Thoughts on galleries in San Francisco Chinatown

Capital Gallery and Et Al make two galleries now in San Francisco Chinatown. It is premature to call a trend, and probably fear-mongering to mention gentrification. But while I like these two galleries in Chinatown, I wouldn’t necessarily want to see many more.

Reasons to be excited:

  • New galleries in SF! Especially after all the recent closures….
  • These are good galleries. They’re curatorially interesting: Artists currently at Capital: Virginia Overton, Will Rogan, Cynthia Daignault (nice to see local and non-local artists in dialogue; though if this were in Chelsea I wouldn’t be impressed). Et Al seems to specialize in an area in which I’ve long felt the Bay Area underperforms: giving well-deserved solo shows to local artists (however the current show by Anthony Discenza may be an exception, as he’s got representation and visibility; I’ve posted impressions).
  • They espouse and maintain professional-level display. There are plenty of scrappy, funky, or difficult spaces here already.

Reasons to proceed with caution:

  • SF Chinatown is already dense and hemmed in by the Financial District and touristy North Beach. The very existence of Chinatown, as an idea and a place, has been contested with xenophobia and racism, throughout its history and particularly following the 1906 earthquake. (LA Chinatown’s galleries are different; they seem to occupy a sleepier area away from vital markets used by residents, whereas there isn’t really under-utilized space in SF.) I hope it would be safe to assume that any proud Bay Area residents need not be reminded of Manilatown, the I-Hotel, and the dangers of gentrification.
  • I didn’t grow up in Chinatown. Yet its continuing importance in my personal and family life might help illustrate its overall importance to Chinese Americans in the Bay Area. My grandparents lived there—the neighborhood is an ideal community for Chinese-speaking seniors, especially when you consider aging people’s isolation in car-oriented suburbs. Like countless many before her, when my mom first came to the US, she stayed in a boarding house in Chinatown; it’s a point of entry, a navigable community in which to find a home and learn about a new country. Later, after my parents married and relocated north to work, we would visit Chinatown every Sunday to visit family and stock up on groceries, driving an hour each way. When we moved closer, I gained Chinese language skills by attending Saturday school on Jackson Street. As a young adult trying to form my identity, I’d roam Chinatown in seek of meaningful connections. Eventually I gained an internship at the Chinese Cultural Center (on Kearny just north of the galleries), which organized a trip—the only program of its kind to do so in the US—to visit my ancestral village in the Pearl River Delta region in China. That experience was a life-changing event. I garnered a new understanding of myself, my parents, and my grandparents, as well as an un-describable feeling that comes with knowing that one of my family lines can be traced back 34 generations. Despite moving to suburbia, my parents enjoyed many years attending events at a family association, one of their primary means for social connection, on Stockton. (In fact, most of the people at my wedding—held in a banquet hall on Grant, one block west of the galleries—were members of my parent’s family association.) My mom continues to attend association events and patronize Chinatown’s Buddhist temples, traditional pharmacies, and bookstores.

Non-Chinese San Franciscans might think of Chinatown as only Grant Street—as essentially a constructed tourist trap, with some cheesy dive bars thrown in. But it’s much more culturally rich and important than that. Even if Chinese Americans reside throughout the Bay Area now, SF Chinatown is still the beating heart of this community.

This is not a criticism of the galleries or the people that run them. Et Al is run by a trio; of which Jackie Im and Aaron Harbour are vocal supporters of contemporary art and critical discourse in the Bay Area. Capital is run by two Bay Area artists, Jonathan Runcio (I liked his work at Romer Young’s booth at NADA last year) and Bob Linder, who co-directed Queen’s Nails. I am sure that finding affordable space and running a gallery in SF is extremely challenging now, and those efforts are to be commended. If anyone can situate a gallery sensitively within a neighborhood, I hope they—and anyone following in their footsteps—can.


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