Nancy Yao, former director of the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) (all photos Hakim Bishara/Hyperallergic)

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) recently announced that its president, Nancy Yao, is leaving her post to become the founding director of the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum. We are happy to say so long to their disastrous president. In MOCA’s announcement of the news, the museum thanked Yao for all she has done to put MOCA in the position to tell the “truths about what it has meant, now means, and will mean, to be Chinese American.” One has to ask what kind of “Chinese American” she was telling the truth about. 

In 2018, when the entire Chinatown community united against former Mayor de Blasio’s plan to build a 40-story jail in the neighborhood, the tallest in the world, Yao was the only one standing up with her hand out asking for a payoff. As a result, Mayor de Blasio gave MOCA $35 million as part of the community agreement for the mega-jail. 

During Yao’s tenure, MOCA supported displacement by choosing Jonathan Chu, Chinatown’s biggest landlord, as its board co-chair. As our community was recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, the developer and his father, Alex Chu, displaced the Jing Fong Restaurant, the largest Chinese restaurant on the East Coast and the last unionized restaurant in Chinatown, putting 180 workers out of jobs and cutting out the beating heart of Chinatown’s economy. Jing Fong has now relocated to a much smaller space across the street from MOCA and without enough room for most of the old workers to return.

Meanwhile, MOCA continues to promote the view that displacement is inevitable and that Chinatown may disappear, but it can be forever memorialized in the museum’s displays. With the $35 million jail money, the museum is now planning for a fancy new building that will cost $120 million, designed by the architect Maya Lin. MOCA puts on its Chinese face to be the spokesperson for the City’s racist displacement agenda. It makes the Chinese community look so cheap, creating the impression that we can be easily bought off, and therefore contributes to the anti-Asian violence that’s on the rise today.  

Nancy Yao facing protesters outside MOCA on July 18, 2021

Our community has been furious with MOCA and Chu for selling out and displacing Chinatown. The Coalition to Protect Chinatown and the Lower East Side — a coalition of diverse groups — has organized a picket line in front of MOCA for two years. We have been calling for a boycott of the museum and other Chu family businesses, and we continue to gain support. Just this past winter, hundreds of Chinese women home attendants joined the picket line and protested in front of MOCA, condemning the museum’s leadership and Chu’s racism and destruction of the neighborhood where many Chinese seniors live and are taken care of by these workers.

As if MOCA’s racism against Chinatown weren’t apparent enough, Yao has proudly become the figurehead of discrimination. First, when confronting senior women protesters at the museum’s reopening, she threw cheap tote bags at them. After they refused her bribe, she accused the elderly women of being paid protesters and claimed that Chinese being paid off has been a “historic trend.” At the same time, she covered up for her staff’s sexual harassment against young women picketers, and would later call the cops on eight picketers, all of whom are Asians. The charge? Drumming on soy sauce buckets as they protested. It was no doubt ridiculous and the charges have all been dismissed, but the message from her move, along with her support for the jail, is obvious: People in Chinatown are criminals.

“Our community has been furious with MOCA and Chu for selling out and displacing Chinatown.”

One thing we have to admit is that Nancy Yao has been a good teacher. She taught us through example what a 21st-century racist looks like in the most progressive city in the country: You can be a person of color and still look down and sell out your community, climb up the ladder of racist systems while stomping out your own people, provide tokenized cover for anti-Asian discrimination and simultaneously claim that Chinese Americans are making progress. Nancy Yao and the Chinatown elites she promotes, like the Chu family and those who benefit from exploiting and displacing Chinatown, are the new faces of Asian hate. This is the culture MOCA chooses to promote and tries to pass on to the next generation.

And they are cowardly escaping accountability, as Yao cannot stand the heat from the community and is fleeing to DC, instead of seeing her legacy of ashes through. Chinatown is just her checkbox to become the queen of performative identity politics. By uplifting the president of a racist museum, is the Smithsonian Women’s History Museum just trying to be a national version of MOCA, falsely celebrating a different kind of identity?

Contrary to what Yao, MOCA, and Chu want, Chinatown, the Lower East Side, and other surrounding neighborhoods are organized and united to fight against the City’s displacement agenda. We are currently pushing the City to pass community plans like the Chinatown Working Group Plan to stop the real estate speculation that causes displacement and build truly affordable housing. To be part of the fight to stop racism and displacement in our community, and make sure that the next generation does not follow the footsteps of Yao and Chu, please join our continuous picket line in front of MOCA, Thursday to Sunday every week, 11am to 2pm.  

Youth Against Displacement is an organization of young and young-at-heart people fighting overdevelopment and displacement in New York City.