On Thursday May 17th, 2023, MOCA PERFORMS actors brought Chinese American history to life during a live reading of letters drawn from MOCA’s Marcella Dear Collection. The letters—which were written to a young Marcella by her brother Walter B. Chin and friends Stanson Mark and Yee M. Thom (Tommy)—provided a humanizing window into some of the feelings and experiences of young Chinese American and immigrant men serving in the U.S. military during World War II.

The letter-reading performance featured actors Shan Y. Chuang, Philippe Leong, and Charles Pang, and was conceived and directed by Dennis Yueh-Yeh Li, MOCA’s new Director of Performance, Storytelling & Community.

Walter Chin with three of his comrades in arms from the U.S. Air Force during WWII. From left to right: "Bibana Baker Bogle Walter." Courtesy of Marcella Dear, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.
Walter Chin in a U.S. Army Air Forces uniform standing with his mother Tsui Chun Guey. His rank insignia indicates he is a sergeant. Chin served in the Air Force during WWII in the Pacific Theater. Courtesy of Marcella Dear, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.

The actors began the performance by painting a broad historical portrait of wartime in New York Chinatown with the aid of historical photographs from MOCA’s collections. On the home front, Chinese New Yorkers supported the war effort by buying and selling war bonds, salvaging and recycling a wide array of previously discarded material for reuse by the troops, volunteering with the American Red Cross, and organizing events which fundraised considerable sums to aid soldiers and orphaned children affected by the war in China against Japan.

Chinatown Boy Scout Troop 150 marching in a "Bowl of Rice" fundraising parade for children affected by the Sino-Japanese War, February 1943. Photograph taken at corner of Mott and Pell Streets. Courtesy of Jeanette Lee Chin, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.
Bird's eye photograph of marchers carrying Chinese national flag in a "Bowl of Rice" fundraising parade for children affected by the Sino-Japanese War, Mott Street, New York, NY, February 1943. Courtesy of Jeanette Lee Chin, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.

In addition to these contributions on the home front, nearly 14,000 or 22 percent of all men of Chinese descent in the United States fought in the U.S. armed forces during World War II. As the actors’ explained, Chinese American men were disproportionately drafted due to their high incidence of “bachelorhood” and the prioritization of drafting men without dependents, though in reality many supported families in home villages back in China. However, many also enlisted out of patriotism and a sense of duty, a feeling that the letter-writers expressed.

For the letter reading, participants were divided into three groups assigned to one of three actors stationed in adjoining sections of the museum’s core exhibit. The actors each read aloud two letters and then shared their own impressions, asked questions, or invited questions, opening the door for small-group discussion. At the end of an allotted time, a bell was rung, signaling that it was time for each group to rotate to the next actor. At the end of three rounds, the audience was invited to once again convene as one large group to share takeaways and ask any lingering questions.

MOCA Performs actor, Charles Pang, reading a letter from Walter Chin to his sister Marcella in the "Allies and Enemies" section of the museum's core exhibition. Next to him is a display case showing select artifacts drawn from MOCA's Marcella Dear Collection. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Ng Tam.
MOCA performer Philippe Leong reads a letter from Stanson Mark to Marcella Chen in an adjoining section of ​​MOCA’s core exhibition space. Photograph courtesy of Nancy Ng Tam.

With firsthand details and an earnest tone that drew readers and listeners alike in, the letters recounted the mundane, everyday life in the barracks, basic training, kitchen duty, mosquitos, requests of objects or news from home, encounters with fellow Chinese American soldiers, desire for connection and the familiar, the honor of dying for one’s country, and impressions of new places as their units moved across the U.S.—from Lincoln, NE, Fort Myers, FL, Camp Wheeler, GA, San Francisco, CA, and Seattle, WA—to being deployed to fight at the front overseas.

The audience generally appreciated learning about these experiences, but interestingly, a few found just as compelling the notable silences. Connecting it to the present, an activist who organized around seeking justice for Private Danny Chen, who was racially harassed, teased, bullied, and mercilessly beaten by his fellow soldiers before he committed suicide in 2011, asserted that she could not believe that Chinese American soldiers did not also experience racist treatment in the U.S. military of the 1940s.

This opened up a discussion of what else was left unsaid in the letters—the psychological trauma and weight one must feel when one takes a life, the terror and horrors of war. All this they perhaps left unsaid to spare their families. This turn in the discussion to what was missing inspired an audience member and actor to share with the group what happened to their own families, who lived through the Japanese occupation and war in Shanghai and Hong Kong, respectively. Another contributor to the discussion, a World War II veteran in the audience, spoke from experience that the military did in fact read and censor letters and punished soldiers who displeased the censors with unpleasant duties, perhaps explaining the silences.

All in all, the performance—replete with storytelling, memory-sharing, and discussion informed by historical photographs, documents, and artifacts from MOCA’s collection—was an educational and entertaining way to spend an evening during AAPI Heritage Month.

2011.019.022 Chin Family Portrait, 1946. A twenty-year-old Marcella is sitting in the middle row on the far right. Next to her are her parents Suey Bing and Tsui Chun Guey. In the back row, from right, are Walter’s wife and Walter, who came home safely after the war. The Chins owned a spacious apartment at 44 Mott Street and often threw parties and welcomed Chinese students into their home. It is probable that Marcella befriended and/or socialized with Stanson, Tommy and others during such occasions. As a beautiful and vibrant young woman from a prominent and wealthy merchant family, and as one of the relatively few young women in Chinatown at the time, it is not hard to imagine that Marcella would have had male friends wanting to keep in touch and write to her throughout the war. Marcella will celebrate her ninety-eighth birthday this year.