayor Bill de Blasio visited the building, which the city owns, and described it on Twitter as a “pillar” of the community.

Before being turned over for use by community groups, the building housed a public elementary school, PS 23.

Councilwoman Margaret Chin wrote on Twitter that she went to school in the building after her family came to the country from Hong Kong.

Kent Zhang, the owner of the Bodhi Kosher Vegetarian Restaurant, across the street, watched as dozens of firefighters milled outside the debris-strewn building Friday afternoon. They had been there through the night, said Zhang, expressing his gratitude.

He said he was more accustomed to seeing older people come and go from the building, which he said was central to the Chinatown community.

“It’s the heart, the heart,” he said.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.


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