Chinatowns more vibrant after pandemic and anti-Asian violence

The last week of April was a whirlwind for San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The historic district debuted the “AAPI Community Heroes Mural”, a mostly black and white depiction of 12 mostly unrecognized Asian American and Pacific Islander characters on a bank wall. Three days later, “Neon Was Never Brighter”, Chinatown’s first-ever contemporary arts festival, took to the streets throughout the night. Traditional lion and dragon dances, a couture fashion show and other public “artistic activations” were featured in the block party-style event.

Cultural and arts organizations in Chinatowns across North America have worked for decades to bring greater appreciation and visibility to these communities. But they faced an unprecedented double as the pandemic caused shutdowns and anti-Asian racist attacks increased – and continue. As painful as these events were, they also indelibly influenced the re-emergence of various Chinatowns as intertwined centers of vibrancy and culture.

Cynthia Choi, co-founder of the Stop AAPI Hate reporting center, is still “blown away” to be one of the heroes painted on the San Francisco mural. But being at the festival was equally touching for her.

“I got very emotional because it had been so long since I had seen so many people go out to Chinatown, especially at night. I had heard so many of my friends or family say, ‘I don’t want to go. in Chinatown,” she said. “I knew it was going to be fun and exciting, but I was really emotional.”

There has been renewed attention from cities, businesses and young Asian Americans outside of these historic Chinatowns. Wells Fargo has partnered with the Chinese Culture Center in San Francisco for the “heroes” mural. Everyone wanted to “really tackle anti-Asian hatred and raise the voices of Asian Americans,” said Jenny Leung, executive director of the Center, which is a member of Chinatown Media. & Artistic collaboration. The young people voted for who to put on the mural.

“Frequently, the appearance of Chinatown is imported as a kind of tourist attraction and fantasy for visitors,” Leung said. “It’s never really about celebrating the community’s perspective and voice.

The idea of ​​the “Neon” festival, which was supervised by Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative, was briefly discussed before the pandemic. But the events of the past two years have given it urgency.

“We kind of wanted to push that deadline a bit earlier so we could respond to the 20, 30, 40 empty display cases that are growing more and more in the community,” said Leung, who characterizes Chinatown as a “museum without walls.” . .”

Josh Chuck, a local filmmaker behind the documentary “Chinatown Rising,” noticed younger generations dining or attending events in Chinatowns. A friend who works in tech started taking orders last year for friends who wanted to support restaurants in Chinatown. Soon he was making spreadsheets to track 400 deliveries.

“Honestly, I could never have imagined something that would galvanize these people I know. Even I feel a lot more connected and engaged,” Chuck said. “It’s a silver lining.”

In New York, the first of five summer night markets begins next month in the city’s Chinatown. This will be the biggest event yet for Think!Chinatown. The 5-year-old non-profit organization has done many projects such as artist-in-residence programs and oral histories. But last year, after a series of verbal and physical attacks on Asians, they teamed up with Neighborhoods Now, a local pandemic relief initiative, on Chinatown Nights.

It was a small-scale gathering of less than 10 artist booths and food trucks in Forsyth Plaza Park. Despite a “crazy” two-month preparation window, there was a collective sense of “we just need to be together,” said Yin Kong, co-founder and director of Think! Chinatown. And there has been a “tectonic shift” with equity-focused philanthropy.

“It reprioritized those other organizations that traditionally would have funded other things to focus on how to support communities of color in a different way,” Kong said.

The expanded event next month will have 20 booths and sponsorships, and will be scheduled when most restaurants in Chinatown are closed so owners can participate.

“The mechanisms that got us there wouldn’t have happened without the pandemic,” said Kong, who believes Think! Chinatown is now seen as more “legitimate” with better funding, full-time staff and the possibility of office space in its place. dinner table.

In Vancouver’s Chinatown, the pandemic has only exacerbated ongoing problems with vandalism, graffiti and other crime. But over the past year, the Canadian city has managed to launch cultural projects planned before COVID-19.

Last month, the Chinatown Mural Project featured a series of pastoral murals painted by a local artist on six roller shutters of a teahouse. In November, the interactive Chinatown Storytelling Center with relics and recorded oral histories opened.

“We would have done this anyway (regardless of the pandemic),” said Carol Lee, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Foundation, which oversees the Center. “But you know, in some ways it makes you feel like you have more purpose because it’s more needed.”

Jordan Eng, president of the Vancouver Chinatown Business Improvement Association, agreed that there is more collaboration and “much more interest among young people than five or ten years ago.”

There are fewer than 50 Chinatowns across the United States, with some more active than others.

Many Chinatowns took shape in the 19th century when Chinese laborers arrived to mine gold in the West or work on the railroad. They lived there because of blatant discrimination or self-preservation. Their accommodations were single-occupancy units, or SROs, with shared kitchens and bathrooms, said Harvey Dong, associate professor of ethnic studies and Asian American studies at the University of California, Berkeley. Many Chinese Americans and elderly immigrants from Chinatown still reside in these units.

Another constant in Chinatowns: development – ​​from sales of ORS that are no longer affordable in San Francisco to the expansion of light rail in Seattle to a proposed new prison in New York. Elsewhere, Chinatowns have shrunk to a block or disappeared altogether due to gentrification. It’s a tricky juxtaposition for a city to tout Chinatowns to tourists while offering few resources to its residents.

“So you have these huge festivals to attract business. You have these parades and all that. But certainly, it is important that the needs of the community, especially the working class and the poor, are taken into account,” Dong said.

Meanwhile, enthusiastic arts and culture advocates are stepping forward to put their own mark on Chinatown. Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative in San Francisco is designing Edge on the Square, a $26.5 million media and arts hub slated to open in 2025. In New York, Think! Chinatown plans to rent space with a kitchen for art exhibits and cooking classes. The hope is to continue to engage with Asian Americans inside and outside of Chinatown.

“What draws them to Chinatown is that cultural connection,” Kong said. “It’s something you can’t really put your finger on. … But it really is the soul of Chinatown. And we have to continue to protect it and make sure it can grow.


This story has been updated to correct that the mural was a partnership between Wells Fargo and the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, not Chinatown Media & Artistic collaboration.


Tang reported from Phoenix and is a member of the Associated Press’ Race and Ethnicity team. Follow her on Twitter at

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