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A new vision for Chinatown's cultural renaissance

The "New Vision for Chinatown" introduced the artists and their projects which they hope will bring a new cultural vitality to the area.
The "New Vision for Chinatown" introduced the artists and their projects which they hope will bring a new cultural vitality to the area.
@Nancy Ewart

Yesterday, the Chinese Culture Foundation of San Francisco sponsored an press event, which spoke to the emerging visibility and pride of their community. The "New Vision for Chinatown" introduced the artists and their projects which they hope will bring a new cultural vitality to the area. San Francisco's Mayor Lee, while not present, sent the following statement, “The arts are in renaissance in our City’s Chinatown because of the investment we are making in our diverse communities and neighborhoods,” said Mayor Ed Lee. “This is an incredible collaboration between the Chinese Culture Center and the Chinatown Community Development Center with the City and artists to keep Chinatown vibrant and thriving.”

"Flying Dragon," painted by Justin Hoover, part of the Central Subway art murals
@Nancy Ewart

The Chinese have been in California since the gold rush and did much of the heavy lifting in building the Transcontinental Railroad. From the Chinese Exclusion laws to the San Francisco riots of 1877, they have been discriminated against and treated with hostility and distain. Yesterday’s event – which featured speakers from across San Francisco’s cultural and civic institutions, was a statement that those days are in the past.

Mabel Chang, the Executive Director of the Chinese Culture Foundation, applauded the collaboration between the San Francisco Arts Commission and Grants for the Arts, the Chinatown Community Development Center and San Francisco’s Municipal Transit Authority.

Much of the excitement revolved around the construction of the new subway, which is, even now, tunneling underneath Chinatown. The speakers avoided the animosity and the Gordion’s knot of lethal local politics to focus on the sense of pride that the community feels in this project. At present, only one bus, the always-crowded 30-Stockton, inches it’s way through Chinatown. The new subway will take passengers from Stockton to Washington Square, making for a quicker way to transport thousands from one end of the city to the other.

Away from Grant Avenue and the tourist areas lies the largest, oldest Chinese community in America. The art projects already finished are in the alleys used by the local residents and have instilled a sense of protective ownership. One mural was already tagged by one of San Francisco’s ubiquitous graffiti “artists.” A gentleman who lived around the corner from Justin Hoover’s “Flying Dragon” mural reported it immediately so that the offending paint could be removed.

“Abstracted (Ocean),” painted on the old brick walls of Wentworth Square, was collaboration between Justin Hoover and Gold Mountain Calligraphy Society. Together the artist and the calligraphy group created poems about the Central Subway coming to Chinatown. Blending traditional and contemporary art forms, the poetry speaks of both new and old “when seniors talk about the old time, they become significantly sad.”

Even the colors are significant, with silver/grey representing the subway’s metal cars against a bold red background. Hoover deliberately chose colors that reminded him of the brush and flow of water. Koi were added as a sign of good luck and prosperity. Hoover worked with local youths who gave their creative input to the mural, suggesting the gold sun which anchors the stylized waves and free floating calligraphic forms.

“Flying Dragon,” at the end of the alley is a symbolic artistic representation of the pioneering efforts of the Chinese in building the railroads. The poem, written by Yuen Kwan and translated by Lauren Huang, is loosely brushed in Chinese calligraphy against a deep red background. “Digging for gold (we) experience bitterness and tears. Building the railway, (we) are credited for its success.”

Around the corner and up the hill from Wentworth Place is the last of the current projects in process. Xu Tan, part of the Chinese experimental art group "Big Tail Elephant, " will be conducting workshops for teens in the “Keywords School.” Xu Tan has insisted on his lifestyle as “outcast,” by maintaining an extreme sensitivity to the changes in social life and culture. He questions the boundaries of contemporary art and some of the results of that questioning are seen in this “pop-up” school.

Located in a bare bones room on Ross Alley, another small, old and vibrant part of the local Chinese community, he plans to set up a “San Francisco Chinatown Keywords School,” where the participants will create “key words” from the community to bring art into the streets of Chinatown.

The speakers and the artists involved in the various projects conveyed a sense of excitement in a community that is becoming a more visible and integrated part of San Francisco’s cultural landscape.