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Architect Maya Lin helps a museum tell the larger story of Asian Americans


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: Maya Lin is known for her memorials, her architecture, her art.

A new project adds a very personal side to her story and those of millions of other Asian Americans, as the Museum of Chinese in America seeks to expand its own presence and expand understanding of the American experience.

Jeffrey Brown reports for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Maya Lin, Architect: So, basically, it's a vertical landscape. And it'll start with stone at the base.

Jeffrey Brown: In her New York studio, Maya Lin shows the design for a major new expansion of the Museum of Chinese in America.

Is this the puzzle type?

Maya Lin: This is the puzzle. This is the puzzle.

Jeffrey Brown: Including a part of the facade patterned after a tangram puzzle.

Maya Lin: A tangram is an ancient, 4,000-year-old Chinese puzzle that I played as a kid.

Jeffrey Brown: Once constructed, the puzzle pieces, slightly pulled apart, will allow light in.

The design may be playful, but the purpose of the museum itself, she says, couldn't be more important, especially now.

Maya Lin: I don't think you can be an Asian American in 2022 and not be acutely aware of the anti-Asian sentiment.

And I think all these are one of the reasons where I have, in a way, doubled down on trying to be a part of MOCA.

Jeffrey Brown: Not far away, in Lower Manhattan's Chinatown sits the current MOCA, as the Museum of Chinese in America is known, a small institution that presents moments from more than 250 years of history and heritage, waves of immigration, biased discrimination and exclusion, images from popular culture, integration into American life, and the struggle for civil rights.

There's also a wall featuring stories of prominent Chinese Americans, including Maya Lin.

For museum President Nancy Yao, this is very much living history.

Nancy Yao, President, Museum of Chinese in America: The phrase perpetual foreigner has been connected with Chinese in America and broadly Asians in America.

Jeffrey Brown: Perpetual foreigner, meaning?

Nancy Yao: Perpetual foreigner, meaning that my face is never going to be American enough to some people. It looks too foreign.

So we're constantly dealing with the pressure and the tension of being this perpetual foreigner, and also being a monolith, not just Chinese Americans, but Asian Americans, in this country, so that there's one.

But, in fact, if you think about the Chinese immigration patterns to this country, you could not find a more diverse group.

Jeffrey Brown: An exhibition titled Responses addresses the current moment of a rise in violence against Asian Americans.

Nancy Yao: It grounds the moment in 250 years of racism and discrimination.

Jeffrey Brown: While again putting it in historical perspective.

Nancy Yao: So, what we're trying to do is make those markers in history, for individuals to understand that this has been going on for a very long time. And it's going to take a bit more than just protests and collective voice. It's going to take rewriting textbooks.

It's going to take getting into classrooms at a very early age, and not to say one group is better than the other, but to really encourage the broadening of the American narrative to be reflective of the true stories that existed.

Jeffrey Brown: It's personal for Yao, who grew up in Queens riding the subway, but now avoids it after experiencing racist confrontations herself.

It's also personal for Maya Lin. She grew up in what she calls the sole Chinese family in Athens, Ohio. Her parents came from China in the 1940s. And she didn't think much about it.

But that would change dramatically in the moment she first came to public notice, as the 21-year-old designer of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Though her creation would become honored and beloved, it faced early opposition, some of it virulent and focused on Lin herself.

Some of that was around you being Asian America.

Maya Lin: Yes, absolutely.

The veterans were very careful to protect me from some of the letters that said, "How can you let a gook design this?"

But I was so kind of naive that -- at the very first press conference, someone said: "Well, don't you think it's ironic that this is a memorial for an Asian war, and you're Asian?"

And I looked and I went: "That's irrelevant."

I was just so sure that it was all about what you do and how you do it.

Jeffrey Brown: Many years later, she says designing this museum feels important. At an estimated cost of $118 million, to be raised from government, foundations and private donors, MOCA will feature historical exhibitions, contemporary art and culture, a performing art space, and a genealogy center.

Maya Lin: You kind of want to share all those stories, teach those stories, but also celebrate how much we have helped contribute to and build our country, because I'm an American.

It's like people -- I always think it's interesting, because it's like, oh, I'm Chinese American. Well, it's -- no, I'm -- more like I'm American Chinese. I was born here, raised here. I am -- I am an American. My cultural heritage, my parents brought a lot from China, but they also choose to come to America.

And I think that's important.

Jeffrey Brown: MOCA President Nancy Yao thinks the new genealogy center will be critical, even for her own family.

Nancy Yao: I know my surname. It's Yao. I know the character for my surname, but I'm kind of putting money on the fact that my kids won't probably know that, and they won't know their ancestry.

When people come to the museum and they're of Chinese ancestry, I say, over where's your old home? It's a phrase in Chinese. And they just say, "China."

There's no pride. There's not a lot of identity. It's almost as if the Chinese identity has been devalued. And I think what we're craving for in this -- in this country for Asian Americans is a greater sense of identity. But that identity, we think, needs to be rooted in history.

Jeffrey Brown: The expansion still faces challenges, including a protest by a group of Chinatown activists who say money given by the city to purchase the building for the museum, some $40 million, could be better used to help local small businesses and others hurt in the pandemic.

That fight within the Chinatown community is likely to continue.

Maya Lin: So this is the front entry both during the day, rendered, and then at night. So you can begin to see how the museum will really be welcoming.

Jeffrey Brown: For her part, Maya Lin is staying focused on the details and goals of her design.

Maya Lin: In architecture, you can't solve problems, but you can definitely send messages.

Jeffrey Brown: And the message here?

Maya Lin: Message here is, we're here. We want to help -- we want to share with the community.

Person: If you are a non-white group...

Jeffrey Brown: The plan now, to close the current building late next year and open the new Museum of Chinese in America in 2025.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown in New York.

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