Charles “Charlie” Lai, a life-long Chinatown resident and community organizer, began working at the Basement Workshop in the 1970s. While running the summer youth employment program from ’76-’78, he and fellow Workshop member Jack Tchen began talking about the next steps of their community organizing goals. From these conversations, Lai and Tchen began formulating the basis for the New York Chinatown History Project – an organization dedicated to documenting and centering the dynamic communities of New York, especially the working class, through a dialogic approach.
By 1979, Lai and Tchen moved the materials of Basement’s Asian American Resource Center to their first space on East Broadway and began recruiting staff, salvaging the remnants of Chinatown’s history from the streets, and gathering oral histories in the community. Lai and Tchen’s Project’s first exhibition, Eight Pound Livelihood, would cement the Project’s mission and place in the community, as well as become a touchstone for executing future projects and exhibitions. Charlie Lai served two terms as the Executive Director of MOCA (1986-1989 and 2003-2009), focusing in his second term on the capital campaign for MOCA’s new permanent space at 215 Centre Street.