Art & Development, Values, Citizenship, Art Worlds

Hopes for Chinatown: Ethics, Complicity, & Tactics Rationale

I was invited to an art opportunity that was funded by a tech company that I detest. I weighed the ethics of my participation. Here’s what I decided to do.

Sorry this is so wordy—I’m choosing transparency and thoroughness.

Background

In early May, I was invited by 100 Days Action to contribute art to Art for Essential Workers.

“100 Days Action is installing art on boarded up storefronts by local and national artists with images of optimism and solidarity with our essential workers.”

100 Days Action is “a Bay Area artist collective that produces creative resistance projects to build community at the intersection of art, activism, and social engagement.” It was formed immediately after the 2016 presidential election in response to Trump’s 100-Day Plan.” I know several of the members and respect who they are and what they do.

Art for Essential Workers is a cool model of a program that supports the community, small businesses, and artists. They invite artists to respond to the COVID-19 crisis with sketches to show business owners, who pick from the designs. Then 100 Days Action prints and wheat-pastes the artwork, to be seen by essential workers and neighbors. The project started with the Mission District in San Francisco and is now expanding to Chinatown.

Art, Culture, and Belonging

The chance to display art in SF Chinatown via Art for Essential Workers plugged in beautifully with Art, Culture and Belonging.

Art, Culture, and Belonging is a community-engaged project exploring the impact of art and culture on belonging SF Chinatown. I’m the lead artist and I work in partnership with the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco and the Chinatown Arts and Culture Coalition.

Since shelter-in-place restrictions, we’ve pivoted programming to online platforms and encouraged people to support local Chinatown businesses, which have been slammed by compounding losses resulting from shelter-in-place, xenophobia, and reduced tourism. For many reasons, I haven’t been able to travel and engage the community as much as I planned.

Because of this, Art for Essential Workers is an especially welcome, timely way for the project to have a physical platform in the neighborhood.

Hopes for Chinatown Project

In Art, Culture, and Belonging, we solicited stories about belonging in SF Chinatown, including a question about hopes for Chinatown. I’ve taken excerpts from these responses to create the artworks for Art for Essential Workers. (Thanks to YY Zhu and Weiying Yu at CCCSF for translation and proofreading.)

Photo of Dragon Seed Bridal and Photography storefront. A big sign above reads, "Dragon Seed" in brown text on white background. Below, the window is boarded up and covered in a wheatpasted poster. The text on the poster is in English and Chinese. It reads: Hopes for Chinatown. To see people living and working in peace and harmony, by Alina. Everyone in Chinatown will be safe and healthy. Anonymous. Less discrimination. More Understanding. YY. Chinatown's Generations of love and care will continue. Sunflower. The text is in red in light pink boxes on a background of red with a scale-like pattern of overlapping concentric circles.

Christine Wong Yap, “Hopes for Chinatown,” 2020, site-specific public art: participation, hand-lettering, digital print, 80 x 148 inches and 96 x 48 inches. Commissioned and installed by 100 Days Action for Art for Essential Workers. Photo by Jeremiah Barber.

100 Days Action worked with the Chinatown Visitor Information Center to secure permission to install art at Dragon Seed Bridal and Photo. They installed my artwork on May 30. Dragon Seed is a longstanding business on Clay Street, facing Portsmouth Square. I’m pretty sure I’ve patronized this business—purchasing traditional clothes and trying on cherng sam for my wedding there.

I’m also excited about the location on Portsmouth Square, as that’s the neighborhood’s ‘living room.’ As a child, I played in the playground, getting splinters from the boat-shaped play structure located in the shade of the skyway. In spite of the physical distance, these memories—the sense of familiarity and continuity—make me feel connected to this location, and very proud to contribute to Chinatown in this way.

Funding

Art for Essential Workers “is funded by the Facebook Analog Research Laboratory and private donors.”

The association with Facebook presented a problem for me.

In 2014, I declined invitations to develop art projects at Facebook (see my blog post). It related to the lack of public accessibility and public good, balanced against public harm and lack of accountability in the Bay Area’s economic inequality and quality of living.

Also, a former Facebook AIR told me they had conflicting feelings about their participation. I also noticed that as soon as another Facebook AIR completed their residency, they deleted their Facebook account. Knowing myself—that acting against my conscience would lead to regret, which would haunt me for years—and values—money comes, and money goes—it was easy for me to decline and feel secure about my decision.

There are many well-known reasons to believe Facebook is evil. Two reasons that are unforgivable to me: Facebook tweaked its algorithms to mess with user’s moods. As a psychology nerd, this a major no-no. And, I don’t think Trump would be be president right now without Facebook’s negligence. [Not to mention Facebook’s complicity and collusion: Facebook board member Peter Thiel has donated at least $1.25M to Trump, and a few days ago, Facebook employees staged a virtual walkout to protest Zuckerberg’s inaction on Trump’s violence-inciting posts.]

Complicity

I’ll point this out so no one else has to, internetz: I’m already complicit. I’m on Instagram, which is owned by Facebook. I quit Facebook years ago, though I may have to re-join for my day job or art partnerships with institutions. As an artist whose “Hopes for Chinatown” project is now a part of Facebook art programming, my work may be used to “art wash” its corporate misdeeds on its platforms and internally. If I felt fine with this, I wouldn’t feel the need to write this post.

Considering agency within partnerships with institutions

In the past I’ve had a self-limiting view of artists’ agency in relationships with institutional partners: I thought the institution gets to set all the terms, and the artist was so relatively powerless and needy that they just have to accept what is offered. But artists have more agency than that.

In my zine on interdependence, I learned about some tactics that have informed my thinking over the years:

“Instead of competing for individual … opportunities, [radical opportunists] utilize project-related apparatuses to foster temporary yet tangible collectives, clusters, and networks based on principles of solidarity and equity.”

—Kuba Szreder, “How to Radicalize a Mouse? Notes on Radical Opportunism,” in Dockx, Nico, and Pascal Gielen, eds. Mobile Autonomy: Exercises in Artists’ Self-Organization. Amsterdam: Valiz, 2015.

 

“members and allies of this [alternative, artist-run] ‘field’ must leverage [our power] within … commercial, academic, … and civic spheres… to position ourselves outside, and in resistance to, these hegemonic power structures… using radical forms of participation to forefront self-organized, inclusive, and equitable structures.”

Sarrita Hunn, “Artists for Artists’ Sake.” Temporary Art Review, October 15, 2015.

I think some of these ideas are at play in 100 Days Action’s participation. When I asked them about their thoughts on the funding, they shared some of their deliberations. I can’t speak for them, but I think they are parlaying the resources to benefit artists, small businesses, and essential workers through this project.

Here’s another idea that resonates from the zine:

Seeking “opportunities to support folks … (rather than solely … individual projects)”

—Weston Teruya, as quoted in inter/de-pend-ence, 2015.

I’m not saying that the Hopes for Chinatown project falls neatly within, or is an example of, any of these concepts or calls to action. But these ideas have been helpful for thinking about how I partner with institutions, who benefits from my projects, why, and being able to have more agency and options than to either accepting or rejecting.

Response

I will donate 100% of my $500 artist fee to support Feed & Fuel, the Chinatown Community Development Corporation’s response to COVID.

Feed & Fuel mobilizes legacy restaurants like New Asia and volunteers to prepare and distribute up to 1,600 meals per day to seniors living in SROs and public housing, where residents live in 80-square-foot rooms with communal kitchens where social distancing is impossible. Feed & Fuel reduces transmission rates in dense housing among a particularly vulnerable population of elders, helps local businesses survive, keeps restaurant employees working, and provides a safe way for volunteers to serve the community. Learn more about Feed & Fuel, watch their informative video, and donate  if you can.

Feed & Fuel tackles multiple issues—loss of business from xenophobia and shelter-in-place, serving vulnerable elders, and stabilizing food security. And it’s all organized within and by the local community. I love that it’s an effective, responsive social initiative, as well as an aesthetically elegant network of relationships, mutual empowerment, and service.

Chinatown Community Development Corporation is a non-profit 501(c)3 founded in 1977.

Rationale

Another useful set of questions are:

“Given an opportunity…
Do I believe in what this institution does/stands for? Is it the ideal venue for this project/my work? Does my work feel alive in this context? …
Is this opportunity helping me reach the audience I want to reach?…
Is there enough freedom in this opportunity? Is this the best artworld for my work? Is it the most effective use of my time/money/energy? …

Am I being instrumentalized? Am I okay with that?”

Helena Keefe, “Standard Questions for Artists” from Standard Deviation, via ArtPractical.com, June 13, 2013.

My answers to these questions are “no” followed by all “yes” responses. That’s much different than in 2014.

With Hopes for Chinatown/Art for Essential Workers, I’m compelled by:

  • the public accessibility of a street-level storefront window
  • engagement with a community facing economic and public health uncertainties under Covid and shelter-in-place
  • coordination between community-minded organizations
  • the messages’ emphasis on optimism, health, and discrimination
  • the alignment with this neighborhood (a low-income, immigrant community of color), at this urgent time, with me. (Not to trying to toot my own horn, but I feel like I’m in the right place at the right time for this project: I’m Chinese American, and in a position to submit bilingual artworks that amplifies voices from the community.)

So rather than being stumped by a complicit-or-resistant choice, these questions have helped me think through tactics of circumvention, re-distribution, and public benefits. Ultimately, I participated because I think the impact on the local Chinatown community will be a net positive.

Documenting and sharing my thought process—and registering my hesitations openly for other artists to consider and discuss—are also part of this experience. I’m happy to engage with other artists, curators, and thinkers in respectful dialogue about this. If you have questions, please ask. I always prefer open dialogue over silent recriminations or unspoken criticisms.

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belonging

Cultivating Belonging through Reflection

Writing to recognize and affirm how people, activities, or places shape a sense of belonging.

Art, Culture, and Belonging in S.F. Chinatown

An animated GIF, with the text "How do art and culture shape your sense of belonging" in English and Chinese. Illustrated below are a woman and a man talking while writing on a sheet of paper. The woman has a thought bubble about shopping for a Chinese dress with friend. The man has a thought bubble depicting a boy holding a drawing of an anime character, and a gender fluid person holding a drawing of a Chinese character. Then there is text, "Share your story or learn more at ChristineWongYap.com" in English and Chinese text.

I’m currently the lead artist in a project exploring how arts and culture inform belonging in San Francisco Chinatown in partnership with the Chinatown Arts and Culture Coalition and the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco.

We are inviting anyone with a connection to SF Chinatown to submit your story of belonging. You can submit your story online now through March 31. I’ll be publishing and interpreting stories in a publication and art exhibit scheduled for Fall 2020. This project is part of the groundwork for the cultural district designation process, which would bring valuable city resources to the neighborhood.

S.F. Chinatown and social distancing

It goes without saying that health and safety are the #1 priority right now. Many people are busy just coping with closures and disruptions.

So belonging might be perceived as lower priority. But I think belonging is especially important now for mental health and the health of a community.

Mental health can be harmed by isolation and social distancing. A lot of people might be feeling ‘othered,’ especially Asians, and anyone with a sniffle (not to mention Asians with a sniffle, like me). It may be a struggle to feel a sense of belonging.

Community life is severely impacted everywhere—especially in Chinatowns, where small businesses have been hit hard by lost revenue due to xenophobia/Sinophobia, social distancing, and the loss of tourism. Two restaurants in Oakland Chinatown have temporarily shuttered. Many folks living in SF Chinatown are elderly, kids, low-income, or English language learners for whom seeking health care or social services may be challenging. For many jobs in Chinatown, working from home is not an option.

SF Chinatown is the most densely populated urban area west of Manhattan. Fifteen thousand residents live within 20 square blocks. The social hearts of Chinatown are in the markets, restaurants, cafes, bakeries, temples, and parks like Portsmouth Square. What happens when you’re discouraged from going to the places where you feel belonging?

Writing to reflect on belonging

Could remotely reflecting about your places of belonging—or the people, cultural activities, or foods that remind you that “I belong”—reinforce your sense of belonging?

In this project, Chinatown Arts and Culture Coalition has been collecting stories from their constituents locally. I also created a Google Form for people to submit their stories online, to give people the option to type, and to allow people who moved away to participate.

Now, the Google Form is a good option for people who have to stay home and refrain from large gatherings. I hope you consider participating and spreading the word.

Two memories

To put my theory into practice, here’s two personal anecdotes.

Nourishment in a bowl

For me, when I’m feeling sick, there’s nothing like a wonton noodle soup with savory strips of BBQ pork and bok choy for making me feel better. I can just imagine taking a bite of a pillowy with crunchy water chestnuts and ginger, and slurping up fat chewy noodles from a fragrant umami-laden broth that soothes the throat and warms the belly.

Photo of a red bowl with broth and wontons. A mug with possibly HK style milk tea, and a rice roll with a side of mustard.

Wonton soup from Sam Wo Restaurant, self-proclaimed as “the oldest restaurant in SF Chinatown”, 713 Clay Street, San Francisco Chinatown. Photo by Deccajpn D. from Yelp. You can order Wonton Soup with BBQ Pork from Sam Wo via Postmates.

There’s something really deep about how much emotional warmth and connection are shared between Asians through the act of sharing food. When I was a kid, I really liked eating just the cooked wonton wrapper, with no meat filling. My mom would just drop a few extra pieces into the broth for me. I can easily imagine how much her heart swelled as she shared this gesture of love and saw my enjoyment, because I feel this same feeling now. When I cook for someone who cares deeply about me, and I can see that a home-cooked meal is meaningful to them, it’s a powerful feeling of gratitude to be able to nourish them, making your feelings tangible and gustatory.

The Tastiest Rituals

I have fond memories of going for dim sum with a large group of family. Even when I lived in Sonoma County, we’d make the hourlong family excursion to go to New Asia Restaurant, with its circular doorways lined in golden tiles.

A photo of diners around a glass lazy Susan loaded with dim sum dishes: rice rolls, chinese broccoli (gai lan), spring rolls, deep fried taro dumplings, shrimp dumplings (har gow), beef dumplings (siu mai), roast pork, roast duck

Dim sum at New Asia Restaurant, 772 Pacific Ave, San Francisco Chinatown. Photo by Sam Y. on Yelp. Locals can order from New Asia Restaurant on Postmates.

Dim sum brunch is a multi-sensory experience. First, there’s the roar of so many people crowded around dozens of 10-seater round tables. There’s the waiters and waitresses shouting out the names of their dim sum dishes as they roll their carts past, and having to flag them down before your favorite dish passes. There’s the rituals of tea: pouring from the pot with two fingers on the lid, tapping the table in a gesture of thanks, and propping the lid up to indicate the need for a refill.

When the food arrives, there’s the custom of serving entrees to your fellow diners’ tiny plates, demurrals of fullness be damned. There’s lazy Susan strategies: rotating to place the fresh entree in front of elders, nudging the tea pot so the handle doesn’t bump into cups, stacking empty bamboo steamers and plates.

There’s a diversity of tastes and textures—lacy fried taro root dumplings, glutenous steamed rice rolls, the forceful punch of soy sauce, the aroma of banana-leaf-wrapped rice with hunks of Chinese sausage and boiled peanuts, the negotiation of eating a plate-length stem of hoisin-drizzled gai lan with a pair of chopsticks. If you’re lucky, there’s warm, sweet red bean soup for dessert. The meal concludes with demonstrative, assertive haggling over who gets to foot the bill.

 

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