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Exploring identities in museum of Chinese in America

By Kelly Chung Dawson (China Daily)

13:43, February 20, 2013

Museum of Chinese in America curator Herb Tam at his museum in New York City.(Source: China Daily)

Museum curator Herb Tam uses art to explore the dynamic, variegated experience of Asians in the US, Kelly Chung Dawson reports from New York.

Before he moved to the New York City borough of Queens in 2004, Herb Tam had always defined himself as Chinese. "Asian-American" was a label that felt removed from his upbringing in San Francisco's Chinatown and, later, the predominantly white suburbs of the Bay Area.

However, suddenly surrounded by Chinese-speaking immigrants in Queens' heavily Asian neighborhood of Flushing, Tam realized the overlap between his experience and that of, say, a second-generation Korean-American might be wider than he imagined.

"My relationship with being Chinese became more complicated when I moved to a Chinese community," says Tam, who was born in Hong Kong and moved to the United States as an infant. "It made me rethink the whole notion of being Chinese; it shifted my ideas of Chinese-ness," he says.

"This concept of an Asian-American community took on greater significance when I realized that I might share more in common with someone with parents from Japan who had lived in the US for most of his or her life. They might have a more similar belief system, or face the same types of discrimination. That's when Asian-American-ness became a concrete idea for me."

As curator of the Museum of Chinese in America, which opened in 1980 in Manhattan's Chinatown, Tam regularly confronts the shifting contours of ethnic and cultural identity among communities that include Chinese-Americans and newer immigrants. The museum in recent years has shifted from a historical focus toward exploration of Chinese and Asian-American contemporary culture, partly due to Tam's influence.

Recent exhibitions at the New York museum include America Through a Chinese Lens, a survey of photography by Chinese and Chinese-American artists; the dual presentation Marvels and Monsters: Unmasking Asian Images in US Comics and Alt.Comics: Asian American Artists Reinvent the Comic; and a series of installations by the conceptual artist Lee Mingwei.

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