Chinatown: Our Narrative Tours
By Alina Shen
“Maps filter out the chaos and obsessively focus on one little thing.”
- 110 Mapping (This American Life)
“What we pay attention to grows.”
- Emergent Strategy (adrienne maree brown)
One night before graduation, Ying Yu Situ asked if I wanted to stay the night in Chinatown. She wanted to do something called emotional cartography, which at the time meant chalking empty streets and recording sounds. We carried a tub of chalk and a pad of paper.
About two hours after midnight and a little delirious, Ying directed us to chalk the word bitter, ku, onto the ground outside an infamous bar in the heart of Chinatown. It was starting to drizzle, but in the moment it only saturated our chalky emeralds and teals.
We stood across the street to admire our little kus, square and squat like frogs. Suddenly, someone came out, stepping right into a puddle of kus. We held our breath, waiting for them to notice that they were stepping all over our characters. We hexed them with our chalk, ostensibly for committing noise pollution in this neighborhood.
We waited in vain. They smoked a cigarette, waved at a taxi, and slipped away without so much a glance downwards, or even at us: two small, giggling figures across the street. We found it intensely funny. It was an inside joke that gave us a secret power over these lofty, white walking symbols of wealth.
That night, it seemed important that we did not only change the way we saw the disruptive bar, but also changed the way we felt about it. This street was a place for cars to pass, but also a place where my friend chalked poetry about crossing Canal. Our interaction with the street heightened our feelings toward and memories of a neighborhood attached to a myth of inevitable gentrification. In chalking the ground, we felt that we could temporarily detach the street from its definition as market value, if only for ourselves.
Later, when I researched critical geography, I came across much more theoretical content. A lot of it was about the concept of “play.” Derive, or drift, within pyschogeography, is the act of wandering. You might let your feet or an algorithm (i.e. a pattern of two lefts and one rights) move through the streets to become disoriented in a place that otherwise is familiar. Detourement, another key term, is the act of imitating capitalist aesthetic and motions to mock it, revealing how ridiculous it is. Both are acts of play that aim to challenge capitalist boredom (i.e. endless scroll on a screen) and the practice of prioritizing efficiency or productivity.
I also learned that geographer Cindi Katz defined topography as a mapping that enables state surveillance and control. The state might map out a neighborhood to better understand how to regulate and generate wealth from it. She also theorizes countertopography as a possible way to counteract state surveillance and regulation.
This iteration of the mapping project came from these ideas. During the summer of 2017, Emily Li, Kiana Chan, Shu Xin Wu, Danielle Chan, Richard Lu, and Ying Yu Situ, young people who cared deeply about Chinatown, spent Sundays brainstorming, discussing, and creating their projects. Throughout the seven weeks, I invited storytellers, performance artists, data visualization artists, and geographers to visit and provide talks or workshops for our cohort. We wanted to build relationships with each other, locating and telling political histories of the area, and critically engaging with social issues in Chinatown.
At the end of the seven weeks, two projects emerged for our public showcase: a digitized web page of Chinatown arcade love letters created by Richard Lu, and a “pop-up” map of Chinatown dessert shops and an interactive map of gentrifying areas in the city created by Shu Xin Wu and Danielle Chan. The dessert shop “pop-ups” contained over-the-top quotes from interviews and descriptions of the dessert websites, and encouraged connections to be made between the quotes and the gentrifying zones. The love letter web page displayed photographs that evoked both nostalgia and affection.
Dessert Shops and Gentrification, Shu Xin Wu and Danielle Chan
We also had two walks: a reading of love letters by Richard that became a discussion of “fun” and “recreation” in Chinatown, and a walk through new dessert shops themed around egg waffles. For that walk, we bought dollar street vendor egg waffles (eggettes? small cakes?) and ate them outside pricey shops selling the same thing for nine times the price. Shu Xin and Danielle observed that all these desserts were made of the waffle base: containing similar and relatively inexpensive ingredients with origins in staving off hunger in the history of countries like Japan and Korea. We ended on a high note, before the sun had set, a group chatting beside the bakery with the “Best Sponge Cake” in the city.
This is a time, as it always seems to be, when there are evictions and terrible landlords, during an age of constant urgency and skepticism, where the language is of city policy, preservation, and home. How can we show our love for this community in any other way than protesting, door knocking, and fighting for our families, our neighborhoods, friends, and ourselves? How can we fight dirty landlords, unfair city policy, and unscrupulous bosses with maps, walks, and discussions on the street between mostly young people? There are endless questions on the possibilities and limitations of mapping, as we defined it continuously.
Sometime last year, I’ve been told that good questions lead only to more questions. For me, these questions are frames for understanding and acting on this world. This past summer had a central question: How would you represent a neighborhood and community that holds your childhood, love, and hopes for the future? Ultimately, our relationships and memories may govern our internal maps, but they only show us the way if we have a destination.
Many thanks to the staff and friends at:
Chatham Square Public Library
Sadie Nash Leadership Project’s Nina Feinberg Fellowship
Charles’ B. Wang’s Teen Resource Center
Wing on Wo Project