One never would have guessed a small, four-story brick building tucked away in the old streets of Chinatown could mean so much to so many people.
Founded in 2005 by the Chinatown Museum Foundation, the Chinese-American Museum of Chicago is the only museum of Chinese immigrant history in the Midwest. The foundation board decided the Chicago community needed a place to learn about the Chinese and Chinese-American cultures and set out to establish a museum, said Andrea Stamm, member of the Chinatown Museum Foundation and Northwestern University library department head.
“It’s kind of crazy if you think about it – ‘Let’s just build a museum!'” she said. “But we knew that the community needed a place like this, and we wanted to make it happen.”
Today, the museum is a symbol of triumph for Chinese immigrants and Chinese-Americans all over Chicago - made even stronger after the museum suffered a devastating fire and had to be completely rebuilt, said Kim K. Tee, president of the Chinatown Museum Foundation.
On Sept. 19, 2008, a fire began on the museum’s third floor and spread quickly throughout the building, destroying most of the museum’s permanent collection and infrastructure. When the fire was extinguished hours later, all that remained was the building’s brick exterior and little yes.
After two years of fundraising efforts and $1.75 million had been spent on restoring the landmark, the museum held a grand reopening celebration on Sept. 25.
“So many people we didn’t know were sympathetic to the museum and stepped forward to help out,” Tee said. “Many different individuals and organizations made donations of both money and objects.”
The museum’s displayed items and artifacts, which outline the history of not only China, but also Chinese-American immigrants, are all donated privately or loaned from other museums. Since the fire, the museum has received donations including a brick from the Great Wall in Beijing, a map of China carried by a World War II pilot and 19th century Chinese chairs and cabinetry.
The objects represent the journey of the hundreds of thousands of Chinese who immigrated to the United States in the 18th and 19th centuries as well as those who have made a home in America only recently.
As of right now, about 10 percent of the exhibits’ displayed artifacts are donations that were given to the museum after the fire.
The entire building was restored and upgraded with new features, including a sprinkler system installed on all floors to ensure the fire’s devastation is never repeated.
Tee said he remembers dozens of volunteers stood outside of the burning building until the fire chief informed them it was safe to go in. They wanted to go inside as soon as possible to rescue whatever items they could, he said.
“I wish the fire never happened and that the dioramas could be saved,” Tee said, referring to the collection of 23 dioramas made of porcelain and silk featured in the 1930s World’s Fair in Chicago.
Only one diorama, which were the museum’s most valuable items, was rescued from the rubble of the fire. It is now a symbol of the museum’s triumph over tragedy, Tee said.
“Each diorama had a story to tell,” he said. “You can’t find those anywhere, you cannot replace them.”
Working alongside Tee and Stamm are about 20 other Chinatown Museum Foundation board members. Almost all volunteers, the members have been working tirelessly to put the museum and its exhibits back together, Stamm said.
The first floor of the gallery houses the “Chinese @ Play: Toys, Games, and Leisure Activities” exhibit, which is dedicated to “the playful side of Chinese culture and civilization,” featuring Chinese musical instruments, board games and a 60-foot-long dragon parade costume. A mini-exhibit featuring information about the September fire and the museum’s restorations is also available on the first floor, with displays of damaged items and pictures of what they looked like originally.
The “Great Wall to the Great Lakes: Chinese Immigration to the Midwest” exhibit on the second floor of the museum showcases artifacts and items from the lives of 19th-century Chinese immigrants as well as replicas of early Chinatown buildings.
“We’ve done a good job representing some points in the history of Chinese people coming to the Midwest,” said Stamm, adding that the museum is the only one of its kind in the entire Midwest region.
The museum is open to the public Thursdays and Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. While there is no entry charge, there is a suggested donation of $2 and $1 for students and seniors.
“There’s a lot to see in this small museum,” Stamm said. “We’re just trying to give a little history for students who are willing to learn more about it.”
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