The last week of April was a whirlwind for the Chinatown of San Francisco. The historic district debuted “Heroes of the AAPI Community …
The last week of April was a whirlwind for the Chinatown of San Francisco.
The “AAPI Fresco of Heroes of the Community” debuted in the legendary neighborhood, a predominantly black-and-white depiction of 12 faces of Asian American and Pacific islands on a bank wall. Three days later, “Neon Was Never Brighter,” the first-ever contemporary art festival in Chinatown, took to the streets all night. Traditional lion and dragon dances, haute couture fashion shows and other public “art activations” were presented at the event, similar to a block party.
Culture and arts organizations in Chinatowns across North America have been working for decades to increase the appreciation and visibility of these communities. But they faced an unprecedented blow one or two when the pandemic caused a shutdown and racist anti-Asian attacks intensified – and continue. As painful as these events were, they also had an indelible impact on the restoration of various Chinatowns as close centers of life and culture.
Cynthia Choi, co-founder of the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, is still “surprised” to become one of the heroes depicted in the San Francisco mural. But no less touching for her was being at the festival.
“I was very emotional because I haven’t seen so many people come to Chinatown for so long, especially at night. I’ve heard many of my friends or family say, “I don’t want to go to Chinatown,” she said. “I knew it was going to be fun and exciting, but I was really moved.”
The attention of cities, companies and young Asian Americans from outside these historic Chinatowns has resumed. Wells Fargo collaborated with the San Francisco Center for Chinese Culture in creating the “Heroes” mural. Everyone wanted to “really deal with anti-Asian hatred and raise the voices of Asian Americans,” said Jenny Leung, executive director of the Center, which is a member of the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative. Young people voted who to put on the mural.
“Often, what the Chinatown looks like is imported as a tourist attraction and fantasy for visitors,” Leung said. “In fact, it’s never about noting the point of view and the voice of the community.”
The idea of the Neon Festival, curated by the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative, was briefly discussed before the pandemic. But the events of the last two years have made this relevant.
“We wanted to postpone this deadline a little earlier to be able to deal with the empty showcases of 20, 30, 40, which are increasingly growing in the community,” said Leung, who describes Chinatown as a “museum without walls.” ».
Josh Chuck, a local director who creates the documentary “Chinatown Rising,” has noticed how younger generations dine or participate in events in Chinatown. A friend who works in technology last year started getting orders for friends who wanted to support Chinatown restaurants. Soon he was making tables to track 400 deliveries.
“Honestly, I couldn’t imagine anything that would push these people I know. Even I feel much more connected and committed, ”Chuck said. “It’s a silver lining.”
The first of five summer night markets will start in New York next month in the Chinatown. This will be the biggest event to date for Think! Chinatown. The 5-year-old nonprofit has implemented a number of projects, such as residency programs for artists and oral history. But last year, after a series of verbal and physical attacks on Asians, they collaborated with Neighborhoods Now, a local pandemic initiative, as part of Chinatown Nights.
It was a small meeting with less than 10 booths of artists and food trucks at Forsyth Plaza. Despite the “crazy” two-month training window, there was a collective sense of “we just need to be together,” said Yin Kong, co-founder and director of China’s Think! Chinatown. And there was a “tectonic shift” with philanthropy focused on justice.
“She has taken over the priorities of these other organizations, which would traditionally fund other things, to focus on how to support color communities differently,” Kong said.
The expanded event next month will feature 20 booths and sponsorships, and will be scheduled when most of Chinatown’s restaurants close so owners can attend.
“The mechanisms that brought us there would not have happened without the pandemic,” said Kong, who believes “Think! Chinatown ”is now seen as more“ legitimate ”with better funding, staff and the possibility of office space instead of its dining table.
In the Chinatown of Vancouver, a pandemic has only exacerbated current problems of vandalism, graffiti and other crimes. But over the past year the Canadian city has managed to launch cultural projects planned for COVID-19.
Last month, a painting project in Chinatown showcased a series of pastoral murals painted by a local artist on six blinds of a tea shop. An online Chinatown story center with relics and recorded oral stories opened in November.
“We would do it anyway (regardless of the pandemic),” said Carol Lee, chairman of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which oversees the center. “But you know, in a way, it makes you feel like you have more goals because it’s more necessary.”
Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Association for Business Improvement, agreed that there is more collaboration and “much more interest from young people than there was five to 10 years ago.”
There are less than 50 Chinatowns in the United States, some more active than others.
Many Chinatowns were formed in the 19th century when Chinese workers arrived to mine gold from the West or work on the railroad. They lived there because of overt discrimination or self-preservation. Their housing was a one-room unit, or SRO, with shared kitchens and bathrooms, said Harvey Dong, a professor of ethnic studies and Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Many elderly Americans of Chinese descent and immigrants in Chinatown still live in these units.
Another constant in Chinatown: development – from the sale of more inaccessible SROs in San Francisco to the expansion of the light rail in Seattle to the proposed new prison in New York. Chinatowns elsewhere have shrunk to a quarter or disappeared altogether due to gentrification. It’s a tricky contrast for a city to advertise Chinatown for tourists, but offers little resources for its residents.
“So you have these huge festivals to attract business. You have these tips and all that. But it is certainly important to meet the needs of society, especially the working class and the poor, ”Dong said.
Meanwhile, excited fans of art and culture are moving forward to put their stamp in Chinatown. Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative in San Francisco is developing Edge on the Square, a $ 26.5 million media center and art center that is set to open in 2025. In New York, Think! Chinatown plans to rent a room with a kitchen for art exhibitions and culinary classes. Hopefully, engagement with Asian Americans inside and outside the Chinatown will continue.
“In Chinatown, they are attracted by cultural ties,” Kong said. “It’s something you can’t put your finger on. … But it’s really the soul of Chinatown. And we must continue to defend it and make sure it can grow. ”
This story was updated to correct what the mural was a partnership between Wells Fargo and the San Francisco Chinese Cultural Center, not the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative.
Tan reported from Phoenix and is a member of the Associated Press’s Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at https://twitter.com/ttangAP
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