Own­ing Chi­na­town’s sto­ries

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By KELLY CHUNG DAW­SON in New York kdaw­son@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

In 2008, Tai­wan-born pho­tog­ra­pher An­nie Ling was liv­ing in a Chi­na­town ten­e­ment build­ing when a late-night fire took ev­ery­thing she owned.

Be­fore bed that night, she had thought to her­self that it was time she fi­nally knocked on the doors of her neigh­bors, who re­mained mys­te­ri­ous de­spite their close quar­ters. They stood out­side later while the fire con­sumed the build­ing, cov­ered in ash and sick with the shared horror of watch­ing their homes dis­ap­pear.

“That fire was a provoca­tive event, a game-changer that opened my eyes to how pre­cious Chi­na­town is, and how at risk it is for be­ing lost,” Ling told China Daily at the open­ing of “A Float­ing Pop­u­la­tion,” an ex­hi­bi­tion at New York’s Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica (MOCA) fea­tur­ing her photographs of Chi­na­town res­i­dents and res­i­dences. “Since then, I’ve doc­u­mented what I could, with a feel­ing that in some weird, fre­netic way, I am run­ning against time as parts of the neigh­bor­hood dis­ap­pear.”

Chi­na­town’s ten­e­ments are run-down and of­ten dan­ger­ous. As with many other New York neigh­bor­hoods, gen­tri­fi­ca­tion poses a threat, and as eth­nic diver­sity in­creases the neigh­bor­hood has un­der­gone ma­jor changes that beg doc­u­men­ta­tion.

Also fea­tured in MOCA’s dual-pre­sen­ta­tion, “Chi­na­town: Be­yond the Streets,” is a new ex­hi­bi­tion of art and photographs by Tomie Arai, ti­tled “Portraits of New York Chi­na­town” and in­spired by in­ter­views with 27 Chi­na­town res­i­dents over four years. Fea­tur­ing screen print­ing, photography, col­lages, art and per­sonal ar­ti­facts pro­vided by her sub­jects, the show at­tempts to demon­strate how a space can be de­fined by the mem­o­ries of those who have in­hab­ited it.

“There is a process of so­cial re­call, in that the way we re­mem­ber places and events of­ten have to do with the en­vi­ron­ment in which we ex­pe­ri­enced them, in which we em­bed our mem­o­ries,” Arai said. “When those places dis­ap­pear, our re­la­tion­ship to those events can change, and my hope is that the show might jar some­thing in those who visit, to think about the way ob­jects con­trib­ute to our col­lec­tive mem­ory of a space.”

Arai’s work is a “faux or al­ter­na­tive his­tor­i­cal record,” writes Lena Sze in the ex­hi­bi­tion’s ac­com­pa­ny­ing cat­a­logue. Al­though some of the pieces fea­ture straight-for­ward portraits of her sub­jects, most of the work in­stead evokes the view or mem­o­ries of a per­son as an equally valid por­trait.

In con­trast is Ling’s work, which presents Chi­na­town with a jour­nal­is­tic ap­proach that has of­ten ex­posed the pho­tog­ra­pher to un­com­fort­able sit­u­a­tions, said Herb Tam, cu­ra­tor and di­rec­tor of ex­hi­bi­tions at MOCA. The neigh­bor­hood is no­to­ri­ously im­pen­e­tra­ble, with many res­i­dents re­luc­tant to go on the record about their cir­cum­stances. But Ling’s per­sis­tence in spend­ing time with her sub­jects has given her the ac­cess nec­es­sary to do her work, he said.

Arai, who is Ja­panese, has also faced dif­fi­culty gain­ing the trust of her sub­jects, she said.

“When it comes down to it, your story is the only thing you own,” she said. “How your story is told and how you are por­trayed is some­thing that peo­ple of any cul­ture are fiercely pro­tec­tive of. Chi­na­town’s in­ac­ces­si­bil­ity is also why so much mis­in­for­ma­tion about the com­mu­nity ex­ists.”

In her in­ter­views with res­i­dents, Arai found that most ac­cept that the neigh­bor­hood will con­tinue to change, but are also in­vested in the shape that change will take, she said.

“There is a lot of con­cern about the fu­ture of the com­mu­nity, and it’s not just nos­tal­gia — there is a sense that is one of the last his­toric eth­nic en­claves in New York, and it’s be­ing threat­ened by dis­place­ment,” she said. “That leads me to think, ‘What is it about the com­mu­nity that makes it so im­por­tant to pre­serve?’ It’s im­por­tant that we con­tinue to ask that ques­tion.”

KELLY CHUNG DAW­SON / CHINA DAILY

An­nie Ling poses with her photographs, fea­tured in “Chi­na­town: Be­yond the Streets,” a dual-ex­hi­bi­tion at the Mu­seum of Chi­nese in Amer­ica that also show­cases work by the artist Tomie Arai.

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