The last week of April was a whirlwind for Chinatown in San Francisco.
The storied neighborhood debuted the AAPI Community Heroes Mural, a mostly black-and-white depiction of 12 mostly unsung Asian-American and Pacific Islander people on the wall of a bank. Three days later, Neon Was Never Brighter, Chinatown’s first-ever contemporary arts festival, swept the streets all night. Traditional lion and dragon dances, a couture fashion show and other public “arts activations” were featured in the block party-like event.
Cultural and arts organizations in Chinatowns across North America have worked for decades to bring greater appreciation and visibility to these communities. But they faced an unprecedented double whammy as the pandemic led to business disruptions and racist anti-Asian attacks increased – and continue. As painful as these events are, they have also had a profound impact on the resurgence of various Chinatowns as closely knit centers of vibrancy and culture.
Cynthia Choi, co-founder of the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, is still “blown away” to be one of the heroes painted in the San Francisco mural. But being at the festival was just as touching for her.
“I got very emotional because I haven’t seen that many people come to Chinatown in a long time, especially at night. I had heard so many of my friends or family say, “I don’t want to go to Chinatown,” she said. “I knew it was going to be fun and exciting, but I was really moved.”
Outside of these historic Chinatowns, renewed attention has been drawn from cities, businesses, and younger Asian Americans. Wells Fargo collaborated with the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative on the “Hero” mural. Everyone wanted to “really address the anti-Asian hatred and uplift the Asian-American voices,” said Jenny Leung, executive director of the San Francisco Chinese Cultural Center, which is part of the collaborative. Young people voted on who should put up the mural.
“Often the appearance of Chinatown is imported as a tourist attraction and imagination for visitors,” Leung said. “It’s never really about celebrating the perspective and voice of the community.”
The idea for the “Neon” festival was discussed just before the pandemic. But the events of the last two years gave it urgency.
“We wanted to move that deadline a little earlier to deal with the 20, 30, 40 empty storefronts that are increasing in the community,” said Leung, who characterizes Chinatown as “a museum without walls.”
Josh Chuck, a local filmmaker behind the documentary Chinatown Rising, has noted that younger generations are eating or attending events in Chinatowns. A friend who works in tech started picking up orders for friends who wanted to support Chinatown restaurants last year. He was soon creating spreadsheets to keep track of 400 shipments.
“Honestly, there’s no way I could have imagined something that would shake up these people I know. Even I feel a lot more connected and engaged myself,” Chuck said. “It’s a silver lining.”
In New York, the first of five Summer Night Markets in the city’s Chinatown begins next month. It will be the largest event for Think!Chinatown to date. The 5-year non-profit organization has undertaken numerous projects such as artists-in-residence programs and oral traditions. But last year, after a spate of verbal and physical abuse against Asians, they teamed up with Neighborhoods Now, a local pandemic relief organization, for the Chinatown Nights.
It was a small gathering of less than 10 artist booths and food trucks in Forsyth Plaza Park. Despite a “crazy” two-month preparation window, there was a collective sense of “we just need to be together,” said Yin Kong, co-founder and director of Think!Chinatown. And there was a “tectonic shift” where philanthropy focused on justice.
“It has reprioritized these other organizations that would have traditionally funded other things to focus on how to support communities of color in other ways,” Kong said.
Next month’s expanded event will feature 20 booths and sponsorships, and is scheduled when most Chinatown restaurants are closed to allow owners to attend.
“The mechanisms that got us there wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic,” said Kong, who thinks Think!Chinatown is now seen as “more legitimate,” with better funding, full-time staff, and the opportunity to work in their place to have an office dining table.
In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the pandemic only exacerbated ongoing problems with vandalism, graffiti and other crime. But within the last year, the Canadian city has managed to launch cultural projects that were planned before COVID-19.
Last month, the Chinatown Mural Project displayed a series of pastoral murals painted by a local artist on six shutters of a tea shop. In November, the interactive Chinatown Storytelling Center opened with relics and recorded oral histories.
“We would have done that anyway (regardless of the pandemic),” said Carol Lee, chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which oversees the center. “But you know, in a way it makes you feel like you have more purpose because it’s more necessary.”
Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, agreed that there was more collaboration and “a lot more youth interest than there was five or ten years ago.”
There are fewer than 50 Chinatowns in the US, some more active than others.
Many Chinatowns emerged in the 19th century when Chinese workers came to mine gold or work on the railroad in the West. They lived there because of blatant discrimination or self-preservation. Their accommodation consisted of single rooms or SROs with shared kitchens and bathrooms, said Harvey Dong, associate professor of ethnic and Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Many elderly Chinese Americans and immigrants in Chinatown still live in these units.
Another constant in Chinatowns: development – from the sale of unaffordable SROs in San Francisco to the expansion of a light rail system in Seattle to a planned new prison in New York City. Elsewhere, Chinatowns have shrunk to one block or disappeared entirely due to gentrification. It’s a tricky juxtaposition for a city touting Chinatown to tourists while offering few resources to its residents.
“So you have these huge festivals to attract businesses. They have these parades and all that stuff. But in any case, it is important that the needs of the community, especially the working class and the poor, are taken into account,” Dong said.
Meanwhile, arts and culture enthusiasts are making strides to put their own stamp on Chinatown. San Francisco’s Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative is designing Edge on the Square, a $26.5 million media and arts hub slated to 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 connecting with Asian Americans inside and outside of Chinatown.
“What draws them to Chinatown is that 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 continue to protect it and make sure it can grow.”