NYChinatown      While air travel is still risky health-wise and lockdowns are common, here is a chance for us to “travel” and see New York City’s Chinatown. 

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) and the Center for Jewish History (CJH) are co-hosting a new online exhibition, “An Unlikely Photojournalist: Emile Bocian in Chinatown,” at https://exhibits.cjh.org/bocian.

 

This highly anticipated online exhibition explores the work of Emile Bocian (1912-1990), who became a photojournalist in the 1970s and ’80s for The China Post, a Chinese-language daily in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Bocian’s images comprise MOCA’s largest collection of photographs in its archive of 85,000-plus historical artifacts that were nearly destroyed in last January’s fire at 70 Mulberry Street. The preliminary batch of Bocian’s photographs and artifacts chosen for this exhibit were brought over to CJH one week before the fire, sparing this small selection from potential ruin.

On Thursday, Jan. 28, 4 p.m. EST on ZOOM, co-curators of the exhibition Kevin Chu, assistant director of Collections at MOCA, and Lauren Gilbert, senior manager of Public Services at the Center for Jewish History, will share a behind-the-scenes look into Bocian's life, his collection, and the genesis of the exhibition.  Bocian’s grandniece and nephew will also be in attendance to share their memories.  A registration link for the event will be sent to the public closer to the event date. 

In 1972, the Pagoda Theater in Chinatown hired then-Midtown press agent Bocian to run a publicity campaign for the U.S. premiere of the Bruce Lee film, “Fist of Fury.” This chance encounter began Bocian’s nearly two-decades-long relationship with the community that lasted for the remainder of his life.

Born in New York to Eastern European Jewish immigrants, Bocian was a self-proclaimed “expert on Chinatown.” Though he was an outsider and never learned Chinese, over his long residency and photojournalistic career, Bocian and his camera became familiar fixtures on the streets of Chinatown. As a Polish Jew, he shared an immigrant’s status with his neighbors. This commonality made Bocian a fitting ambassador and bridge-builder between the two communities. 

“As we traverse through life, we may miss the beauty of the everyday, we may avoid the challenge of the unknown, but Bocian and his work gifted both elements back to Jewish and Chinese American communities in New York’s Chinatown. His images connected people living in overlapping place,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of MOCA. “This online exhibition is a natural extension of MOCA’s collaboration with the Center for Jewish History, an organization whose values align closely with ours as we continually seek new and innovative ways to build bridges between communities.”

“While many of the stories that have dominated the news in 2020 have revolved around division and mistrust, this exhibition offers a rare glimpse into how an outsider, Emile Bocian, who was Jewish, became widely accepted and ultimately gained the trust of the community in Chinatown,” said Center for Jewish History President and CEO Bernard Michael. “Through his images Bocian was able to capture the struggles and successes of the daily lives of the residents of the area. We are proud of our partnership with MOCA and our ability to jointly spotlight our shared histories.”

During his time in Chinatown, Bocian befriended Chinese American actress Mae Wong. She would rescue over 120,000 photographs, negatives and contact sheets from his apartment after his death in 1990, donating them to MOCA in the mid-1990s.

Bocian’s photographs of protests, celebrations, and crime scenes, as well as storefronts and streetscapes, provide a glimpse into a vanishing New York. These images are on exhibit for the very first time, along with shots of local luminaries and Chinatown visitors like Terence Cardinal Cooke, Muhammad Ali, and even Big Bird, the character from “Sesame Street.”

“Bocian’s photographs manage to capture the frenetic energy of a growing Chinatown during a time when the community saw an influx of new immigrants from Guangdong province and Hong Kong,” said Chu. “While he served mainly as a silent documentarian, many longtime Chinatown residents recall seeing him with his iconic bowties around the neighborhood.” 

“This exhibit is a fascinating look into an under-documented period in Chinatown’s history. It is also a nostalgia trip for those of us who were alive at the time, and an eye-opening glimpse into the near past for those who weren’t, allowing a peek into NYC in the era of pay phones, hula hoops, mom and pop shops, and some interesting fashion choices," said Gilbert.

The online launch of this exhibition is MOCA’s latest successful pivot to providing its curatorial, collections, and educational content via digital, online and social media platforms. Since the onset of the coronavirus pandemic in mid-March 2020 that forced museums across the U.S. to temporarily shutter their physical operations, MOCA has been offering live-streamed tours of its exhibitions, public programs, family festivals and educational workshops, and masterclasses to thousands of virtual attendees.

This exhibition has been made possible in part by The David Berg Foundation’s creation and support of The David Berg Rare Book Room, a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities: Exploring the Human Endeavor, public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs, and a Humanities New York CARES grant.

 

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  Bocian

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Vanishing storefronts: As a result of COVID-19’s work-from-home trend, at least 50% of the businesses in Chinatown have already shuttered permanently.

 

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In continuous operation at 6 Bowery from 1814 to 1982, W.M. Olliffe Apothecary was one of the oldest pharmacies in New York City.

 

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