RE-EMERGING CHINATOWNS. People walk in Chinatown past the new "AAPI
Community Heroes Mural" in San Francisco on May 23, 2022. Chinatowns and
other Asian-American enclaves across the U.S. are using art and culture
to show they are safe and vibrant hubs nearly three years after the
start of the pandemic. From an inaugural arts festival in San Francisco
to night markets in New York City, the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes
has re-energized the communities and drawn allies and younger
generations of Asian and Pacific Islander Americans. (AP Photo/Eric
RE-ENERGIZED COMMUNITIES. People stop to take pictures by a Chinatown
mural of martial artist Bruce Lee in San Francisco on May 23, 2022. (AP
CHINATOWNS RECOVERING. People make their way past the Dragon Gate
southern entrance to Chinatown in San Francisco, on May 23, 2022. (AP
From The Asian Reporter, V32, #6 (June 6, 2022), pages 9 & 12.
Chinatowns more vibrant after pandemic, anti-Asian
By Terry Tang
The Associated Press
The last week of April was a whirlwind for San Franciscoís Chinatown.
The storied neighborhood debuted the "AAPI Community Heroes Mural," a
mostly black and white depiction of 12 mostly unsung Asian American and
Pacific Islander figures on the wall of a bank. Three days later "Neon
Was Never Brighter," the first ever Chinatown contemporary arts
festival, took over the streets throughout the night. Traditional lion
and dragon dances, a couture fashion show, and other public "art
activations" were featured in the block party-like event.
Cultural and arts organizations in Chinatowns across North America
have worked for decades on bringing greater appreciation and visibility
to these communities. But they faced an unprecedented one-two punch when
the pandemic caused shutdowns and racist anti-Asian attacks increased ó
and continue. As painful as those events are, they also indelibly
influenced the reemergence of various Chinatowns as close-knit hubs 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 equally touching for her.
"I got really emotional because itís been so long since Iíd seen so
many people come out to Chinatown, especially at night. I had heard so
many of my friends or family saying, ĎI donít want to go to Chinatown,í"
she said. "I knew it was going to be fun and exciting, but I was really
There has been renewed attention from cities, companies, and younger
Asian Americans from outside these historic Chinatowns. Wells Fargo
partnered with the Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative on the "heroes"
mural. Everyone wanted to "really address anti-Asian hate and to uplift
Asian-American voices," said Jenny Leung, executive director of the
Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, which is part of the
Collaborative. Youths voted on who to put on the mural.
"Frequently the way that Chinatown looks is imported as a tourist
kind of attraction and fantasy for visitors to see," Leung said. "Itís
never really about celebrating the communityís perspective and voice."
The idea for the "Neon" festival was briefly discussed pre-pandemic.
But the events of the last two years lent urgency to it.
"We wanted to kind of push that deadline a little bit earlier in
order to be able to address the 20, 30, 40, empty storefronts that are
increasingly rising in the community," said Leung, who characterizes
Chinatown as a "museum without walls."
Josh Chuck, a local filmmaker behind the documentary Chinatown
Rising, has noticed younger generations dining or participating in
events in Chinatowns. A friend who works in tech began last year picking
up orders for friends who wanted to support Chinatown restaurants. Soon
he was making spreadsheets to track 400 deliveries.
"Honestly, thereís no way I could have imagined something that would
galvanize these people that I know. Even myself, like, I feel much more
connected and committed," Chuck said. "Itís a silver lining."
In New York, the first of five summer night markets start in June in
the cityís Chinatown. It will be the biggest event to date for
Think!Chinatown. The 5-year-old nonprofit has done numerous projects
like artists-in-residency programs and oral histories. But last year
after a series of verbal and physical assaults against Asians, they
partnered with Neighborhoods Now, a local pandemic relief initiative, on
It was a small-scale gathering of less than 10 artist booths and food
trucks in Forsyth Plaza park. Despite a "crazy" two-month prep window,
there was a collective feeling of "we just need to be together," said
Yin Kong, Think!Chinatown co-founder and director. And there was a
"tectonic shift" with philanthropy focusing on equity.
"It reprioritized these other organizations that traditionally would
have funded other things to focus on how to support communities of color
in a different way," Kong said.
The expanded June event has 20 booths and sponsorships, and will be
scheduled when most Chinatown restaurants are closed so owners can
"The mechanisms that got us there would not have happened without the
pandemic," said Kong, who feels Think!Chinatown is now seen as more
"legit" with better funding, full-time staff, and the possibility of an
office space instead of her dining table.
In Vancouverís Chinatown, the pandemic only exacerbated ongoing
issues of vandalism, graffiti, and other crimes. But within the last
year, the Canadian city managed to launch cultural projects planned
The Chinatown Mural Project showed off a series of pastoral murals
painted by a local artist on six roller shutters of a tea shop. In
November, the interactive Chinatown Storytelling Centre with relics and
recorded oral histories opened.
"We would have done this anyway (regardless of the pandemic)," said
Carol Lee, chair of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which oversees
the Centre. "But you know, in some ways, it makes you feel like you have
more purpose because itís more necessary."
Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement
Association, agreed that thereís more collaboration and "a lot more
youth interest than there was five, ten years ago."
There are fewer than 50 Chinatowns across the U.S. with some more
active than others.
Many Chinatowns took shape in the 19th century as Chinese laborers
arrived to mine for gold out west or work on the railroad. They lived
there because of blatant 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 in Chinatown reside in these
Another constant in Chinatowns: development ó from the sales of no
longer affordable SROs in San Francisco to a light rail expansion in
Seattle to a proposed new jail in New York City. Chinatowns elsewhere
have shrunk to a block or disappeared altogether because of
gentrification. Itís a tricky juxtaposition for a city to tout
Chinatowns to tourists yet offer few resources to its residents.
"So you have these huge festivals to bring in businesses. You have
these parades and all this stuff. But definitely, itís important that
the needs of the community, especially the working class and the poor,
are addressed," Dong said.
Meanwhile, excited arts and culture advocates are moving forward to
put their own stamp on Chinatown. Chinatown Media & 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 plans
to lease a space with a kitchen for art exhibitions and cooking classes.
The hope is to keep engaging with Asian Americans inside and outside of
"What draws them to Chinatown is that cultural connection," Kong
said. "Itís something you canít really put your finger on. ... But itís
really the soul of Chinatown. And we need to keep protecting it and make
sure it can grow."
Tang reported from Phoenix and is a member of The Associated Pressí
Race and Ethnicity team.
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