I Want It That Way (Chinese American Re-mix)

Today could’ve easily washed away – not much was expected. It was the first day at the Museum of Chinese in America without our director S. Alice Mong (who resigned to pursue new opportunities) and the Friday before Independence Day weekend – America’s day of celebratory eating, drinking and firework symbolism of revolutionary triumph. The workday could have crumbled under the bewildering confluence of emotional decompression over the departure of the institution’s leader and the mounting giddiness in anticipation of a long summer weekend.

We all knew it was going to be a slow one and it needed to be. The morning started with a request for a song to kick off Pandora. “Backstreet Boys..I Want It That Way,” shot a quick reply which spurred a 2-hour-long quiet storm of ballads by boy bands from ‘N Sync to O-Town to 98 Degrees to Savage Garden. This inspired a colleague to play a youtube video of a Mandarin Chinese rendition of I Want It That Way sung with charismatic exuberience and stylish charm by three young Chinese Americans sitting in front of a keyboard in a sun-drenched suburban bedroom. Practiced and ironically expressive, they owned their version of it. My colleagues Frank Liu, Ting-Chi Wang, Karen Lew, Emily Chovanec and Beatrice Chen huddled around my computer laughing our approval. It was a Chinese moment, an American moment.

Minutes slid into hours until after lunch when Ting-Chi and I met to discuss future exhibitions. We first stopped at the new Salon 94 on the Bowery to check out the jam-packed contemporary ceramics show titled Paul Clay. Techniques and surfaces assaulted you from the jump. A few stuck out: flat, vessel-like sihlouttes patterned and finished so that they looked like bad color photocopies were then dressed in cheap aprons; jagged-edged bowls, earth-toned at the center, then fading to inconsistent white outward, etc. We left and went next door to the New Museum’s cafe. Ideas and justifications rang out over coffee and at the end of an hour, we had sketch of a calendar.

We were late for our last meeting back at the museum with Beatrice Chen, Director of Public Programs and Education, and Karen Lew, Associate Director of Education to brainstorm an update to our permanent exhibition that details the history of the Chinese experience in America. If coherent generations exist and overlap, the four of us cut between X, Y, Slacker and Hip Hop. Sitting around the museum’s kitchen table, we dished out some understanding of historical subjects like the Cultural Revolution, immigration from Fujian, “ethnoburbs” like Montery Park,  Vincent Chin, the rise of Chinatown-based social service organizations like Organization of Chinese Americans, Kearney Street Workshop and Basement Workshop, Taiwanese parachute kids, Rodney King riots, 9/11, etc.

Framed around discussions about a rising China and identity in the wake of multiculturalism, the question of “What is Chinese American?” came up. A provocation, a trick question, that fuels the daily biz of our museum, like “What is American Art?” fuels the Whitney. The Chinese have been in this country, strong, for over 150 years. We now got kids belting out a pop anthem in THE language like it was born from it. What does THAT mean? I ended the meeting because it felt like time – the discussion had climaxed to a savory point and we could build on it more, later. And I wanted to get out of there, on to America’s weekend. The day was done – one that held no promise in the beginning, but became something.

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