Exhibit Explores Asian Identity in Global Chinatowns

Dozens of faces stared warmly from the white walls of a gallery in downtown Manhattan on Saturday.

They were the faces of residents of Chinatowns around the world, photographed smiling in their homes, conversing with friends at community centers and working at family-owned businesses. A black and white map painted on one wall featured bright red strings stretching from China to every continent.

The map and photos are part of a new exhibit, Homeward Bound: Global Intimacies in Converging Chinatowns, which opened Saturday at Pearl River Mart in Tribeca. The show weaves a narrative of Asian identity and cultural change in 13 Chinatowns in nine countries and aims to demonstrate their similarities through photographs and written descriptions of some of the characters’ stories.

At Saturday’s opening, curators Dr. Diane Wong and Huiying B. Chan walked a couple dozen visitors through the five sections of the show. Each focuses on a different theme, such as building deeper roots in a community of Chinese immigrants and resistance to the erasure of Chinese culture as luxury developers acquire properties in Chinatowns around the world.

Wong, an assistant professor and faculty fellow at New York University’s Gallatin School of Independent Study, described how she first got the idea for a collection of photographs and oral histories eight years ago when she led a walking tour of post-9/11 Chinatown.

Wong interviewed small business owners and community organizers about the changes that happened when the World Trade Center fell and how their community was affected as new developers moved in.

“Chinatowns are still very much a home to elders, young people and immigrants,” Wong said in an interview Saturday. “The narrative that Chinatowns are dying is being pushed by developers.”

For the project, Chan, a writer and community organizer, focused on the similarities and differences among Chinatowns in international cities including Havana, Johannesburg and Singapore. From 2016 to 2017, Chan spent two months in each of six cities interviewing Chinatown residents and learning what it means to be a member of the Chinese immigrant community in their own country.

For example, Chan said, Chinese-Cubans in Havana are struggling to revitalize their businesses. Meanwhile, in Singapore and Vietnam, Chinese immigrants hold positions of power within their communities and oppress immigrants from other countries.

Huiying B. Chan explains the story behind a photo in the exhibit. (The Ink/Maggie Green)

One section of the exhibit, “Resistance,” showed the ways in which members of Chinatowns around the world fight to preserve their communities and their histories.

One photo featured Dorothy Quock of San Francisco smiling defiantly and wearing a dress made from rice sacks. Her father delivered large bags of rice during the Great Depression, Quock explained in a letter accompanying her photograph. The dress, with panels of sheer red cloth sewn into the sides, was on display in the exhibit. It swayed lightly as people moved about the gallery.

“The dress shows resilience and wanting to plant roots in Chinatown,” Wong said.

The exhibit ended with a few photographs of residents in Los Angeles trying to keep those roots intact. Wong said she hoped these photos would prompt continuing conversation about the power of organizing to build a future.

As Wong and Chan walked visitors through the exhibit and described their own personal journeys, a singing bowl called out from Pearl River Mart’s market space below, masking soft American pop music. It seemed like the perfect analogy for the immigrant voices struggling to be heard within their larger communities in the United States and beyond.

Pearl River Mart, founded in 1971, was the first Chinese-American department store, according to the store’s website.

The store’s founder, Ming Yi Chen had the idea to create a store full of items that were embargoed by the United States government at the time, said Joanne Kwong, the store’s current president and Chen’s daughter-in-law. “He thought if people brought them into their homes, then barriers would fall, and he was right.”

The Tribeca location, the store’s sixth iteration, has featured Asian and Asian-American artists since its opening 2016.

“When we started, it could be anybody who shares the mission and goals of Pearl River Mart,” Kwong said. But over time, she noted the value of having “a gallery that continually shows the Asian-American community and experience.”

From left, Joanne Kwong, Diane Wong and Huiying B. Chan at the gallery’s opening Saturday. (The Ink/Maggie Green)

Exhibits like Homeward Bound, Kwong said, allow a space for conversations among neighbors, and provide a sense of community to the patrons they serve.

“The Asian-American community doesn’t have a lot of pillars, so the few we have need to be preserved,” she said.

Visitors to the exhibit could extrapolate their own stories from the space.

“If you look at America historically, it’s built on immigrants,” said Fabio Periera, 32, a writer and former World Bank consultant.

People of any background can relate to the stories in the photos, Periera said, because the narrative of Chinese immigration is not just one of capital and education, but of resilience of community.

The shared experiences told a universally identifiable story. That’s why, Wong guessed, her subjects were willing to share their stories with her.

“People are willing to build connections, and there’s value in that,” Wong said.

The exhibit can be seen at the gallery daily from 10 a.m. to 7:20 p.m. until January 13, 2019.