Old Version

Beyond Chinatown

The only museum in Washington, DC dedicated to Chinese Americans hopes to facilitate further understanding between China and the US

By Chen Mengtong Updated Jul.1

Displays from the exhibition Taoism: Pursuing Harmony Between Human and Nature, Chinese American Museum of Washington, DC (Photo by CNS)

Housed in a 1907 Beaux-Arts mansion on 16th Street in downtown Washington, DC, the Chinese American Museum in Washington, DC (CAMDC) is the only museum in the US capital dedicated to the history and culture of Chinese Americans. By telling the stories of hardship and success of both ordinary and prominent Chinese Americans, the non-profit private organization aims to “advance the understanding, knowledge, and appreciation of the Chinese American experience,” according to the museum’s website. It officially opened to the public in 2021.  

Its permanent exhibits range from detailing Chinese Americans’ contributions to the nation, its communities and cultural histories, to prominent contemporary figures. It holds special exhibitions including “Taoism: Pursuing Harmony between Human and Nature,” and events like the student art competition “Our Environment: 25 Years Later.”  

In an exclusive interview, Jenny Liu, co-founder and executive vice president of CAMDC, tells China News Service how the new museum tells the old story of Chinese culture, and attract visitors from beyond Chinatown.  

China News Service: Washington, DC is home to many museums. Why did you establish CAMDC in the US capital?  

Jenny Liu: The idea to establish this museum dates back to 2017. Washington is not only the political center of the US, but also one of the cultural centers for museums and exhibitions. Establishing the Chinese American Museum in Washington, DC offers us at least a “foothold” in the capital with so many museums. The Chinese community has made significant contributions to American society, yet what they have done has been largely neglected, and is barely visible in mainstream media outlets. So we think there must be a platform to promote the Chinese community’s culture, to tell their stories and their contributions to American society. In this way, we hope mainstream society will gradually recognize their positive role.  

CNS: Among the US museums themed on Chinese Americans or Chinese expats, CAMDC is a rather late addition. How are you different from other museums in curating and operations?  

JL: There are six or seven Chinese-themed museums in the US, mostly located in major cities with large ethnic Chinese communities, such as New York, Chicago, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Seattle. They were established in earlier periods, so they are mostly located in local Chinatowns, and themed on the histories of Chinatowns and local ethnic Chinese communities. 

When we were considering the site and exhibits for our museum, we believed that although our museum is mainly focused on people of Chinese origin, it should neither be a museum only for Chinatowns, nor one only for people of Chinese origin; instead, it should be a museum for mainstream American society.  

We have digitized all the histories of people of Chinese origin that we have collected so far. Our focus is introducing Chinese culture and contemporary stories of the Chinese community in the US.  

The Chinese community has made major contributions to the US, but mainstream media outlets are less aware of it. As a minority group, if we don’t tell these stories ourselves, no one else will do it for us. 

CNS: How does CAMDC cater to visitors unfamiliar with Chinese culture?  

JL: The Chinese American community in the US has, more or less, some basic knowledge about Chinese culture, but that’s not the case for other groups. Therefore, our exhibitions are mostly about some basic information, which is easy for general audiences to understand.  

We hope to get the young generations in the Chinese community closer to and more interested in Chinese culture through this platform. Since 2021, we’ve held an annual arts contest for middle school and high school students. At the beginning, it was mainly participated in by students in the Greater Washington area, and this year, we have over 300 participants from the east and west coasts of the US, as well as students from Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Taiwan of China.  

CNS: Your museum recently hosted an exhibition titled Taoism: Pursuing Harmony Between Human and Nature. Compared with other major religions, Taoism may be unfamiliar to American audiences. How does your museum introduce such a topic?  

JL: We have adopted an online plus offline approach. While holding an offline exhibition, we also held three webinars discussing Taoism’s relationships with Chinese philosophy, culture and art, as well as health preservation, where scholars and medics were invited to introduce Taoism and Chinese culture to American audiences.  

Through this exhibition, we found that there are more than 20,000 people in the US who are actually very interested in Taoism, and some of them are Taoists, which surprised me. 
CNS: CAMDC is more than just a museum. As it looks to go beyond Chinatown, how is it engaging with more American communities?  

JL: Indeed so. Just holding exhibitions is a passive way to reach people. We hope to engage young Americans, not just Chinese Americans, by hosting various events.  

Many young Koreans, Japanese and Vietnamese have also shown strong interest in our exhibitions. We also hold, at our venue, a regular cultural salon we call Bamboo Circle, where Chinese youngsters working in the area are invited to get together and interact.  

CNS: What are your advantages in telling the history of the Chinese community and promoting Chinese culture compared to the large museums near the National Mall?  

JL: Exhibitions held at large American museums offer high quality exhibits. But our advantage lies in our flexibility and clear aim, which is to introduce Chinese culture. In this regard, our work just complements what America’s national museums do.  

CNS: What is the significance of using museums to introduce and promote Chinese culture in the US?  

JL: Actually, the US and China need more mutual communication and understanding, and this should start with culture, which is the most natural way. Our aim is to introduce Chinese culture through the exhibition, to increase understanding about China.  

CNS: What exhibitions are you planning for the future?  

JL: We’ve been planning an exhibition on the qipao, which will be presented as a fashion show in May and June this year, and we will also invite the wives of diplomatic envoys at some Washington-based embassies. We hope to promote Chinese culture, so more people can get to know its richness and colorfulness.  

At the same time, there are resources of immense quality from museums in China that may have to wait 5-10 years to be exhibited at a large American museum. The CAMDC is just an available platform, with more flexibility in exhibition schedules. We are also a member of the American Association of Museums. I look forward to more and comprehensive cooperation with Chinese museums in the future.

Jenny Liu, co-founder and executive vice president of CAMDC (Photo by CNS)