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.”