Arts + Culture

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W.O.W. Project Shares Stories of Resilience in Chinatown Open Mic Night

(Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

In a dull gray building on Chinatown’s historic Eldridge Street, attendees squeezed into a cramped elevator and made their way to the youth center and activist space Project Reach, where the Chinatown Storytelling Open Mic event was being hosted on this humid Thursday evening. Two of the event’s organizers, Diane Wong—a Cornell doctoral candidate and visiting scholar at NYU who writes on gentrification and race in Chinatowns—and Huiying B. Chan—an Open City Fellow with the Asian American Writers’ Workshop—served as emcees. They opened the night with a sober acknowledgment that “we are on stolen indigenous Lenape land” and asked the audience to silently reflect on what actions they could take to acknowledge their occupation of such a space. That gesture set the tone for last night’s open mic night, which was part of the series “Homeward Bound: Memories, Identity, and Resilience across the Chinese Diaspora.”

Organizers Wong, Chan and Mei Lum are all affiliated with the W.O.W. Project, which hosts the Homeward Bound series. Lum is a fifth-generation store owner of Wing on Wo & Co., which is a nearly century-old porcelain store and one of Chinatown’s oldest landmarks. The longstanding family business was on the brink of being sold in 2016, but out of those troubled times, Lum founded W.O.W. as a way to preserve Chinatown’s creative scene through art and activism, particularly in the wake of rapid gentrification. Wong, who interviewed Lum and her family as part of her dissertation research, has been involved with W.O.W. since its inception.

Eldridge Street in Chinatown

“I think it’s important to show that Chinatown is very much a thriving, inter-generational community. There is a dominant narrative that portrays the neighborhood as sort of obsolete and dying, and that really isn’t the case,” said Wong.

Other groups, such as the Chinatown Art Brigade, have also used art as a vehicle to mobilize around neighborhood gentrification, but W.O.W.’s focus on the diverse stories of the Chinese-American diaspora seemed to be a way not only to inform outsiders about issues facing the neighborhood, but also a way to fortify their own in the wake of rising xenophobia and to help community members of different generations in Chinatown better understand one another.

“I think it’s really important as people of color and a diaspora to share stories and connect across communities. Especially now with the political moment that we’re in,” said Lum.

Against a backdrop of youth-created art, “Resist Fascism” posters and sparkling Christmas lights, more than a dozen storytellers stepped up to the mic to deliver their stories in the form of spoken word, graphic art, photos and videos. Annie Tan, a teacher and organizer, kicked off the night with funny picture of a stern four-year old Tan in a firefighter costume—a presentation which quickly became more somber when she spoke of cultural trauma. “I cried all the time. I cried because I was a kid of immigrants in Chinatown.” But her story took an uplifting turn when she spoke of how she used her own experience to become an effective educator in a Chicago school with predominantly Hispanic population, such as teaching her pupils about how Jim Crow impacted Mexican-Americans. Although she recently moved back to Chinatown because she missed the tradition and language of her own diaspora community. “Now I get tamales AND milk tea AND pork buns!”

Organizer Mei Lum stands in front of a papercut art design by artist Emily Mock.

Writer Nancy Huang held up her book, from which she read the poem “Tooth Fairy,” which she recited with gusto, “Ma said ‘smile big/You’ll catch a boy.” She encouraged audience members to consider purchasing the book from vendors other than Amazon, given the recent strikes over the company’s poor working conditions. Married couple Rocky Chin and May Chen, stalwarts of the Chinatown activist community, recited oral histories of their respective stories, including Chin’s valiant but failed bid for City Council and Chen’s work with the Chinatown Garment Workers’ Union in the 1980s, which earned them hearty applause from the audience. Chin also posed his frustration with the simple question,“Where are you from?” which could be read as a coded way to question the American identity of people of color.

Members from other diaspora communities were also welcomed into the fold to share their stories. Mahfuzul Islam of Jhal NYC—a group linked to the Bangladeshi community in Queens that sells T-shirts emblazoned with fierce tiger designs—spoke about his work in bringing older Bengali women or “aunties” into spaces outside of their immediate diaspora community—like bowling alleys—that they might shy away from due to language constraints and other cultural barriers.

Later, first-generation immigrant, writer and translator Lux Chen reckoned with her graduate program’s inability to offer adequate support for her depression and evoked The Great Gatsby in her expectations clashing with the harsh reality of New York’s literary scene. Artist Clara Lu delighted the audience through her exploration of her family and pride in her culture vis-à-vis Lu’s illustrations of her late grandmother’s dishes like braised pork and bean sprouts. Midway through her presentation, Lu exclaimed, “Oh, I forgot to speak Shanghainese!” Lu went on to recite dishes in both English and the Shanghai dialect. And last but not least, Emily Mock played a poignant animated video of paper cut artwork she created depicting an elderly woman preparing vegetables for a soup in her Chinatown apartment.

Celebrating the W.O.W Project’s second anniversary was so much fun so glad to have seen some familiar faces and share my 古筝 (guzheng) performance with y’all. (Thinking abt making more livestreams or maybe a whole separate account for that???) The @wingonwoandco fundraiser is still going on! Help us reach $15K to continue supporting this “women-led iniative in sustaining ownership over Chinatown ‘s future by growing and protecting Chinatown ‘s culture through arts and activism.” Your donations will fund the continuation of public programing, the 店面 Residency @emiemmy and I were part of this past year, the wonderful fellow of Resist, Recycle, Regenerate, internships, and other wonderful programs that grow out of W.O.W. Check out the link in @wingonwoandco ‘s bio for their campaign and see some of the rewards for your donations Also these prints are up for sale now, DM me if you’d like to purchase . . . . #wingonwoandco #mottstreet #chinatown #fundraiser #illustrations #anniversary #prints #catprint #handdrawn #sketch #drawing #instaartist #instaart #dailysketch #sketchoftheday #dailydrawing #clayruhlettering #sketchoftheday #foodillustrations #homedeco #homeprints #artprints #clayruhlettering #艺术 #画画 #艺术品 #唐人街 #纽约 #oneofthem

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W.O.W. will be hosting an exhibit in the fall or winter, so stay tuned and check out their website for future updates or to donate to their fundraising campaign, which aims to raise $15,000 by the end of July.

Performers at the Open Mic Night pose for a group photo.

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Mini Doc Immerses You in the Theater Group That Made the Sleep No More of Brooklyn

Are you one of those people who always meant to go see one of the high-octane immersive-theater productions by Williamsburg-based Third Rail Projects, but never found the time, occasion or money to do so? You’re in luck. A documentary about the masterminds behind Then She Fell and The Grand Paradise is set to premiere on July 23 at the Dance on Camera festival, and will be available for digital download at the same time.

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Chicago Artist Embeds Trump in East Village, Gets the ‘Welcome to NY, Now Leave’ Treatment

(@jimbachor on Instagram)

In his hometown of Chicago, artist Jim Bachor is known for covering up unsightly potholes with mosaics depicting things people actually like: ice cream cones, flowers, donuts. So what was he doing in an East Village roadway on Friday afternoon, installing a marble-and-glass portrait of Donald Trump?

Rest assured, this was no respectful tribute. Bachor traveled to New York to do a Kickstarter-funded series entitled “Vermin of New York,” and Trump was the third installation right after a dead pigeon in Prospect Heights and a dead rat in Fort Greene.

“I say it’s less than two hours before someone puts a duce on it,” wrote one commenter after the work was unveiled on Instagram.

“I hate his face but at least cars are driving over it repeatedly,” wrote another.

Others predicted the piece would be destroyed by a Trump hater, but it seems to have met an altogether different fate. Earlier today when we looked for it on East 2nd Street, between First and A, the work had already disappeared, with just some tiny white shards left behind in the pothole it had covered. Another mosaic in the series– a cockroach on Bleecker Street– was also extracted, per an Instagram photo. 

Had the city made good on its promise to the New York Post that it would pave over the art? Asked whether the Department of Transportation had indeed covered up Trump’s mug, a DOT spokesperson gave a Huckabee-Sanders-esque response and told us, vaguely, that they anticipated repaving over the mosaics.

Bachor at work on the Trump mosaic (courtesy of the artist).

Bachor, who is now back in Chicago, says he has never gotten the bum rush like this in his hometown, where Chicagoist and Timeout have included his work on their lists of the city’s best public art. He claims he’s never received significant flack from cops or city workers. He did, however, get some gruff from a local doorman a little over a year ago, when he donned his trademark orange safety vest and, near Chicago’s Trump International Hotel & Tower, installed a gold-trimmed Russian flag bearing the word “LIAR.” Someone ended up blacking out the piece, but Bachor was able to restore it with some scraping.

That particular stunt cost Bachor some Instagram followers, but he wasn’t about to let that stop him from dissing Trump on his home turf. “I can’t believe this clown is leading the country,” he told us. “I can’t believe so many people are duped into buying his bullshit.”

Whatever the artist’s intentions, not everyone in the East Village was psyched about having Trump’s mug literally set in concrete. Bachor says that as he was installing the work over the course of about eight hours, one passerby “thought it was a pro-Trump thing and he was like, ‘Aw, you’re wasting your art on that guy.’”

The artist, who also sells in galleries, estimates his “Vermin of New York” pieces would go for about $1,200 a pop there. “I think removing them is just a little mean-spirited,” he told us.

Perhaps downright Trumpian?

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Shakespeare in the Parking Lot Saved, Making For Some Dreamy Midsummer Nights

Performers from Shakespeare in the Parking Lot’s “Hamlet”, including Gracie Winchester as Ophelia and Jane Bradley as a female Hamlet (Photo posted on Instagram by Gracie Winchester)

Shakespearean tragedies don’t typically see a peaceful resolution, but it looks like there’ll be a happy ending for a drama that unfolded center stage at a Community Board 3 meeting last month.

There, Hamilton Clancy, artistic director of the non-profit that runs Shakespeare in the Parking Lot, bemoaned the potential loss of their performance space at the parking lot managed by the Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center. His efforts to find a second home for the theater company in Sara D. Roosevelt Park had been met with bureaucratic red tape. All hope seemed to be lost.

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Patti Smith Mural Pays Tribute to Punk Icon’s East Village Roots

(Photo courtesy of @walkinggirlnyc)

“P U N K is back in the East Village,” reads the Instagram comment from neighborhood street-art curators East Village Walls.

That might be a stretch, but this imposing portrait of Patti Smith just went up on East Second Street, near First Avenue. It’s by Huetek, the Brooklyn-born artist who has previously dedicated walls to Hunter S. Thompson, Kurt Cobain, and Mike Tyson.

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Swinging Like Hell With Grove Street Stompers, Oldest Jazz Gig in Town

The Grove Street Stompers perform at Arthur’s Tavern (Photos: Tara Yarlagadda)

It’s your typical Monday night at Arthur’s Tavern in Greenwich Village, an eclectic spot on Grove Street that’s been serving jazz fans since the speakeasy days of the 1930s. Portraits of jazz legends hang on the wall amidst Christmas lights and a faded Happy Halloween sign. It’s late June—in case you were wondering.

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Here’s How Joe’s Pub Does a Block Party

On the first day of the summer solstice, the air thrummed with the rhythmic sensations of drumbeats and fast-paced guitar solos, lively dancing and good vibes during the Joe’s Pub Block Party at Astor Place.

Following the 2016 election, Joe’s Pub decided to pay greater homage to immigrant voices in their annual bash, which is part of the citywide Make Music New York program. This year, they touted a pretty incredible lineup of immigrants and performers of color, featuring the mambo and North African beats of the Yemen Blues Duo and the classically-trained voice of Treya Lam, among others.

Play our video to see the block party in full swing.

Video by Nicole Sedgh.