The last week of April has been a whirlwind for San Francisco’s Chinatown.
The storied neighborhood debuts the “AAPI Community Heroes Mural,” a predominantly black-and-white depiction of 12 mostly unknown Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on the walls of a bank figure. Three days later, the inaugural Chinatown contemporary art festival “Neon Was Never Brighter” took over the streets all night. Traditional lion and dragon dances, haute couture fashion shows and other public “artistic events” are showcased in block party-style events.
Cultural and arts organizations in North American Chinatowns have worked for decades to bring greater appreciation and visibility to these communities. But as the pandemic led to shutdowns and an increase in racist anti-Asian attacks, they faced an unprecedented one-two punch — and it continues. As harrowing as these events were, they also had an indelible effect on the reemergence of individual Chinatowns as cohesive centers of vitality and culture.
Cynthia Choi, co-founder of the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, is still “touted” as one of the heroes of the San Francisco mural. But attending the festival was just as moving for her.
“I’m really excited because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen so many people come to Chinatown, especially at night. I hear a lot of friends or family say, ‘I don’t want to go to Chinatown,'” she said. “I know that It’s going to be fun and exciting, but I’m really moved. “
Cities, companies and young Asian Americans outside of these historic Chinatowns are starting to pay attention again. Wells Fargo partnered with Chinatown Media & Arts Cooperative to create the “Heroes” mural. Everyone wants to “really address anti-Asian hatred and elevate Asian-American voices,” said Jenny Leung, executive director of the San Francisco Chinese Cultural Center, part of the collaborative. Young people vote on who will put up the mural.
“The appearance of Chinatown is often imported as a tourist attraction and fantasy for tourists to see,” Liang said. “It was never about celebrating the views and voices of the community.”
The idea of a “neon” festival was briefly discussed before the pandemic. But the events of the past two years have given it a sense of urgency.
“We wanted to move the deadline up a little bit to be able to address the growing number of 20, 30, 40 empty storefronts in the community,” said Leung, who described Chinatown as a “museum without walls.” “
Josh Chuck, the local filmmaker behind the documentary “Chinatown Rising,” noticed a younger generation dining or attending events in Chinatown. A friend who works in the tech industry started taking orders last year for friends who wanted to support restaurants in Chinatown. Soon he was creating spreadsheets to track 400 deliveries.
“Honestly, I can’t imagine anything that would inspire these people I know. Even myself, like, I feel more connected and engaged,” Chuck said. “It’s a silver lining.”
In New York, the first of five summer night markets will begin next month in the city’s Chinatown. This will be Think!Chinatown’s biggest event to date. The 5-year-old nonprofit has completed projects such as artist-in-residence programs and oral histories. But last year they teamed up with local pandemic relief program Neighborhoods Now on Chinatown nights after a string of verbal and physical attacks on Asians.
It’s a small gathering of less than 10 artist booths and food trucks in Forsyth Square Park. Yin Kong, co-founder and director of Think!Chinatown, said despite a “crazy” two-month preparation window, there was a collective feeling that “we just need to be together.” Philanthropy has undergone a “structural shift” to focus on equity.
“It’s re-prioritizing these other organizations that would traditionally fund other things to focus on how to support communities of color differently,” Kong said.
The expanded event next month will have 20 booths and sponsors, and will be scheduled when most Chinatown restaurants are closed so owners can attend.
“Without the pandemic, we wouldn’t have this mechanism,” said Kong, who feels Think! Chinatown is now seen as more “legitimate,” with better funding, full-time staff, and the possibility of office space to replace her dining table. .
In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the pandemic will only exacerbate the ongoing problem of vandalism, graffiti and other crime. But last year, the Canadian city successfully launched cultural projects it planned before COVID-19.
Last month, the Chinatown Mural Project showcased a series of bucolic murals painted by local artists on six roller shutters in a teahouse. In November, the interactive Chinatown Storytelling Center with artifacts and oral histories opens.
“We’re going to do it anyway (regardless of the pandemic),” said Carol Lee, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which oversees the center. “But you know, in some ways, it lets you It feels like you have more goals because it’s more necessary.”
Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, agrees that there is more collaboration and “more youth interest” than it was five or ten years ago.
There are fewer than 50 Chinatowns in the United States, and some of them are more active.
Many Chinatowns were formed in the 19th century, when Chinese laborers came to the West to mine gold or work on the railroads. They live there because of blatant discrimination or self-preservation. Their housing is a single room, or SRO, with a communal kitchen and bathroom, said Harvey Dong, a lecturer in racial studies and Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Many older Chinese Americans and immigrants from Chinatown still live in the units.
Another norm in Chinatown: development — from the sale of a no longer affordable SRO in San Francisco to a light rail expansion in Seattle to a proposed new prison in New York City. Because of gentrification, Chinatowns elsewhere have shrunk to a block or disappeared entirely. It’s a tricky juxtaposition for a city that sells Chinatown to tourists but provides few resources to its residents.
“So you have these huge festivals to attract businesses. You have these parades and all these things. But there’s no question that it’s important to address the needs of the community, especially the working class and the poor,” Dong said.
Meanwhile, exciting arts and culture advocates are stepping forward to put their stamp on Chinatown. San Francisco-based Chinatown Media & Arts Partnership is designing Edge on the Square, a $26.5 million media and arts center that will open in 2025. In New York, Think!Chinatown plans to rent a space with a kitchen for art exhibitions and cooking classes. The hope is to continue engaging with Asian Americans in and around Chinatown.
“It’s this cultural connection that draws them to Chinatown,” Kong said. “It’s something you can’t really do. … But it’s really the soul of Chinatown. We need to continue to protect it and make sure it can grow.”
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