Beyond Vassar

All About the Stories: Cynthia Lee '92

By Isaac Butler '01

The last year has been a dizzying victory lap for Cynthia Lee ’92, the Museum of Chinese in America’s vice president for exhibitions, programs, and collections.

After receiving her bachelor’s in anthropology at Vassar, doing programming work with Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, and getting her master’s from Columbia, Lee began her journey at the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA; as its first grant writer. “They had gone through some rough times,” she says, “and were trying to bounce back. There were three people on staff—I was the fourth person to come on board—and they had never had somebody who was dedicated to fundraising, so they hired me to do that. But we didn’t have a programs person, so I ended up doing programming and writing grants for my exhibitions.”

MOCA bounced back and then some. The now-30-year-old institution currently has a medium-sized staff, and the museum itself recently moved into a new, 14,000-square foot space of dramatic dark wood and raw brick designed by Maya Lin.

Lee is determined to upend traditional notions of both what it means to be Chinese American and what it means to be a museum—goals that suffuse MOCA’s permanent collection, which Lee spent four years designing. Lee jokes about the student groups that occasionally come to the museum looking for information on ancient China—“not really what we’re about!” she says with a laugh.

On the walls, important moments from Chinese American history jostle for space with artifacts of American pop culture, ranging from early portraits of Chinese laborers to La Choy advertisements to posters reminding World War II servicemen not to kill Chinese allied soldiers and civilians. Video portraits tell the stories of prominent Chinese Americans, while large maps trace the journey of the Chinese diaspora, the color red zig zagging from the Han River out to Southeast Asia, South America, and the United States.

Lee’s intention is to show Chinese American history while simultaneously teaching visitors the ways that American history, in general, has been shaped by its interactions with China. “We really wanted to give people that larger context,” Lee explains. “Most history books begin the relationship with the transcontinental railroad. We begin the conversation with the idea that the China trade really was a signifier of America as a new nation, its ability to trade with China on its own.”

MOCA began as an oral-history project, documenting the lives, histories, and experiences of Chinatown’s residents right at the point that older ways of life were changing; the museum is still shaped by the idea of identity as something constantly evolving. Lee avoids calcifying the Chinese American story by using the latest technology to engage museum visitors, allowing them to share their own images, stories, and video. “The way we view it is that we’re not about talking about what Chinese Americans are doing, but doing demonstrations, workshops, getting people involved.” Lee says she hopes that “these objects and images and stories will excite people to know more.”

—Isaac Butler '01

Photo Credit: William Dao

Have comments about this article? Email