The last week of April was a tornado for San Francisco’s Chinatown.
storied neighborhood debut AAPI Community Heroes MurliBlack and white illustration of 12 mostly unheard Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders on the wall of a bank. Three days later Neon Was Never Brighter, the first ever Chinatown contemporary arts festival, took to the streets overnight. Traditional lion and dragon dances, a fashion fashion show and other public “art activities” were featured at an event such as the Block Party.
Cultural and arts organizations in North America’s Chinatowns have worked for decades to bring greater appreciation and visibility to these communities. But they have faced an unprecedented one-two punch when shutdowns due to the pandemic and racist anti-Asian attacks escalated – and continue. Traumatic as those events are, they also indelibly influenced the resurgence of various Chinatowns as intimate centers of vibrancy and culture.
Cynthia Choi, co-founder of the Stop AAPI Hate Reporting Center, is still “blown away” for being one of the heroes featured in the San Francisco mural. But being at the festival was equally touching for him.
“I got really emotional because it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a lot of people come to Chinatown, especially at night. I’ve heard a lot of my friends or family say, ‘I don’t want to go to Chinatown’ ,'” He said. “I knew it was going to be fun and exciting, but I was really shaken up.”
There has been renewed attention from cities, companies, and young Asian Americans outside these historic Chinatowns. Wells Fargo partnered with Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative on the “Hero” mural. “Everyone really wanted to address anti-Asian hatred and uplift Asian American voices,” said Jenny Leung, executive director of the Center for Chinese Culture in San Francisco, which is part of the Collaborative. The youth voted on who to paint the mural.
“Often the way Chinatown looks is imported as a tourist attraction and imagination,” Leung said. “It’s not really about celebrating the point of view and voice of the community.”
The idea of a neon festival was briefly discussed pre-pandemic. But the events of the last two years gave it urgency.
“We wanted to push that deadline a little bit earlier to be able to address the rapidly growing 20, 30, 40, empty storefronts in the community,” said Leung, who describes Chinatown as a “museum without walls.” portrays in. ,
Josh Chuck, a local filmmaker behind the documentary Chinatown Rising, has seen the younger generation in Chinatown eating or attending events. A friend who works in tech started taking orders last year for friends who wanted to support Chinatown restaurants. Soon he was building a spreadsheet to track 400 deliveries.
“Honestly, there is no way I could have imagined that would inspire these people that I know. Even myself, like, I feel so much more connected and committed,” Chuck Said. “It’s a silver lining.”
In New York, the first of five summer night markets opens in the city’s Chinatown next month. Think! This will be the biggest event ever for Chinatown. The 5-year-old non-profit has undertaken a number of projects such as artists-in-residency programs and oral histories. But after a series of verbal and physical attacks against Asians last year, he partnered with Neighborhood Now, a local pandemic relief initiative, on Chinatown Nights.
It was a small gathering of no less than 10 artist booths and food trucks in Forsythe Plaza Park. Think! Despite the “crazy” two-month preparation window, there was a collective feeling of “we just need to be together”, said Chinatown co-founder and director Yin Kong. And there was a “tectonic shift” with a focus on equity with philanthropy.
“It made these other organizations a priority again that would be funded, among other things, to focus on a way that supports traditionally communities of color differently,” Kong said.
The expanded event next month will have 20 booths and sponsorships, and will be scheduled when most Chinatown restaurants are closed so owners can participate.
“The mechanism we got there wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic,” said Kong, who at Think! Chinatown is now seen as more “legitimate” with better funding, full-time employees, and the prospect of an office space instead. Dining Table.
In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the pandemic only exacerbated ongoing issues of vandalism, graffiti and other crimes. But within the past year, the Canadian city managed to launch cultural projects planned before COVID-19.
Last month, the Chinatown Mural Project featured a series of rustic murals painted by a local artist on six roller shutters of a tea shop. In November, the interactive Chinatown Storytelling Center with relics and recorded oral history opened.
“We would have done this 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 makes you feel like you have more purpose because it’s more necessary.”
Jordan Inge, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, agreed that there is more collaboration and “much more youthful interest than there was five, 10 years ago.”
There are less than 50 Chinatowns across the US with some more active than others.
Many Chinatowns took shape in the 19th century as Chinese workers came from outside the West to mine for gold or work on the railroad. They lived there because of gross discrimination or self-preservation. Their housing was single-room-occupancy units, or SROs, with communal kitchens and bathrooms, said Harvey Dong, a lecturer in ethnic studies and Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Many older Chinese Americans and immigrants still live in these units in Chinatown.
Another constant in Chinatown: growth—from the sale of the now-affordable SRO in San Francisco to a light-rail expansion in Seattle to a proposed new prison in New York City. Elsewhere Chinatowns have shrunk to a block or disappeared entirely due to gentrification. It’s a difficult association for a city to avoid Chinatown for tourists, yet provides some resources to its residents.
“So you have these huge festivals to bring in businesses. You have these parades and all these things. But of course, it’s important that the needs of the community, especially the working class and the poor, are met,” Dong said.
In the meantime, upbeat arts and culture advocates are moving to put their stamp on Chinatown. The Chinatown Media and Arts Collaborative in San Francisco is designing Edge on the Square, a $26.5 million media and arts center set to open in 2025. In New York, Think! Chinatown is planning to lease a space with a kitchen for art exhibitions and cooking classes. Hope to continue connecting with Asian Americans inside and outside Chinatown.
“What attracts them to Chinatown is the cultural connection,” Kong said. “It’s something you can’t really put your finger on … but it really is the soul of Chinatown. And we must keep protecting it and making sure it can grow.”
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