Tensions between the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) and members of the New York Chinatown community reached a new height this weekend. In a press conference outside the museum yesterday, July 18, protesters called for the resignation of the museum’s director Nancy Yao Maasbach, accusing her of making “blatant racist and ageist insults” against seniors from the neighborhood. A protest that followed the press event culminated in shouting matches between the protesters and the museum’s facilities manager, Jeff Reynolds, who attempted to interrupt their speeches.
Last week, a coalition of activists and community members staged a protest during the museum’s reopening after more than a year of closure. The multi-generational group, ranging from Gen Z activists to septuagenarian community members, called to boycott MOCA for “promoting displacement and racism” against Chinatown residents. The protesters voiced their months-long opposition to the museum’s acceptance of $35 million in city funds as part of a “community give-back” package in Mayor Bill de Blasio’s plan to build four borough-based jails in lieu of the Rikers Island detention complex. The plan would expand the Manhattan Detention Complex near MOCA to a 29-stories tower. In return, the funds would finance a permanent location and a performing arts space at 215 Centre Street. MOCA has consistently denied supporting the construction of a new jail in Chinatown, though public records show that the money received is tied to the jail expansion program.
The demonstrators have also been protesting against MOCA’s co-chair Johnathan Chu, whom these accuse of contributing to the gentrification of their neighborhood. Chu, a real-estate developer who owns several buildings in Chinatown, is accused of evicting the decades-old restaurant Jing Fong while it struggled to pay the rent during the pandemic. (A representative of Chu told Hyperallergic last week that “The owners of Jing Fong made the decision on their own to relocate their restaurant.” Jing Fong’s owners had said that the restaurant was closed as a result of plummeting revenue during the pandemic.)
The demands for Maasbach’s resignation were prompted by an interview she gave to the Gothamist after last week’s protest. In the interview, Maasbach claimed that she was told by some of the “elderly protesters” that they were “paid” to attend the demonstration by City Council candidate Christopher Marte, who’s known for his opposition to the city’s jail expansion plan.
In a statement to Hyperallergic which was also shared with the Gothamist, Marte denied Maasbach’s allegation, calling it “demonstrably false.”
“My campaign for City Council is over, and we won with overwhelming support,” Marte added. “These elderly protesters are workers and residents of Chinatown who have been on the frontlines of fighting against displacement and wage theft in the neighborhood for decades.”
In front of the museum yesterday, the protesters echoed similar statements against the accusations.
“How dare they say we’re getting paid?” said Yanin Peña from the Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side. “We’re here to save our community because we know that [MOCA] will say that they’re for the Asian community while also displacing us. We no longer accept your false narrative.”
Interrupting Peña’s address, Reynold’s repeated Maasbach’s accusations, shouting remarks like “you’re paid protesters;” “this is silly;” and “Nancy is a wonderful person.”
In spite of these interruptions, Pena continued, saying: “[Maasbach] represents bankers, real-estate and sweatshop bosses whose only motivation is profit. Institutions like MOCA are facilitating the destruction of our community under the cover of social justice.”
“That makes no sense at all,” Reynolds interjected. “How much are you being paid?”
Several minutes after that, Reynolds approached a protester from behind, placed his hands around her waist, and pushed her forward, saying that she “stood in the way” of visitors to the museum and leaving her in tears. The protester, who was emotionally stirred by the incident, preferred not to comment on the incident to the press. When she later confronted Reynolds about grabbing her, he replied: “Quit crying.”
Maasbach, who has not replied to Hyperallergic’s requests for comment, emerged out of the museum several times to contain Reynolds. “Don’t go down to their level,” she told him. Each time, the protesters welcomed her with the chant: “Shame on you, Nancy Yao.”
Wing Lam, director of the Chinese Staff and Workers Association (CSWA), accused MOCA of elitism and called the museum’s leadership “racist bloodsuckers.”
“They think they are better than us because they have money and went to Ivy league schools,” Lam said about MOCA’s leadership. “This is a struggle between the haves and have nots.”
Hyperallergic also spoke with several of the older protesters, who all denied Maasbach’s claims that they were “paid” to attend the protests. Among them were Zu Chen and Lin Wont, both home care workers above the age of 60.
When asked if they received payment from any politician, Chen and Wont replied “No” in unison, adding they were personally insulted by Maasbach’s allegation.
“We are here to fight against wrongdoing,” said Chen. “We are being discriminated [against].”
When asked if they feel that the museum represents them, the two workers once again said “No” in unison.
This notion of class-based conflict within the Chinatown community was affirmed by several other protests who spoke with Hyperallergic.
“MOCA says that it represents the community but it mainly represents the Chinese elites in the city,” said Sarah Ahn, an organizer with Flushing Workers Center.
“Maasbach clearly looks down on all of us and thinks we have no agency,” Ahn continued. “If MOCA is going to pretend to be a community-based cultural institution, it must let her go.”