Dreaming Diaspora in Chinatowns Around the Globe: An Interview with Diane Wong

Today on Gotham, Minju Bae interviews Diane Wong, co-curator of Homeward Bound: Global Intimacies in Converging Chinatowns, a recently-concluded exhibition at Pearl River Mart. Homeward Bound displayed photographs from thirteen Chinatowns around the world. These photographs came from the curators’ personal projects to learn from the people who have built homes, families, and communities in a global diaspora. The exhibit will travel to a number of other locations starting in the spring of next year.

Diane, we first met at the thirtieth-anniversary gala for CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities. Over the years, we have discussed our related projects and aligned political frameworks, often while sharing food. What are the origins of this exhibition?

The exhibit was inspired by the Homeward Bound series I did with the W.O.W Project at Wing on Wo & Co last winter. The series of public programs was done in collaboration with Mei Lum, founding director of the W.O.W. Project, and Huiying B. Chan, a multimedia storyteller whom I met through the Chinatown Art Brigade. It featured stories of migration, displacement, and everyday resilience in Chinatowns around the world including Lima, Havana, Johannesburg, Guangzhou, Ho Chi Minh City, Sydney, Singapore, New York, San Francisco, Boston, Los Angeles, Vancouver, and Seattle. The exhibit builds from the series and uses photographs and oral histories from our own academic research to honor, preserve, and build on the histories and contemporary issues of Chinatowns through community-led and curated narratives of residents. There is a lot of work to be done when it comes to connecting our academic scholarship to what is happening on the ground in communities and to more intimate spaces like our homes. This exhibit was a way for me to be creative and to redefine what I have been taught about academic knowledge production and rigor — and to produce work that is accountable and responsive to the demands of the communities I write about.

Photograph by Joann Lee.

Photograph by Joann Lee.

Can you tell me about your connections to New York’s Chinatowns?

I grew up in Flushing which is not far from New York’s Chinatown. My connections to New York’s Chinatown began a decade ago when I worked as an educator at the Museum of Chinese in America. Drawing from their archives and my own research, I put together a walking tour that documented the profound changes in post-9/11 Chinatown. Not many people realize this but Chinatown is one of the closest residential areas in proximity to ground zero; spatially speaking the neighborhood is less than ten walking blocks away. The social, economic, and health effects of that event were catastrophic for Chinatown residents and my role was to document how much the neighborhood had changed since then through oral history interviews with residents, restaurants workers, garment factory workers, and organizers. This work connected me to grassroots groups doing critical anti-displacement work in the neighborhood including CAAAV’s Chinatown Tenants Union. In the last few years, New York’s Chinatown has endured unprecedented changes in terms of land use, demographic shifts, and corporate investment — the neighborhood is a site of mass displacement.

My research underscores the intimacies of home in shaping our political lives. The more time I spent in Chinatown over the years as an organizer and cultural worker, the more often I found myself asking these questions: What are the political consequences of perpetual uprootedness? What can encounters with displacement tell us about the political possibilities inherent within immigrant communities? How can I as a political scientist create space for a kind of research that is rooted in the material conditions of a place called Chinatown that my mother and thousands of others call home? In many ways, these questions are deeply personal and have allowed me to learn more about my own connections to displacement. My mother’s family is from the heart of Shanghai. Everyone grew up in what was called a hutong, which is an alleyway neighborhood common in parts of urban China. In the mid-1980s, when the municipal government pursued urban renewal and redevelopment projects, the city pushed my grandmother, my mother, my aunt, and their neighbors out of the hutongto construct a six-lane expressway. They were given a total of four days to vacate and displaced to the outskirts of the city, to a place that I visited once in my life. This family history coupled with my experiences of growing up in Flushing, Queens, in the ‘90s until now has made me acutely aware of how uprootedness shapes the political experiences of immigrants, their families, and their communities.

My ongoing work in New York’s Chinatown seems to weave these themes in my life together, my academic research and art practice is rooted in family and community engagement. Right now, I work closely with the Chinatown Art Brigade, which is a women-led collective of Asian American artists, tenants, and organizers driven by the fundamental belief that cultural, material, and aesthetic modes of production have the power to advance social change. I also collaborate with Mei Lum at The W.O.W. Project based at Wing on Wo & Co, the oldest operating store in Manhattan’s Chinatown. When I first interviewed Mei for my book project, her family was about to sell their red brick building and porcelain store that had been in the neighborhood since the 1890s. I invited Mei to sit in on the oral histories that I was conducting with other residents and small business owners in the neighborhood, and from those conversations came The W.O.W. Project. It has since grown into a youth-led initiative for intergenerational dialogue and grassroots action to combat cultural erasure and displacement. In the span of three years, The W.O.W Project has founded a youth arts activism program called Resist Recycle Regenerate, established a storefront artist-in-residency, and sustained on the ground relationships with residents in other Chinatowns facing changes from gentrification. These relationships are what keep me connected to New York’s Chinatown.

Chinatowns are often a consequence of segregation, apartheid, and discrimination. And at the same time, they also represent places of strength in your show. Can you speak more to that?

If you look at the immigration, housing, labor, and employment policies at the federal level and at the neighborhood zoning, transit system design, public health regulation, and land use practices at the municipal level, Chinatowns in America operate as what sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant would call a racial project. Yet at the same time, there is a rich history of women-led resistance and political agency in these neighborhoods. This speaks directly to my own research which combines ethnography, archival research, participatory mapping, augmented reality, and oral history interviews with tenants, organizers, restaurant and garment workers, small business owners, public health workers, and court interpreters. My current book project captures how immigrant women and youth in Chinatown are active in the making of urban space and urban politics, shifting away from a common narrative that portrays them as disengaged from democratic processes. In important ways, the issue of gentrification makes visible the everyday politics of urban immigrant communities because so many of the issues of daily life in the community are at stake.

In one chapter for example, I argue how ordinary shop spaces like Wing On Wo & Co. can serve as a catalyst for intergenerational organizing and particularly for the mobilization of women. Rather than focus on traditional sites and modes of participation in politics, I shift attention to focus on how Mei Lum and other women are using informal community spaces and dialogue or what I call “shop talk” to strategize around displacement. Bringing together scholarship in political science, race and ethnicity, urban studies, ethnic studies, and feminist thought, I demonstrate that actively listening to what women talk about on a daily basis offers tremendous insight on the ways in which political values, ideologies, and practices are formed or negotiated over time. I contextualize the activism we see in Manhattan’s Chinatown today in a much longer lineage and history of women-led cultural production through Asian American collectives like the Basement Workshop and Godzilla: Asian American Art Network.

Are there particular stories from the photographs that you’d like to highlight?

The photos in the exhibit converge to center the radical intimacies of strangers and the possibilities of narrating diasporic movement, estrangement, and belonging — all at the same time. My favorite photos were taken during the west coast Chinatown solidarity tour and tells the story of Dorothy C.G. Quock, whose nickname is PolkaDot. When I first met Dorothy, who was eighty-three at the time, she gave me a three-hour long walking tour of San Francisco’s Chinatown. As an archivist who has deep roots in the neighborhood, Dorothy took me to the alleyway where she and her family grew up and peeled back the layers of present-day Chinatown to describe by memory what used to exist. Dorothy explained that she grew up hardly seeing her parents because her mother was a seamstress and shrimp peeler and her father worked long shifts in local restaurants. She also talked about the traumas of losing a mother tongue, navigating patriarchal institutions, and using heart connection as the basis for our movements. Dorothy radiates boldness and reminds us that women have always been at the forefront in the neighborhood preservation movement. This is a short excerpt from Dorothy's story:

"I am a San Francisco native and, in the spring of 2015, I started my sixth career. It began when a local filmmaker James Q. Chan went on my Wok Wiz Chinatown Tour and hired me as an archival researcher for his documentary Forever, Chinatown. I was inspired to sew this rice sack outfit, because my father during the 1930s Great Depression had delivered sacks of rice to customers. My brother Edmund F. Chow saved stacks of rice for me, I started what I thought to be a simple project. I removed stitches from a 100 lb. rice sack, to make enough room for my head and arms. It was a snug fit with little wiggle room. I certainly would not be able to dance in celebration at film festivals or the Academy Awards. That is why I added the red netting on the side so that it flairs when I twirl. Sewing is my hobby, as a preschooler my mother dragged us to the Chinatown sweat factory where she toiled. When I was three-years old I learned how to use scissors to clip off thread ends of Levi’s jeans before they were packed for pick up. When I was seven-years old, I learned to use the machine that embossed the copper rivets on pocket and seam edges. Today I rarely buy anything, which fits into my lifestyle philosophy: conserve, reuse, recycle. I save money from my wardrobe, but also get to wear clothes from the people who are significant in my life. It reminds me of them I can feel their spirit is with me.”

Photograph by Joann Lee.

Photograph by Joann Lee.

Displacement is a central theme to your work. What is does displacement look like in New York’s Chinatowns?

Well, displacement is a common theme in the lives of immigrants in this country — the reality is that most immigrants and refugee families know what it's like to be uprooted from a home over and over again. The displacement from gentrification that is happening in New York’s Chinatown and in neighborhoods across the city is calculated and violent — not only does gentrification displace families from a place they have called home for generations but it strips them of their basic livelihoods. The rate at which working-class residents, immigrants, and communities of color are being displaced from their homes is happening on a scale not seen since the federally sponsored urban renewal programs in the 1960s. Too frequently the media, pundits, and politicians portray displacement from gentrification as inevitable but there is nothing natural about the changes we are seeing in our cities in this moment. In cities across the country, officials are partnering with developers, financial institutions, and arts nonprofits to push for unaffordable development projects at the expense of long-time residents and businesses. These public-private partnerships have relied on tactics like tax subsidies, eminent domain, rezoning, and the systematic deregulation of rent-regulated housing.

The percentage of Asian immigrants residing in New York’s Chinatowns has declined drastically over the last ten years. Although the housing stock consists primarily of low-rise tenement buildings, there are now more than two dozen as-of-right hotel developments, including an 84-story skyscraper being constructed at this moment. That skyscraper has paved the way for four other towers that would add 2,000 additional market rate apartments, changing the face of the neighborhood forever. There have been many visible changes in New York’s Chinatown in recent years. It seems as though every week something that was once there no longer exists. There are over one hundred new galleries and dozens of new upscale bars, restaurants, and streetwear boutiques that are occupying spaces in New York’s Chinatown that once housed families, immigrant-run businesses, and garment factories. The thing about gentrification is that the places you grow to love can disappear overnight. It reveals the harsh temporality of cities as entire neighborhoods can turn into what geographer Edward Relph termed “placeless places.” The impacts of displacement in New York’s Chinatown are manifested in different ways on the ground, through rent increases, forced evictions, landlord harassment, closure of neighborhood shops, changes in demographics, and cultural erasure.

In the last three years, from going door-to-door and listening to tenants share their experiences of displacement, I have seen hundreds of immigrant families struggle with forced evictions and landlord harassment. In New York’s Chinatown, many predatory landlords have intentionally bought out buildings with a large percentage of tenants who live in rent-regulated units for profit. These landlords have taken advantage of the fact that many existing tenants are undocumented, limited English proficient, or poor to clear out apartments for profit. I have seen predatory landlords resort to tactics like shutting down heat in the winter, refusing to carry out basic repairs, or making up false accusations to take tenants to housing court multiple times a year. I have also seen landlords use hazardous construction to force tenants out of their homes — this is extremely dangerous for children and elderly tenants who have asthma or suffer from other health issues. Then there are the material and emotional costs of losing a home. I have seen tenants lose their jobs or have their livelihoods on the line because they had to take off from work to be in housing court. As the neighborhood continues to change and immigrant families are displaced from their homes, it is critical that we pay attention to how residents are responding to the disruption of their collective space and fighting to stay.

What are some books you recently read that can give our readers more context for the kinds of questions that you are asking?

I love graphic novels and recently sat down to read The Best We Could Doby Thi Bui, a beautiful illustrated memoir that explores the intimacies of home, citizenship, and diasporic movement. A few months ago, I saw Dead Pigs, which is a film directed by screenwriter and producer Cathy Yan. The film takes place in Shanghai and interrogates the ripple effects of a woman’s efforts to holdout and prevent her home from demolition. As entire neighborhoods in cities like Shanghai continue to disappear due to modernization and residents are uprooted from their homes, it is important that these individual and collective narratives also at risk of being displaced are well preserved for future generations.

This is your first curated photography exhibition. What have you learned from this project?

I learned to trust my work in ways that academia has never taught me to. There are many obstacles set in place to make women of color academics question the value of our work. In academia, value is too often assigned to the numbers of papers we publish in a single year — you know, the whole publish or perish practice. I was told early on in my career that photos should not be included in academic papers because they take up word count and words have more weight in the industry. Many of the photos in the exhibit did not make it into the dissertation I wrote but tell stories deeper than I could ever capture with words. To me, the most valuable work that academics do often exists outside of page margins. This exhibit was a way for me to unlearn much of what I was taught in academic spaces about knowledge production — that meaningful work can only appear in journals, is peer reviewed, is rigorous--and to unapologetically create my own alternatives. I am still learning how to make academia work for me, but the process of curating this exhibit meant slowing down enough to think about what I am putting out into the world, what I want to see, and allowing it to happen.

For more on Homeward Bound, see this interview on the website of Pearl River Mart. Homeward Bound is a traveling exhibit. Please stay tuned to see where it goes.

Diane Wong is an Assistant Professor and Faculty Fellow in the Gallatin School of Individualized Study at New York University. She holds a Ph.D. in American Politics and M.A. in Comparative Race, Ethnicity, and Immigration from Cornell University. Diane is currently based in NYC where she works in collaboration with community groups like CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, Chinatown Art Brigade, and The W.O.W. Project.

Minju Bae is a doctoral candidate in the History Department at Temple University and a Visiting Scholar at the Asian/Pacific/American Institute at New York University. She is also a Mellon predoctoral fellow of History Education at the Museum of the City of New York.