Essays

A Brief History of the Art Collectives of NYC’s Chinatown

Chinatown has long been a home to radical organizers and artists, collectives, and movements that have taken on questions of art production and displacement.

Courtesy of Tomie Arai
Working on the Wall of Respect for the Working People of Chinatown, 1977 (image courtesy of Tomie Arai)

Over the last months, concerned with the proliferation of galleries in Manhattan Chinatown, the Chinatown Art Brigade, W.O.W. Project, and  Decolonize This Place have started a conversation about the link between galleries and displacement, and asked how arts workers might be responsible to their neighborhoods. While almost every New Yorker claims some connection to Chinatown — they’ve eaten in its dim sum halls, browsed its brightly-colored shops — very few have access to the neighborhood’s history, let alone its artistic legacies.

In fact, Chinatown has been the home to generations of radical organizers and artists, collectives, and movements that have demanded answers to the same questions organizers are asking today: Who gets to live in Chinatown, and under what social conditions? Will art reinforce existing power relations, or help us envision a neighborhood with room for a multigenerational, immigrant, working class population?

Without an understanding of Chinatown’s cultural movements, historical and current, we risk equating whiteness and gentrification with artistic creativity, and Asian immigrants and longstanding residents with victimhood. Below are some examples — but by no means a comprehensive list — of collectives, organizations, and artists that have defined the cultural life of modern Chinatown. In examining this history, we see that today’s artists and activists are not alone in fighting for a dynamic and inclusive arts ecology. Galleries and museums needn’t disrupt or distance themselves from a neighborhood in order to present art; indeed, the most vital art often grows out of connection to community and place.

Basement Workshop. Photograph by Henry Chu, A/P/A Institute at NYU Collection.
Basement Workshop, 1970s (photograph by Henry Chu, A/P/A Institute at NYU Collection)

Up from the Basement

Around 1969, a loose collective of young people started to meet in a musty basement in Chinatown. All over the country, students were striking, picketing, and tossing out the term “Oriental” in favor of “Asian American.” Calling themselves “Basement Workshop,” these young people wanted to play a part in defining this idea of Asian American. Basement acted as an umbrella organization, a site where anyone with the interest and determination could organize cultural programs. They published the landmark Bridge magazine and the set of folios, Yellow Pearl. They ran a youth program, gathered resources(at that point very limited) on Asian American history , and offered silkscreening, choreography, photography, and film workshops.

Members of Basement trained for acts of civil disobedience demanding healthcare, jobs, and resources for communities of color, and printed flyers and pamphlets for those actions. Some who held Maoist politics thought Basement should go even further and become a revolutionary organization.

Many organizations in Chinatown and greater New York can trace their genesis to Basement Workshop, including the Museum of Chinese in America, Asian Cinevision, and the Asian American Arts Centre.

Walls of Respect 

Founded by a group of idealistic, politically progressive artists, the Cityarts Workshop led a community mural revival in New York during the 1970s. Cityarts sponsored a string of murals around New York by and about communities of color; three of their projects focused on Chinese American narratives installed in Chinatown and the Lower East Side. Cityarts hired artist Alan Okada, who designed covers for Bridge magazine, to oversee producing the murals. The first, “History of Chinese Immigration to the United States” painted in 1972, was located on Chatham Square. It featured large faces of a family against a background showing railroad, garment, and mining work — the industries historically available to Chinese laborers. “Chinatown Today” (1973) illustrated the issues of gambling and sex work in Chinatown. It showed two young people walking down the middle of a street, tempted by those businesses on either side.

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Wall of Respect for the Working People of Chinatown, 1977 (photograph by Leo London via flickr)

A third mural, a project directed by the artist Tomie Arai, called the “Wall of Respect for the Working People of Chinatown” (1977) occupied the side of the Music Palace theater at the corner of Bowery and Hester. Its title nodded to the socialist realist art of China and the USSR. The vertically-oriented mural depicted a dragon swerving through several vignettes of Chinese American labor experience: garment workers, a restaurant cook, and a calligrapher.

In addition to serving as beautification of empty buildings and educating residents on Chinese American history, the murals employed youth from Chinatown and the Lower East Side, where poverty, unemployment, and a dearth of social services were creating street violence and drug abuse. All three Chinatown murals were destroyed when the buildings that hosted them were redeveloped.

Flyer for CHINA: June 4, 1989. Collection of Asian American Arts Centre.
Flyer for CHINA: June 4, 1989 (image courtesy the Asian American Arts Centre)

A Space for Asian American Arts

Growing out of Basement Workshop and The Asian American Dance Theatre, the Asian American Arts Centre began exhibiting artists in 1982. Located on 20 Bowery, right across from Confucius Plaza and near the heart of historic Chinatown, it was one of the first spaces dedicated to showing and shaping Asian American visual arts.

One of their first events, in 1982, was a panel discussion on the definition of Asian American art. The panelists were David Diao, Margo Machida, Lucy Lippard, Lydia Okumura, Kit Yin Snyder, John Woo, and John Yau. In addition, twenty-one artists showed their work in a slide presentation. Their inaugural Open Studio exhibition, highlighting artists who worked in or near Chinatown, featured Kwok Mang Ho, Martin Wong, a young Ai Weiwei, and many others.

Asian American Dance Theatre Poster, 1970s. Collection of Asian American Arts Centre.
Asian American Dance Theatre Poster, 1970s (image courtesy of the collection of the Asian American Arts Centre)

Perhaps their best-known exhibition, developed as a response to the Tiananmen Square crackdown is China: June 4, 1989. Arts Centre director Bob Lee invited a range of artists, Asian American and non-Asian, to contribute. The focal point was a spiral of interlocking doorways, each designed by a different artist. In the early 1990s, the Arts Centre turned its attention to China, organizing From ‘Star Star’ to Avant Garde: 10 Artists from China in 1992, which included Wenda Gu, Xu Bing, Zhang Hongtu, and Huang Yongping.

The Arts Centre showed hundreds of artists before it closed its Bowery space in the early 2000s. Today, it maintains a physical and online archive of Asian American artists, and presents exhibitions at host venues.

Epoxy and The Frog King

Around the corner, on Mott Street, an artist from Hong Kong named Kwok Mang Ho, aka “Frog King,” opened his own Kwok Gallery. From 1982-84, it served as Kwok’s studio, residence, and an exhibition space — often for Kwok’s own work.

The Epoxy Group, 1982. Collection of Asia Art Archive and Kwok Mang Ho.
The Epoxy Group, 1982. From left to right: Jerry Kwan, Hsieh Lifa, Kwok Mang Ho, Bing Lee, Eric Chan, Kang L. Chung, Ming Fay (image courtesy the Asia Art Archive and Kwok Mang Ho)

Kwok Gallery also served as one of the meeting grounds for the Epoxy Art Group, also founded in 1982 by six male artists with ties to Hong Kong. In addition to Kwok, Epoxy included Ming Fay, Jerry Kwan, Bing Lee, Kang Lok Chung, and Eric Chan. The name referenced the group’s strong bond despite their unique styles and backgrounds. Their frenetic, humorous installations, which utilized assemblage, collage, and graffiti, were shown at the New Museum, the Arts Centre, and the Red Spot Outdoor Theater.

Godzilla Crosses Canal

Around 1989, a group of curators and artists began to meet for a “Tuesday Lunch Club,” often at restaurants in Chinatown, to talk about their goals and frustrations. Artists Bing Lee, Ken Chu, Arlan Huang, and Ik-Joong Kang, and curator and writer Margo Machida were early members.

Godzilla in 1991. Photograph by Tom Finkelpearl, Courtesy of Tomie Arai.
Godzilla in 1991. Left to Right: Byron Kim, Bing Lee, Eugenie Tsai, Karin Higa, Arlan Huang, Margo Machida, Charles Yuen, Janet Lin, Helen Oji, Colin Lee, Tomie Arai; Front: Ken Chu and Garson Yu. (photograph by Tom Finkelpearl, courtesy of Tomie Arai)

In 1990, they took the name of the fearsome Japanese monster and founded the Godzilla Asian American Artists Network. Though founded through the connections and spaces of Chinatown, Godzilla took aim at the larger art world. And though several early members had been involved in Basement, the Arts Centre, or both, Godzilla made the choice not to become a non-profit. There was no paid staff, application, or admission process — they wanted to remain a responsive and open community.

In 1991, Godzilla wrote an open letter to the director of the Whitney Museum criticizing its ongoing failure to present Asian American artists. The Whitney responded by inviting them to show slides to their curators. One Godzilla member, Byron Kim, showed his iconic “Synecdoche” paintings in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Another member, Eugenie Tsai, was appointed curator at the Whitney in 1994, where she organized many exhibitions featuring artists of color, including one of Godzilla members Tomie Arai and Lynne Yamamoto.

Synecdoche by Byron Kim, as exhibited in the 1993 Whitney Biennial. Photo by Dennis Cowley.
“Synecdoche” (1991-present) by Byron Kim; seen here in the 1993 Whitney Biennial (photo by Dennis Cowley)

Godzilla also mounted exhibitions. For example, The New World Order III: The Curio Shop at Artists Space in 1993 used the Chinatown store as a visual reference. For the 1998 Urban Encounters at the New Museum, they created the installation “From Basement to Godzilla” reflecting upon their own genesis. Many of the artists also spoke directly on political issues: Godzilla members created a window installation in 1992 on the murdered Chinese American auto worker Vincent Chin, and collaborated with the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence (now CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities) on a mural in Union Square.

After its early triumphs, Godzilla’s membership ballooned — a 1997 grant report listed listed 231 members — and grew to include more South Asian and Southeast Asian artists. In 2001, with many members feeling that Godzilla had accomplished its mission, the collective disbanded. It was succeeded by another collective, Godzookie, made up of a younger, transnational group of artists and curators, which lasted for several years.

Living Chinatown

Each generation of artists that found a home or inspiration in Chinatown since the 1960s shaped, and was shaped by, the particular conditions of that era. In the 1960s and ’70s, Chinatown was a site of foment. Young activists urged the neighborhood to rise against its historic oppressors, creating agitprop and bold visual statements that eliminated the line between art and activism. In the 1980s, a new wave of diasporic Chinese artists found in Chinatown a halfway haven, a familiar niche embedded within cosmopolitan New York. In the 1990s and 2000s, a younger generation ofAsian American artists built upon and expanded those Chinatown networks as they brought activism into the art world.

With this context, it’s clear that the new galleries of Chinatown are not “bringing” art to the neighborhood — culture has grown and flourished there for decades. As the Museum of Chinese in America continues to creates a nexus for Chinese diasporic art, and organizations like CAAAV and the Chinese Staff and Workers’ Association advocate for tenants’ and worker’s rights, the future of Chinatown is an open question. Rising rents are only the manifestation of larger forces — inequality, art-washing, and elitism among them — bearing down on the neighborhood. And as with generations before, today’s socially-engaged artists and art workers will use creativity and political organizing to alter, not just accept, these social realities.

For more on Asian American arts collectives, read Alexandra Chang’s Envisioning Diaspora.

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