Historical Photos of Chinatown Donated to MOCA

Eric Ng has donated items documenting Chinese-American history from his personal collection to the Chinese School and other sites. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

Eric Ng has donated items documenting Chinese-American history from his personal collection to the Chinese School and other sites. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

After donating a batch from his personal collection of historical photos of the Anti-Japanese War [Second Sino-Japanese War] to the New York Chinese School, which is affiliated with the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA), last month, Eric Ng, the president of CCBA, made a major donation again on Nov. 20. This time, he handed more than a hundred old photos of Chinatown and valuable old records he collected over the years to the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), a newspaper with real-time news about the Anti-Japanese War and two photos of the Flying Tigers unit to the Chinese School, and an 1863 map of China to the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in New York (TECONY). Each attendee at the donation ceremony also got two First Day Covers that Ng collected in the 1960s.

Ng said at the ceremony that his love of history started when he was a kid. Fifty years ago when he was still in Hong Kong, he had already started to collect old stamps and envelopes. After moving to the U.S. he continued the hobby by collecting historical photos and records related to the modern history of Chinese Americans. In recent years, he found there were almost no more such objects on the antique market that he didn’t have. He realized his collection was quite comprehensive. So he started thinking of donating it so the general public could learn more about the history.

In 2006, Ng made his first donation of some menus from Chinatown restaurants through the 20th century to MOCA. This time, the museum got 120 historical Chinatown photos that Ng had kept for a few decades as well as other records including 12 glass projector slides.

The jewel in the crown was a letter written and signed in the late 1800s by Wong Chin Foo, one of the first Chinese-American human rights activists in the U.S. The letter was carefully framed and handed by Ng to Nancy Yao Maasbach, the president of MOCA.

Ng said Wong was the first person in history to use the phrase “Chinese Americans.” So this letter was destined to go to the collection of MOCA. He also told an interesting detail that reflected some cultural nuances in Wong’s era. Wong, who was born in Shandong province, China, wrote his last name in Chinese using the character “王”. But in order to join the “Wong Family Association,” to promote his civil rights ideals, he changed the character of his last name to “黃.” The association is one of the earliest community organizations of Cantonese immigrants and is only open to people whose last name is “黄.” The characters are different in Chinese, but they share the same English spelling.

Maasbach said Ng’s generous donation not only enriches the collection of the museum, but also contributes greatly to preserving the history of Chinese Americans. Born in Flushing herself, Maasbach said second-generation Chinese Americans really need to learn more about their own history, and Ng’s collections provide a new opportunity for them. MOCA gave a pair of “double happiness” cuff buttons [an auspicious symbol in traditional Chinese culture] to Ng as a thank you gift. The museum also plans to designate a “Mayor Ng Day” in the future when the public can visit without charge. [Editor’s note: The president of CCBA is known as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown.]

Kin Sheung Wong, principal of the Chinese School, said Chinese children who grow up overseas [in the diaspora] can easily forget their roots. The photos Ng donated can help them understand the history and tell right from wrong. A deputy director of the TECONY quoted Li Shimin, a Chinese emperor of the Tang dynasty, in telling the importance of studying history. “Using bronze as a mirror, we can adjust our attires; using bygones as a mirror, we can understand why dynasties rise and fall,” he said.

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