SF Chinatown museum reopens with a punch and a kick – NBC Bay Area
When the Chinese Historical Society museum opened in San Francisco’s Chinatown in late April for the first time in two years, it caused a stir.
The museum has reopened with a powerful exhibit on the life of Chinatown’s most famous native son, martial arts master and actor Bruce Lee, who was born a block from the Chinese Hospital.
But after a two-year hiatus due to the pandemic, the museum also opened with a karate chop to its own mission statement, expanding its historical panorama to include other nationalities.
“We took it upon ourselves,” said the museum’s new director, Justin Hoover, “to reimagine what the museum could be.”
The “reinvention” of the museum took the form of physical changes; from expanding exhibit ceilings, to adding state-of-the-art projection equipment, to taking over an adjacent parking lot to host community events.
But his rebirth is also something of a spiritual transformation.
In the days leading up to the museum’s reopening in April, artists and workers were busy putting the finishing touches on exhibits that showed the brick building’s expanded cultural perspective. Downstairs in a lower room, an African-American artist painted a scene that included a young black girl alongside an Asian-inspired caricature of a dragon.
Another wall featured three paintings of first female Black Panther Tarica Lewis, depicting one of her ancestors, legendary boxer Joe Lewis.
“It’s also a pivot to inclusiveness of non-Asians,” Hoover said, browsing the exhibits between meetings. “We have a lot of African American voices, a lot of artist voices from all walks of life.”
The museum still focuses on its mission of highlighting the history and experience of Chinese immigrants in Chinatown, which dates back to the Gold Rush era. In one room, behind glass, was a dark symbol of this immigrant story; the original 1902 document making the Chinese Exclusion Act permanent, and the pen used by President Theodore Roosevelt to sign it.
Hoover explained how the room where the document is located is also a place where people can practice empathy – including an instruction to write an “inclusiveness” message on a notecard.
“Who could you help? Who could you support? Hoover said, offering suggestions.
Visitors entering the museum will be most impressed by its front and center Bruce Lee exhibit – featuring film memorabilia, images, Lee quotes and a state-of-the-art colorful light projection that bathes Lee in morphing visuals.
A section of the exhibit focuses on the racism Lee has faced throughout his career, including a list of Green Hornet salaries, in which Lee starred as Kato, receiving the lowest salary in the production.
“Bruce did less than anyone on set, even the stuntmen,” Hoover said. “He was paid less than anyone, yet he was the star of that TV show.”
On the day of the exhibit’s opening, Lee’s daughter, Shannon Lee, toured the room filled with artifacts, while videos from her father’s films played her father’s martial arts scenes and the Images of the late actor were shown from all angles.
“There’s a sense of wonder, there’s a sense of pride,” Lee said looking around the room, “there’s a sense of energy, a sense of satisfaction, and a sense of excitement. ‘be here.”
The pandemic has hit Chinatown hard, as businesses are still struggling to recover. The museum’s long closure seemed to reflect the neighborhood’s grim economic situation, as its streets remained empty for more than a year. With street banners now trumpeting the Lee exhibit, there’s hope it will give the neighborhood’s recovery a quick kick.
“Chinatown has been disproportionately affected by the pandemic in terms of declining business,” said activist Natassia Kwan. “And it’s super exciting to see the excitement surrounding this exhibit – bringing this renewed energy to Chinatown.”
Hoover, who was hired as director a year ago, is excited to see what the future holds for the museum — and its role as a cultural hub for the famous San Francisco neighborhood.
“I feel like this museum is just an anchor in the community,” Hoover said. “People have looked to it for many years to be a leader not only in education but also in the community.”
Hoover stopped in front of a broken wooden sign reading “No Chinese or Dogs Allowed”, which Lee smashed in the movie Fists of Fury. Likewise, visitors are now invited to write their own message of oppression on a board and smash it with a karate chop.
Hoover scribbled “fake news” on a board, then smashed it in half, shouting “karate kick!” when the blow was struck.
“Come in and you can do your karate kick,” he laughed. “It’s the only museum where you can break things.”