Photo by Kira Simon-Kennedy.
In the heart of Chinatown last Tuesday evening, some three dozen New Yorkers filed into the neighborhood’s oldest store, Wing On Wo & Co., to discuss the recent influx of galleries to the area. Surrounded by fine antique porcelain vessels and dishes, friends, colleagues, and new faces commingled, warmly greeting one another as they found seats and nibbled on sponge cake. In attendance were members of the local community, artists, and arts professionals; notably absent were the owners and employees of galleries that have recently cropped up in Chinatown. (A speaker would later refer to them as “the elephant that is not in the room.”) And despite the evening’s cheerful beginnings, what ensued was anything but.
The evening’s talk was presented by the W.O.W. Project in collaboration with the Chinatown Art Brigade (CAB). Located at Wing On Wo & Co. and launched just months ago by the store’s 25-year-old proprietor—Mei Lum, who ditched grad school plans earlier this year to help her grandmother run the shop—the W.O.W. Project aims to inspire cultural awareness and creative thinking through talks, workshops, design challenges, and eventually, artist residencies. CAB, run by three local artists, shares the same goal of supporting the culture and history of Chinatown. It will launch a roving public art project this summer that engages the local community and addresses gentrification. It was important to the organizers that the talk, “Chinatown: New York’s Newest Gallery Scene?” take place here, in a community center, rather than in an art space.
And the topic of the evening was clearly of concern to many: An overflow space was livestreaming the action two doors down, and a remote group in San Francisco had gathered to watch together and contribute questions on Twitter, via the hashtag #CtownNot4Sale. As the main event began, attention turned to the organizers and panelists—artist and CAB co-founder Tomie Arai, director of exhibitions at the Museum of Chinese in America Herb Tam, and founder of nonprofit gallery Chinatown Soup Michelle Marie Esteva. And as the group delved into the fraught question of the neighborhood’s gentrification, a palpable tension slowly permeated the room.
Arai kicked things off with a discussion of boundaries, not only with regard to approaching speakers with respect, but also literally—“What do we mean when we’re talking about Chinatown?” While historically the “Chinatown core” has been recognized as five or six blocks surrounding Mott Street, she explained, it’s grown exponentially. She proposed that the neighborhood is rimmed by Delancey and Kenmare Streets at its northern reaches, Clinton Street to the east, Cherry Street (or the Two Bridges area) to the south, and Broadway to the west. (A respondent would later claim that she had found over 80 galleries currently residing within that area.)
If you type “Chinatown, New York, NY” into a Google Maps search right now, you’re given a significantly smaller cross-section—and it’s here that some of the conflict arises. Within the art world, the border between the Lower East Side (LES) and Chinatown has become blurred. Whether or not these galleries technically fall within the LES or Chinatown, the issue remains the same for local residents. As summed up by Tam: “Young gallerists, old gallerists, new gallerists are coming here, and not doing one damn thing to engage with Chinese or Asian-American residents.”
Photo by Kira Simon-Kennedy.
Among pre-selected respondents to engage with the speakers were two young artists, including one from Chinatown who directed questions at Esteva, asking her to explain her nonprofit, a creative space that aims to connect with the community. While she took heat for some of her practices—a skateboarding exhibition, the choice to set up a vegan café, and her claim of engaging the community—Esteva deserves credit for being there. Organizers had invited numerous Chinatown galleries and arts organizations, and Chinatown Soup was the only one present. And given its mission and non-commercial status, Esteva was by no means a mouthpiece for other galleries in the area.
Recurring threads in the discussion were the stark contrast between longstanding local businesses and brand new white-cube galleries, the obvious impact of gentrification on rising real estate costs, and the general feeling that local residents have upon entering these new spaces—that they are not welcome. “[Some of these galleries] position themselves, contrast themselves against a backdrop of a certain working class background,” Tam noted. “That is the part that I think is the most offensive. It feels like they’re stepping on us, to get into the sunlight.”
But Tam was also intent on clarifying that he felt conflicted by the influx of galleries, especially given that he moved to New York to work in the art world in 1998, back when Chinatown was home to Art in General and Robert Lee’s Asian American Arts Centre—and little else in the way of art spaces. “I am conflicted because I love art,” he said, “and I think it’s valuable in Chinatown; I think for me what would be incredible would be to see more Chinese people, Asian-Americans opening up galleries.”
By the time the final respondent Ryan Wong spoke, the room was so emotionally charged that he asked everyone to collectively take a deep breath. A young writer and curator who is a sixth-generation Chinese-American, he traced the current tensions around gentrification back to the history of displacement that Chinese-American families have lived through. “We’re talking about this history that stretches back several hundred years; we’re talking about what it means to have a home, what it means to be diaspora, how people in the diaspora then are able to form or not form homes somewhere else,” he said. He gestured toward Orchard Street, where galleries are selling art for thousands of dollars alongside wholesale fabric stores and bakeries. “You have to sell a lot of cha siu bao to make $5,000,” he quipped, and added “there is just no way that there is a tenable situation where these things can coexist, and the side that’s going to last longer, if they make the sales, there’s no question.”
While it’s not uncommon to feel unwelcome when entering a gallery, the fear that real estate costs will soon rise and local businesses will suffer is real and valid. But it’s not something that’s easily changed. Time and again we’ve seen in New York that galleries, especially young galleries, will go where the rents are cheapest, and others will follow. What became clear, towards the end of the evening, was that both sides of this conflict are accountable for building a rapport. “Change is inevitable and we have to be a part of it,” Arai acknowledged. “I think that artists can be sort of the vanguard, to talk about how we can turn this around. The beginning of having this kind of conversation is reaching out to gallery spaces to find out whether we can have an exchange. We can join forces with them, at least initially.”
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