In the summer of 1988, the Asian American Arts Centre launched an innovative exhibition titled Public Art in Chinatown. Curated by the Centre’s Executive Director Bob Lee and accompanied by essays from prominent Asian American critics and scholars such as John Yau, Peter Kwong, and Kyong Park, Public Art in Chinatown comprised a selection of sculptures, models, drawings, and site plans for specific locations in the Chinatown community by 14 artists. “The aim of the exhibition,” Lee explained in an issue of the Hong Kong-based art magazine Artention International, was “to present a new image for Chinatown, not only to its Asian inhabitants, but to all Americans.”
Among the 14 artists who contributed to the project, Mel Chin drafted a proposal for a community park in a small, triangular patch of grass enclosed by the Manhattan Bridge, Forsyth Street, and Canal Street. The park, which he called “The Garden Where the Wild Grass Obscures the True Pearl,” would be infused with the Chinese philosophical and metaphysical tradition of Feng Shui in order to “amplify and circulate the cultural breath essential to revitalize the spirit of self” for Chinatown’s increasingly diverse array of residents in the late 1980s. Chin planned to build and deposit a religious reliquary at a specific location within the park that would channel cosmic energy between Chinatown’s communities and the worlds they straddled. According to Bob Lee, Chin consulted—with AAAC’s assistance—a local Daoist shaman to visit the site and pinpoint the exact location where this reliquary should be laid.
Although the proposal for Chin’s park was never realized, his vision for rejuvenating an unnoticed, unremarkable plot of land in Chinatown speaks to the Asian American Arts Centre’s primary goals in curating Public Art in Chinatown in 1988 and ensuing exhibitions over the past four decades: to diminish the divide between the arts and the general public, and to continuously cultivate the Asian American artistic tradition in our local, national, and international context.
Today, we witness echoes of Mel Chin’s public art proposal for the entrance to Manhattan Bridge taking on a new shape only a few blocks away. In April 2017 the New York City Department of Transportation, in conjunction with the Van Alen Institute and Chinatown Partnership, announced its Gateways to Chinatown project, calling for proposals to “plan, design, and construct an iconic contemporary neighborhood marker” at the intersection of Chinatown and Little Italy—an island of land enclosed by Baxter, Walker, and Canal streets, commonly known as the Canal Street Triangle. This design competition, funded by local government and NYC-based non-profits, promises a budget of $900,000 for the winning team to erect its design, with construction planned to commence this year.
Beneath the gleaming facade of the project’s website and the proposals from various architecture and design firms, however, lies an unaddressed problem: in order to build the information kiosk which paved the way for the anticipated Gateways to Chinatown landmark, the city first had to forcibly expel 32 vendors of “counterfeit merchandise” from the Canal Street Triangle in 2008. While undoubtedly a complex issue, at the heart of then-Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s crackdown on Chinatown’s informal street economy was an attempt to protect the profits of multi-billion dollar fashion companies like Prada, Dolce & Gabbana, and Rolex. Ten years down the pipeline, as the NYC DOT aims to “stimulate economic development” through Gateways to Chinatown, one cannot help but wonder whose interests will be served by this “development”—and who will be shoved to the curb.
Although some of the proposals for the Gateways to Chinatown competition are at least culturally and aesthetically tasteful—one submission by Clouds Architecture Office, a stark-white ovalesque arch, evokes the elevated annular form of Toshio Sasaki’s otherworldly “Sun Gate” monument proposal next to the Manhattan Bridge Gate for Public Art in Chinatown in 1988—others are downright tone-deaf. One of the more extravagant (and therefore, lucrative) proposals by architecture firm ODA New York reveals the distance between upscale contractors for public projects and the communities they are supposed to serve. ODA’s “Dragon Gate” pavilion design suspends a pixelated red dragon within a boxy steel lattice structure whose copper-painted bars double as a bamboo facsimile. Though it purports to “delicately blend traditional [Chinese] cultural heritage with modern materials and construction,” this design makes an elementary blunder: the dragon, an unrestrainable figure of power, prosperity, and heavenly authority in Chinese culture, is effectively trapped inside a flimsy cage for all the world to see. Given that members of the Chinatown community have already expressed their ire at the exact same problem appearing in the Triangle’s new information kiosk (in this case, a gold dragon meekly peeks its head out from under the kiosk’s roof), the outrage will likely be ten times as loud if ODA’s proposal is chosen by the city.
The commoditizing, corporatist undertones of this new public art project in Chinatown stand in stark contrast to Mel Chin’s proposal in 1988. Whereas the monument that will soon tower over Canal Street’s teeming thoroughfare has its foundations in the criminalization of poor and working-class residents, Chin took conscious steps to “incorporate...rather than ignore” the concerns of the homeless who occupied his proposed site. Taking stock of the Public Art in Chinatown exhibition, John Yau assessed that Chin’s work “transcend[ed] the cultural diversity that currently exist[ed] within the [Chinatown] community by reaching back to the deepest past...an archaic origin,” while also addressing “the deepening gulfs separating the various social strata of contemporary society.”
The title of Yau’s essay—“To Propose, To Provoke”—reminds us of art’s role in relation to the community in which it is situated, whether that be Manhattan’s Chinatown or the larger collectivity of Asian Americans and diasporic Asians scattered across the globe. As our society continues to evolve and grapple with its own contradictions, we must keep a watchful eye to the artists who make us “aware of the changing ingredients of reality.” By the same token, we must remain vigilant to forces which seek to conceal those very contradictions under the mask of art and culture. As AAAC looks back from 2018 to 1988, we recognize what has changed in the circumstances and values guiding our work—and what hasn’t.
— Written by Jeremiah Kim (2018 Summer Intern)
— Written by Jeremiah Kim (2018 Summer Intern)