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Chinese Restaurants in America: An Exhibit

by Jacqueline M. Newman

Chinese Restaurant General Information

Spring Volume: 2005 Issue: 12(1) page(s): 33 and 35

While there is still time, run do not walk to enjoy the Museum of Chinese In the America’s latest exhibit. It is called: Have You Eaten Yet? It is at MOCA, the Museum of the Chinese in the America, and located in an old school building on the second floor at 70 Mulberry Street. While there, enjoy the rest of Manhattan’s Chinatown, one of but three of New York City’s Chinatown areas. This exhibit focuses on take-out menus and other artifacts, with emphasis on Harley Spiller’s menu collection.

Professionally designed, planned, and placed by Pei Hsieh and Stephanie Reyer, it is a knock-out! Or in menu parlance, an overflowing plate of delights. Hsieh and Reyer have lots of experience in doing museum things. They previously collaborated on exhibits at the Museum of Natural History’s Hall of Ocean Life, among others. These two clearly creative folk brought Chinese menus to view exhibiting them phenomenally. Maximizing a small space in thematic progression, they are from the mid-1880's to today. At MOCA, one oogles, giggles, even salivates examining this small set of Spiller’s extensive Chinese eatery offerings including other eatery souvenirs.

To put the show in context, the introductory paragraphs of a signboard at the exhibit tell of Spiller’s first exposure to Asian cultural things, food included, in the 1960's. Then, with Spiller’s arrival in Manhattan in 1981, he first came in contact with odd noises at his door; these were Chinese take-out menus slid under. They came and came, and Spiller sets them aside to read, compare, imagine, even savor. Soon after, he goes on a mission to collect more. He begs friends to collect them for him. He travels and gathers more himself, and he even paupers himself on e-Bay buying all that he can.

Today Spiller has more than ten thousand take-out menus that date back to the 19th century; and he has many other early Chinese eatery artifacts. As the room in his small apartment fills up, he gathers more, realizing that the ones sent to him, gathered with his own hands, and those purchased beginning in 1997, have been door-openers. They eventually landed him many contacts, some more fascinating than others. They were stepping stones to his recently acquired job as Associate editor for this very magazine.

Spiller has exhibited some of them in museums and galleries. They were used when talking with reporters for the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, and other publications. Because of them, he was featured on CNN’s 'Headline News,' the New Yorker’s ‘Talk of the Town’ and NPR’s ’All things Considered.' Most recently he and they made the first page of the 'Dining Section' of the New York Times; that was on a recent Wednesday, September 22nd.

He knows, as you will after seeing this exhibit, that menus are more than lists of food with prices attached. They are windows into issues of transnational culture, race, gender, economics, food perceptions, and more. They can and do build greater understandings and acceptance of peoples world wide.

This phenomenal show will remain through June 2005. Do not wait until then to see it. I have already been three times, each visit seeing something missed on an earlier one. Leave time to visit and revisit. Regular admission is just a few bucks for adults, a single dollar for seniors and students. Children under twelve get in for free; as does everyone arriving on a Friday. Better yet, be a member and always visit exhibitions at MOCA for free.

Get additional information at www.moca-nyc.org and while visiting that site, learn that this year there is emphasis on foods and other things about the eateries that prepare them, the places that sell them, even the museums that tout them. In keeping with that theme, the next MOCA exhibit is about chop suey. The following year, all exhibits will be related to fashion and design. Wonder if they will look at fashions in food?

Going to MOCA in 2005 can bring double rewards. See their professionally developed food featured exhibits and then satiate self with professionally prepared Chinese food in Chinatown. Not sure where to eat? Use Carl Chu’s newest edition of Finding Chinese Food. The one about New York City and environs is reviewed in this issue and it begins on page 25.

And, as we have readers from many cities, states, and countries that can not get to MOCA in time to enjoy this exhibit, we have cornered the Menu Testimonials article hard copy page with four of Spiller’s menus. Several of these are from the 1930's, others early, but not dated. Also in the hard copy of this issue, this article is illustrated with the card sent to perspective attendees for this exhibit.

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