Chinatown Feels 'Personal Loss' of 85,000 Artifacts from Five-Alarm Building Fire

AMNY - January 27, 2020

by Todd Maisel1

Workers sealed off this weekend the historical building in Chinatown which burned on Friday morning in a five-alarm inferno that destroyed offices, a senior center and about 85,000 museum archives documenting local Chinese-American history.

Many Chinese-Americans and immigrants utilized the building, a former public school that is said to be more than 100 years old, including NYC Museum of Chinese in America which houses at the site their archives.

The museum has started a GoFundMe page to help recover and repair a collection that took 40 years to compile. MOCA has preserved and protected 85,000 artifacts, with only a portion of them saved digitally.

“We can’t have something like this happen again – it’s just devastating,” said Nancy Yao Maasbach, president of NYC MOCA.

Since the fire, Maasbach and her staff visited the building at 70 Mulberry St., its top two floors burned through to the roof. While their collections didn’t burn, smoke and water damage was extensive — and she fears many items will be lost.

Five years ago, the MOCA began scanning and digitizing content and 35,000 items were backed up to servers — so at least some memory of the archives will be preserved. “I remember wondering whether we had backed up our servers, but then we checked and it was there,” she sighed. “But there are still a lot of items, including textiles, film, tapes, old menus, passage papers, signage and larger items like musical instruments and we will work to save what we can.”

Maasbach said the museum itself, at 210 Centre St., is very well protected with smoke detectors and a sprinkler system should there be a fire. The archives however were not so lucky.

“We had a fire some years back at 210 in which a lit cigarette was tossed between two buildings and it made us think about the possibility,” she remarked. “But now, we have to concentrate on repair and recovery, and that is what the Go Fund Me page will help. The response has been amazing.”

Hansi Liao, a former intern at the museum said, seeing the building in its damaged state was “very personal.”

“Five years ago I was an intern, but I was always close to the museum,” said Liao, surrounded by her friends. “I applied twice, accept on second time and then I did eight months here. There was a lot of archiving – a lot of paper and you need people to sort through it read what they are. I worked on one box of the early immigrants – memories of their journey are here and that’s very personal as I too am from China and am a new immigrant.”

Rosa Chang made a special trip into Manhattan to see the damage.

“My daughter used to come here for seven years, for Chinese school, every single year on every single Saturday since age 5,” Chang said. “It’s really about cultural heritage the archives documented the Chinese struggle. At one time, they couldn’t become American citizens. There was no way for a Chinese person to be citizen but [the law prohibiting citizenship] was overturned in 1963. It’s just so sad to see it this way.” “My parents used to go to the senior center and my children attended the Chen Dance and Music School so I have a connection,” added May Eng. “It’s so sad to hear so much of the history was lost.”

Eng also wondered why more wasn’t done to protect the archives: “If there was a museum, why wasn’t it better protected?”

The fire on Thursday night went to five alarms, bringing in more than 200 firefighters. Nine people, eight of which were firefighters, were injured as a result of the fire.

Fire marshals were on the scene on Sunday, still trying to determined the cause of the fire.

While marshals were inside, they were forced to place on man under arrest for trespassing inside the building. One resident of the street said they believe he actually lived in the building prior to the fire.

In addition to MOCA, the building served as the home base for a senior center, the Chen Dance Center, the Arts Gate Center, and the Mulberry Street theater in addition to other non-profits.

The building was administered by the Department of Citywide Administrative Services. The building had no sprinkler systems, a requirement of commercial buildings 100 feet tall or more. More than 900 city buildings are still not in compliance with that law, as amNewYork Metro previously reported.

The Department of Buildings said in a statement Sunday that the agency “issued a full vacate order for the entire building due to significant interior fire damage.”

“While the structural assessments being performed by our inspectors and engineers at the location are ongoing, our preliminary inspections have found that the neighboring buildings did not suffer any structural damage,” the statement noted.