(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.
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.