In New York, Chinatown’s Cultural Power Steps Out of the Basements and Into the Mainstream

On a brisk evening last September, just as New York City descended into fall, musician Treya Lam situated herself on the impromptu stage inside Forsyth Plaza. Wedged directly below the Manhattan Bridge, the plaza sits at the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Most nights, this graffiti-lined space stays empty. That night, a crowd packed inside to listen to Lam, while food trucks served bubble tea, banh mi and momos on the street below alongside artists, set up on folding tables to sell braided straw art and elaborate sugar sculptures.

She strummed her guitar and began to sing: “We are the children of the migrant worker, we are the offspring of the concentration camp. Sons and daughters of the railroad builder, who leave their stamp on America.”

Close by was Yin Kong, director and co-founder of Think!Chinatown, the local organization hosting the event along with a second local organization, Asian Americans for Equality. Kong has a talent of being everywhere at once: securing Lam’s microphone, answering questions from volunteers, ensuring distribution of the bilingual programming. But she listened attentively as Lam repeated the chorus: “Sing a song for ourselves, what have we got to lose?”

The vision for this event, a series of pop-ups known as Chinatown Nights, was to build space for fresh approaches in the neighborhood: to kickstart economic recovery from COVID-19 by claiming space for local artists and vendors at night, when footfall drastically declines, and begin planting seeds for a permanent cultural anchor in Chinatown. To create safe space for the community amidst anti-Asian attacks, a time people were afraid to leave their homes.

The vision also built off a deep, sustained movement merging the arts with political organizing in Chinatown, as well as a decades-long fight to secure resources and space for a dedicated cultural anchor. “Our work here in Chinatown,” Kong says, “Is about place-keeping. It’s about celebrating, strengthening and amplifying.”

Lam’s song, We Are The Children, served as a reminder of that movement-building history. “We are a part of the third-world people,” she sang, “Who will leave our stamp on America.” In a neighborhood determined to assert itself and its resilience amid the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and an increase in anti-Asian violence, the lyrics Lam sang spoke deeply to this moment. And yet We Are The Children was written as part of a 1973 compilation of writing, art and music by Asian American artists called Yellow Pearl.

Yellow Pearl was a project of Basement Workshop, an Asian American arts collective formed in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the early 1970s to advocate for healthcare, jobs and resources.

[embedded content]

At Think!Chinatown’s Chinatown Nights event series, Musician Treya Lam performs songs from Yellow Pearl, a 1973 compilation of writing, art and music by Asian American artists. Yellow Pearl was a project of Basement Workshop.

Though it dissolved in the late 1980s, Basement Workshop helped seed the work of a core group of cultural organizers in the neighborhood, including Kong. They’re harnessing art to advocate for economic opportunity, fight against displacement and gentrification, and create intergenerational spaces that prioritize New York’s AAPI community.

Despite the effectiveness and sustainability of this movement, Asian American artists and organizers have been too often pigeonholed for creating so-called “cultural” or “ethnic” work. They have never gotten a fair share of resources, recognition and dedicated cultural space. In the case of Think!Chinatown, Kong says, “Our approach comes from a lack of access to more formalized performance spaces, even before COVID.”

But now, through a confluence of factors including the pandemic, anti-Asian violence and the destruction two years ago of community hub 70 Mulberry Street, those resources are finally presenting themselves to the neighborhood — more than $200 million announced in public dollars just in the past two years.

But the promises of funding have prompted questioning, and in some cases controversy, about the work ahead at a time of political and social upheaval. The city’s announcement to invest in arts and culture in Chinatown, as part of a proposal for building a new jail here, put into sharp relief the impact of capitalistic-establishment forces on a grassroots movement.

The questions are urgent, and resonate far beyond Chinatown: When the cultural and artistic work has long been under-resourced and marginalized by institutional and government funders, how should that money be distributed when it finally comes in? What are the trade-offs for government and establishment funding — and are they worth it?

A Chinatown Arts Collective Emerges From the Basement

For a neighborhood relatively compact in size — Chinatown covers roughly two square miles in Lower Manhattan — it boasts an impressive and dedicated collective of cultural organizers.

Think!Chinatown, established in 2017, works at the intersection of storytelling, arts and neighborhood engagement. In 2016, The W.O.W. Project launched as a women-, queer-, and transgender-led community initiative using art and activism to grow and protect Chinatown’s creative culture. Chinatown Art Brigade, formed in 2015, centers art and culture to support community-led campaigns around issues of gentrification and displacement. There are countless other artists and cultural organizers doing community-centered work, from the Chinatown Yarn Circle to the pop-up calligraphy and tea house Pencilnyc Studio.

This vibrant creative ecosystem emerged from the neighborhood’s basements. One of the earliest cultural spaces is still active in the basement of the Chinese Community Center, at 62 Mott Street, sandwiched between narrow retail shops selling gifts and eyewear.

In early November, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) debuted its first Chinese opera here – a work in Cantonese, one of several Chinese dialects spoken across Chinatown — since New York’s COVID-19 lockdown. Chinese operas have been performed here since the 60s, but CCBA’s history dates to 1883, when the association was formed to combat discrimination against New York’s Chinese residents following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

Chinatown’s longest-running service provider has been a main player in the neighborhood’s changing power dynamics, as well as an umbrella organization to smaller neighborhood groups and family associations. It’s provided and coordinated services the government did not, such as housing, jobs, business and legal support.

Arts and culture was always part of that equation. Chinese opera groups heavily assisted the CCBA with fundraising to build the Chinese Community Center, where the theater doubles as an auditorium for the New York Chinese School in the same building. Today, the auditorium is one of the few cultural and performance spaces in the neighborhood — and in high demand. “Before the pandemic, the auditorium was used almost every week for performance,” says CCBA President Justin Yu. “We have a drawing [to pick performers] … if you get a number you perform this year, if you don’t get a number, next year.”

The Chinese Community Center officially opened in 1962, at a time when the country was rapidly changing, and the neighborhood would follow suit. The rise of counterculture protests and the Civil Rights Movement intersected with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted restrictive immigration quotas and ultimately changed the makeup of the United States, bringing an influx of newcomers to Chinatowns across the country. By the late 60s, activists coined the term Asian American to unite the growing population in the fight for equality.

Here in Manhattan’s Chinatown, young Asian Americans were further mobilized by the Black Power Movement and Vietnam War protests. They synthesized that energy inside a tenement-style basement at 54 Elizabeth Street. Basement Workshop became New York’s first Asian American political and arts organization in 1971, bringing together urban planners, community advocates and writers as well as visual, performing and spoken word artists. They merged creative initiatives such as Yellow Pearl with community work like English language and citizenship classes and community health fairs.

As this short history puts it, “Basement was very loose and different artists pursued different interests, but they saw their art in the context of their communities.” As member Bob Lee says, “The real guts of it was that we all had to fight for the recognition and the rights and the needs of our community, and for the visibility of each of our different experiences, and the inequities and injustices in all of that.”

NewYorkCity Chinatown BasementWorkshop1972sharpPhoto 920 610 80

Members of Chinatown’s Basement Workshop, circa 1972. (Photo by Bob Hsiang)

Basement ushered in the next generation of what CCBA seeded 100 years earlier: a central hub where art, cultural preservation, community organizing and grassroots services intersected, within a neighborhood that was built off exclusion. In the work, community, cultural and artistic space is fluid. In the same way that the Chinese Community Center houses a performance venue and school, Basement Workshop served as art studio, gallery, meeting space and classroom. The work, then and now, is also intergenerational, placing value on elder wisdom and cultural preservation alongside youth energy around issues such as social justice and contemporary art.

As the basement work emerged, it took different shapes. Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai went on to found the Chinatown History Project, which became the Museum of Chinese in America. Photographer Corky Lee would launch his career and found 21 Pell Street inside the First Chinese Baptist Church to showcase photography, traveling exhibits, films and guest speakers. He died in January from COVID-19, but 21 Pell Street lives on. The Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network formed in 1990 with Basement artists Tomie Arai and Arlan Huang. Eleanor Yung established the Asian American Dance Theatre in 1974; she and her husband Bob Lee grew it into the Asian American Arts Centre, which still maintains a vast collection of contemporary Asian American art.

Bob Lee fought for the arts community not just in Chinatown but across New York City, participating in NYC’s Cultural Equity Group, The Association of American Cultures and the People’s Cultural Plan. In the early 1980s, after the New York State Council on the Arts identified the need for a central service provider for Asian American artists and organizations, he led the formation of the Asian American Arts Alliance. The Alliance now serves AAPI artists across New York City.

Basement members still engage with the newest wave of organizing. Lee sits on the board of Think!Chinatown and works closely with Kong. Arai went on to co-found the Chinatown Art Brigade with Betty Yu and ManSee Kong. This summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a recorded conversation between Arai and W.O.W. Project founder Mei Lum. “Hearing you talk a lot about Basement,” Lum told Arai, “I could see a lot of W.O.W. in that and what it means for a lot of young people in finding who they are and what it means to be Asian American.”

But the stakes of creating this work have escalated exponentially since fall 2019, when the city released “points of agreement” as part of its contentious, borough-based jail plan. In addition to building a new jail in the neighborhood, the city would fund things such as upgrades at Columbus Park, a community hub that hosts cultural events, a new elevator at 70 Mulberry Street, which was badly in need of upgrades before the fire, and the acquisition and construction of a permanent museum and new performing arts space for the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).

The announcement, particularly the $35 million allocated to MOCA, prompted intense questioning about how the community’s artistic and cultural work should be funded, how resources and money are allocated, and whether some funding trade-offs were unacceptable, as many felt the city’s jail plan to be.

Three months after that announcement, a fire tore through 70 Mulberry Street, the neighborhood’s only cultural hub, where the Museum of Chinese in America kept its archives. That was followed in rapid succession by the early economic downturn caused by racialized fears around COVID-19, the devastation of the pandemic, a near standstill of the neighborhood economy, a social justice movement, and the increase in anti-Asian violence.

The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), at 215 Centre Street, in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of MOCA)

For Lee, whom I met in his narrow and compact Asian American Arts Centre office last fall, such a difficult time also reveals itself as a moment of possibility — to “take the first baby steps toward a different kind of society, a different kind of culture.”

In this moment of transformation, a growing abolition movement, and a climate crisis that demands we operate in new ways, Lee wonders if the right step is depending on the city and reinforcing the status quo. “Should we try to enhance the cultural institutions we have in the Asian community with the paradigms taken from the Guggenheim or the MET?” he asks, referring to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Or should we find something in what Think!Chinatown or the W.O.W. Project is doing? Something that can be a paradigm for a different way of operating?”

The Origins of MOCA and the Never-Ending Fight for Resources and Space

The Museum of Chinese in America not only emerged from Basement Workshop, it emerged from the left-behind belongings found on Chinatown curbsides. Charlie Lai and Jack Tchen met at Basement in 1976 and began noticing a phenomenon as the neighborhood rapidly shifted following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: sidewalk garbage cans filled with community artifacts, such as a leather suitcase full of Chinese slippers, letters written in Chinese from wives back home who were prohibited from joining their husbands in the U.S., and store signs of departing merchants.

The pair kept rummaging through garbage — sometimes with residents threatening to call the police — and formed the New York Chinatown History Project in 1980 with the goal of documenting the lives of Chinese residents in New York City. In 1984, they moved their collection to the former school building at 70 Mulberry Street, which had been renovated into a community center for the neighborhood.

This collection evolved into the Museum of Chinese in America, showing exhibits out of 70 Mulberry until moving to 215 Centre Street in 2009. (Its 85,000-item collection was kept at 70 Mulberry until the fire.) Since then, the museum has worked to permanently secure its space on Centre Street — as opposed to leasing it — and establish itself as a social history museum for Asian Americans across the country.

This hasn’t been the only quest for dedicated cultural space in Chinatown. In 2003 a group of cultural organizers formed the coalition CREATE in Chinatown to secure a dedicated performing arts center for the community. The stakes felt high: rent was increasing, making it harder for longtime arts groups to maintain a physical presence in the neighborhood, and the community was suffering following the post-September 11th collapse of the garment industry, a primary anchor of employment.

You May Also Like