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The Chinatown Art Brigade participating in an “Anti-Displacement Walking Tour and Public Action” in May 2019 (photo by Hrag Vartanian/Hyperallergic)

The Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB), a collective of Asian American and Asian diasporic identifying artists and organizers, is demanding that the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) reject a “community give-back” proposed by New York City as part of its jail expansion plan. The deal would give the museum $35 million in funding to support a permanent home and performing arts space for MOCA.

Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to close Rikers Island, the jail complex in the East River notorious for its human rights violations, includes an $8 billion allotment to build four borough-based pretrial detention centers by 2026. One of these facilities will be located on White Street in Chinatown, blocks from MOCA’s headquarters at 215 Centre Street. Among the “new neighborhood investments” promised by the mayor as a concession to the boroughs impacted by the new jails is the funding for the museum’s permanent home and performance center. Other local investments include new affordable housing in the South Bronx and new programming and recreation spaces.

Social justice advocates and prison abolition groups, including CAB and the Chinatown-International District (CID), have denounced the concession deal and called on institutions like MOCA to reject the give-back and take a stand against the construction of new jails.

In an open letter penned by CAB and sent to the museum today, the activists reiterate these demands. They also accuse the museum of failing to address and concealing details of the deal in the public eye, citing a “lack of response and attempts to silence community members for expressing concern or raising questions.”

“The community has been calling for MOCA to be publicly transparent about its funds and reject this concession for nearly two years,” the letter reads. 

“The actions of MOCA leadership to sell out to mass incarceration in exchange for financial gain are antithetical to this history and legacy of Chinese American social justice movements, while denigrating the lived realities and incarcerating the futures of Asian American immigrants and, particularly, Indigenous, Black and brown communities,” it continues.

The group also calls for the removal of luxury real estate developer Jonathan Chu, whom they accuse of contributing to Chinatown’s gentrification, from the museum’s board.

Betty Yu, co-founder of CAB, tells Hyperallergic, “At this critical juncture in our nation, as people across the US are crying out for racial justice in the movement for Black Lives — it’s shameful that the Museum of Chinese in America is taking $35 million disguised as a ‘community give-back’ from the city to build a new multi-million dollar jail in Chinatown.”

“There is no better time to stand against a criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts and harms Black, brown, and Indigenous communities,” she continues. “MOCA’s actions sell out to mass incarceration in exchange for financial gain are antithetical to our legacy of Chinese American social justice movements.”

MOCA has not yet responded to Hyperallergic’s immediate request for comment.

CAB is collecting signatures to the open letter, which is reproduced in full, below. Other letters to MOCA written by different community members and organizations are archived here.

October 1st, 2020

Dear Board and Executive Leadership of the Museum of Chinese in America,

The time for words has passed and words must be followed by long overdue action. It is for this reason that we demand the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) take actionable steps towards racial justice by rejecting its jail concession deal. Our demands remain the same, as the community has been calling for MOCA to be publicly transparent about its funds and reject this concession for nearly two years.

In October 2019, MOCA’s leadership publicly accepted a “community give-back” for building a new jail in Chinatown as a part of Mayor De Blasio’s jail expansion plan. MOCA was founded 40 years ago with a vision to document the histories of working-class Chinese Americans, a vision we wholeheartedly support. The actions of MOCA leadership to sell out to mass incarceration in exchange for financial gain are antithetical to this history and legacy of Chinese American social justice movements, while denigrating the lived realities and incarcerating the futures of Asian American immigrants and, particularly, Indigenous, Black and brown communities.

Asian Americans have a rich history of standing in solidarity with liberation struggles of Black, brown and Indigenous people. More recently we have stood alongside other communities calling for an end to policing and the prison industrial complex, specifically denouncing the construction of four new jails in New York City. MOCA is betraying the Chinese American community and the Chinatown community it claims to serve. We unequivocally condemn the borough based jail expansion plans across New York City and are appalled at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA)’s acceptance of a “community give back” for building a new jail in Chinatown. We are also appalled at MOCA’s lack of response and attempts to silence community members for expressing concern or raising questions.

When MOCA was publicly confronted about these issues, MOCA denied these allegations.

So let’s set the record straight, the facts speak for themselves.

  • On September 27th, 2018, Nancy Yao Maasbach, executive director of MOCA, testified at the City Public Scoping session on Borough Based Jails. She first expressed concern that cultural groups were not consulted in the planning process for the jail in Chinatown. She then complained about MOCA not receiving any city funds for their pursuit of a permanent home, while millions are going to build a jail in Chinatown. Nancy said in her own words: “You’re spending $300 million dollars to expand a detention complex in Chinatown, we ask for just some money to make a permanent home for the museum and we were given “0” from NYC Department of Cultural Affairs, “0”
  • Three months later in December 2018, MOCA was one of the first groups that met with Councilmember Margaret Chin and Mayor Bill de Blasio behind closed doors to negotiate a “community give back” for building a new jail in Chinatown. A “community give back” translates to silence from MOCA about the jail plan exchange for money from the city.
  • On October 18th, 2019, the Mayor’s Office issued a Points of Agreement letter to the public, which explicitly states(on page 16) that the commitments to MOCA “related directly to the borough-based jails system” will feature “$35M including $5M in FY20; $15M in FY21; $15M in FY22” to “support the acquisition and construction of a permanent museum and a new performing arts space for Chinese music, dance, and theater groups at 215 Centre Street.”
  • Despite demands from numerous segments of the Chinatown community for transparency, Nancy and MOCA have refused to engage in dialogue, even going lengths to censor and silence community members for raising questions.
    • On October 19th, 2019 – CAB, along with other community members and youth activists held a protest in front of MOCA to demand answers and accountability. During our protests, the police were called and Nancy Yao Maasbach came out and berated the protestors asserting that the claims that MOCA is receiving jail money were “not true”.
    • On July 14th, 2020 during MOCA’s “Asian American Allyship for Black Lives Matter—Part 2” Forum Nancy Yao Maasbach who was moderating the discussion, deliberately censored and silenced community members from asking questions and comments. In fact when MOCA was posting about the event on social media, community members reacted by posting comments demanding answers to the jail money they are receiving. These comments were deleted from their post within seconds. Most of these community members have been blocked by MOCA on their social media accounts. Since then, they have censored dissenting voices – closing comments, untagging themselves, and blocking accounts on instagram and closing comments on their instagram.
    • On July 30th, 2020, The Africa Center held a virtual discussion “Identity & Culturally Specific Institutions: What Does This Moment Mean?” featuring MOCA’s ED Nancy Yao Maasbach. Due to public outcry for transparency she was pressured to respond to the question about MOCA receiving jail money. Again, she lied stating, “So the issue with the jail has created a lot of misunderstandings and really false accusations… But the truth about the jail and the MOCA thing, there is nothing, there is nothing related to MOCA and the jail.”

MOCA as an institution has been complicit in the displacement and gentrification of Chinatown, and its decision to cash in on mass incarceration comes as no surprise. MOCA’s collusion with the city’s new jail plan is only the latest instance in a concerning trend towards selling out the community it claims to serve and represent. MOCA’s board co-chair is luxury real estate developer, Jonathan Chu, who is the grandson of Joseph Chu, the multi-million dollar Chu real estate dynasty that has been speculating land and gentrifying Chinatown for nearly 50 years. Why does MOCA have a 4,000-square-foot annex site and exhibition space on the second floor of Hotel 50 Bowery, owned by the Chu’s? They claim these spaces are a give back to the community but we call it for what it is — artwashing.

Instead of pouring millions of dollars into building jails that disproportionately incarcerate Black, brown, and Indigenous communities, the city should divert funds to address the root causes of systemic racism and poverty. Instead of profiteering from dirty money, MOCA should do better to acknowledge the real issue at hand — which is that tenants, workers, and small businesses that have been in Chinatown for decades are under assault by developers who are working with the city to make way for luxury developments, businesses, and high-rise jails. The COVID-19 pandemic and the economic downturn has only exacerbated this harsh reality in Chinatown as small businesses shutter, and residents have become unemployed and are evicted from their homes.

Moreover, in the face of U.S.’s 500+ year pandemic of white supremacy and in the wake of the brutal murder of George Floyd in the hands of Minneapolis police, it is more important than ever that this jail expansion plan should be halted. Indeed anti-Blackness is deeply ingrained into the collective, reflexive memory of Asian immigrant and refugee communities, Asian Americans play a critical role in dismantling the systems that uphold anti-Black logics. There is no better time than the present to build an abolitionist future: no police, no prisons, no surveillance, no further expansion of the carceral state. There is no better time to stand against a criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts and harms Indigenous, Black and brown communities. It is in these moments of connection between our communities that radical transformation becomes possible, and as we move closer to Black liberation and liberation for all.

We uplift the abolitionist demands and visions put forth by groups such as Free Them All For Public Health and No New Jails NYC and understand that racial justice necessitates the abolition of prisons and policing in all forms. In New York City, this means cutting all public and private investments in jail and detention facilities, including the new borough-based jails and immigrant detention centers, and investing in the futures of the very communities that have been marginalized by these forms of state sanctioned violence.

MOCA purports to be an institutional ally of the Black Lives Matter movement, but its actions of accepting $35 million for the construction of a new jail in Chinatown prove otherwise. We cannot stand idly by in this moment of rupture and radical mobilization. We unequivocally condemn MOCA’s acceptance of a “community give back” for a new jail in Chinatown.

Our demands have been clear from day one:

  1. Close Rikers and reject Mayor De Blasio’s 8.7+ Billion Dollar Jail Plan.
  2. Reject any and all deals, concessions and community ‘give-backs’ offered by the city from a new jail plan. Be transparent with the communities MOCA is meant to serve.
  3. Remove Jonathan Chu, a luxury developer from the MOCA’s Board for his harmful leadership that promotes displacement in NYC’s Chinatown.
  4. Support the abolitionist demands and visions put forth by groups such as Free Them All For Public Health and No New Jails NYC and understand that solidarity with Black Lives Matter necessitates the abolition of prisons and policing.

We have yet to see action on these demands and issue them to MOCA for a response immediately.

Sincerely,

Chinatown Art Brigade

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Valentina Di Liscia

Valentina Di Liscia is a staff writer for Hyperallergic. Originally from Argentina, she studied at the University of Chicago and is currently working on her MA at Hunter College, where she received the...

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