Reflections from Our West Coast Chinatown Solidarity Tour
by Mei Lum and Diane Wong
Located inside of the oldest continually run store in New York's Chinatown, The W.O.W Project is a community-based initiative that reinvents, preserves, and nurtures New York Chinatown’s creative culture and history through arts and activism. The W.O.W Project was established to bring concerns of a rapidly gentrifying Chinatown into a resident run space for intergenerational dialogue and action.
Inspired by the interviews collected with residents in the neighborhood over the span of two years, we began The W.O.W. Project Chinatown Oral History Collection Project to document stories of resistance and to foster community engagement in the face of displacement. In the last decade, New York’s Chinatown has lost 20% of its Asian residents and over 15,000 affordable housing units due to increased rents and forced evictions. Recognizing that the gentrification is not isolated but part of a larger system of dispossession, we wanted to learn how other communities were fighting for their homes and neighborhoods. Bringing our work to the west coast in October 2017, we were able to learn from tenants, organizers, small shop owners, restaurant and garment workers, artists, allied researchers, and nonprofit workers in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Seattle Chinatown.
As immigrant neighborhoods continue to change and residents are displaced due to gentrification, it is imperative that the oral histories at risk of being displaced are well preserved for future generations. This west coast solidarity tour has taught us what visionary organizing looks like on the ground and how critical it is to root our movements in love. We share some of what we learned through this narrated photo series, to uplift collective struggles, to honor places that no longer exist, and to fuel the journey ahead to protect our neighborhood.
We spent our first afternoon with Norman Fong, Executive Director of Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC) and community planners Roy Chan and Erika Gee to talk about creative placemaking and what it means to embrace newness while being accountable to what already exists. Norman shared the long history of political resistance in San Francisco’s Chinatown from the battle for the I-Hotel to the present day fight to preserve SRO (single-room occupancy buildings) from speculators and conversion into tech hostels. In San Francisco, more than 70 percent of SRO families who live in the city reside in Chinatown, including five hundred K-12 students. We also met tenant organizers Tammy Hung and Tan Chow from the Community Tenants Association. CTA works closely with CCDC and is San Francisco’s largest and most active tenant organization with a core membership of 1000 tenants, many who are Chinatown seniors.
How far have you drifted from your roots? This was the question that cultural activist Dorothy Quock asked us before she gave us a three hour walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown. Dorothy took us to one of the 46 alleyways in the neighborhood where she grew up. Many families in Chinatown live in extreme poverty. Dorothy grew up rarely seeing her parents because her mother was a seamstress and shrimp peeler and her father worked all shift hours in local restaurants. She talked about the traumas of losing a mother tongue, raising daughters in patriarchal communities, and using heart connection as the basis for our movements. For Dorothy, Chinatown is where San Francisco begins. As we walked along Clay Street, then Powell Street, then Washington Street, she peeled back the layers of present day Chinatown to show us the places that used to exist and what those memories held for her. Dorothy radiates boldness and reminds us that women in Chinatown have always been at the forefront of the resistance against displacement.
We had the privilege of sitting in on Chinatown Concern Group (CCG) 唐人街關注組 's weekly meeting and were inspired by the efforts of lead organizer King-mong Chan to build a common language for resistance across generations.
We also met with Chinatown Action Group (CAG) 華埠行動小組 volunteers to learn about their efforts to keep out a nine story luxury development at 105 Keefer Street. Despite language barriers, elders we spoke to including Godfrey Tang and Kong Tai made over 30 signs, attended every single public hearing meeting, and spoke at the open houses to keep Vancouver’s Chinatown as a sanctuary for low-income immigrants and families. It is entirely due to the sustained efforts of volunteers and grassroots people power that the proposed development at 105 Keefer Street was rejected again by the city last year.
Movements like these grow stronger because they are intergenerational and seeded with love. Godfrey recently passed away, but he taught us so much about planting roots and the importance of learning from and growing alongside our elders.
In Seattle we met with Humbows Not Hotels, a grassroots collective fighting for community control over land and for development without displacement in the Chinatown/International District. A group of organizers took us on a tour of places in the neighborhood that have been threatened by development. Similar to other Chinatowns across the country, Seattle’s Chinatown/International District was razed in half by the I-5 highway in the 1960s, dividing families and social networks. One tactic that residents were using to combat further dislocation and to preserve community control over land is gardening. Danny Woo Community Garden is the only green space in the neighborhood, bringing seniors and youth together in the neighborhood for sustainable growth.
We ended the tour with a quote from Uncle Bob Santos, who was a leader of the movement that began in the 1970s to preserve Seattle's Chinatown/International District from demolition: “We’re gonna preserve our neighborhood for the people who built it. Growth should come from within. We’re the ones who should dictate that growth.”
Throughout the west coast solidarity tour we tried to speak with as many Chinatown small business owners as we could. These past few years have consistently been some of the slowest and hardest for business across the board. As we walked through LA's Chinatown with organizers Frankie Huynh and Patrick Chen from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), we were left wondering, what will happen to these 75+ year old businesses if the next generation is not willing to take over? LA’s Chinatown has seen an increased presence of art galleries and upscale eateries often owned by second or third generation Asian American male chefs. Who gets to decide what gets preserved in Chinatown? What does it mean to preserve and remain accountable to the community? What businesses do we want to see in Chinatown? How do we build a deeper and more inclusive racial, class, and gender analysis to understand the gentrification we see in Chinatown?
We ended the Chinatown solidarity tour meeting with Angel Luna, an organizer with Defend Boyle Heights -- a coalition committed to building community power against gentrification through direct action. Dozens of art galleries have moved into Boyle Heights in recent years, driving up rents for working class Mexican immigrants and families. Approximately 92,000 residents live in Boyle Heights: 94% are Mexican or Mexican American, 33% live in poverty, and 89% are renters. Defend Boyle Heights has been actively stopping the economic forces of displacement by targeting art galleries along the eastern bank of the Los Angeles River, preventing them from opening up further in the neighborhood. Many of the same gallery owners in Boyle Heights are also appearing in New York’s Chinatown -- the economic forces are connected. Recently the coalition stood in solidarity with anti-displacement efforts in New York’s Chinatown when Nancy Meza from Defend Boyle Heights came out to protest Omer Fast’s racist installation at James Cohan gallery with the Chinatown Art Brigade.
We have been so moved by the kindness of strangers and their willingness to let us into their homes and communities. As we were reminded across cities, the people united will never be defeated, 團結就是力量！人民團結!