‘Chinatown Art Brigade’ Takes a Stand with Anti-Gentrification Projections [INTERVIEW]

Posted on: September 30th, 2016 at 9:33 am by
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Photo: Mike Hong“Gentrification is Modern Colonialism,” read the illuminated stencil above the corner of Chrystie and Grand Streets. That was but one message that traveled through the neighborhood last Saturday night.

These rather straightforward projections come courtesy of the Chinatown Art Brigade, which roams the namesake area armed with a light projector and a mantra of anti-gentrification.

We caught up with the Brigade’s founders – Betty Yu, Tomie Arai, and ManSee Kong – to learn more about the goals and inspirations.


Bowery Boogie: Describe your organization, its founding, and goals with the nighttime projections.

Betty Yu: In 2015, Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong and I formed Chinatown Art Brigade, a cultural collective committed to advancing social justice. It was in direct response to the rapid gentrification that we’ve been seeing in Chinatown. The 3 of us are artists, media makers and activists who have history and deep connections to Chinatown. We are working in close partnership with CAAAV and the Chinatown Tenants Union, a Chinatown-based community organization that organizes for tenant rights, against evictions and displacement of working class immigrant Chinese tenants. One of the major goals of our collective has been to help advance the community-led organizing efforts against gentrification. CAAAV is doing the on-the-ground organizing work and we feel that as a collective of artists, our role is to help amplify the stories and voices of those in the frontlines, most directly affected by displacement. More specifically one of our messages in our projections have been appealing to NY City Councilmember Margaret Chin to pass a community-created Chinatown Working Group rezoning plan that has provisions to protect affordable housing and curb future displacement. Currently this plan is being ignored by the DeBlasio administration despite the community’s outrcry for it to be passed.

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Photo: Kahean ChangWe launched “Here to Stay,” a project that includes a series of large-scale outdoor mobile projections that addresses the themes of gentrification, displacement, community resistance and resilience in NYC’s Chinatown. Over the summer we held cultural production workshops with community members, artists and tenants. Through oral histories, storytelling circles, photography, placekeeping walking tours and mapping activities we co-created the images and content that would be projected onto buildings and public landmarks in Chinatown and the Lower East Side.

Tomie Arai: Forming alliances and collaborations with other progressive groups is also one of the goals for our project. The Illuminator, a political collective that has stage hundreds of projections in communities across the country, has been an important partner. Their technical assistance and their experience has been instrumental to the success of our Here to Stay project.

BB: What do you hope the response will be?

BY: We had our first projection last Saturday, September 24, and the response from local community members has been really positive. The content for the projections was produced in close collaboration with Chinatown tenants and community members. It was important that the content was bilingual and cultural accessible. Our intended audience for the projections was the local community and Chinatown residents. Gentrification and displacement is on the top of everyone’s mind across communities in New York City. As more than 100 galleries move into Chinatown, condos, hotels, bars and fancy restaurants open up all around Chinatown, and hundreds of long time low-income residents are rapidly getting pushed out – it can feel overwhelming and impossible to stop. But what we are hoping to do (even on a smaller scale) is project the stories of other Chinatown tenants who are fighting back and organizing with others – and we hope to reach others who are sick and tired of what’s happening and want to get involved. We want them to know there is an organization like CAAAV that can join and unite with others to fight back.

ManSee Kong: We’re also hoping that the elected officials and city agencies will take notice and hear the community’s demands and concerns around rezoning and displacement.

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Photo: Kahean ChangBB: What was the inspiration behind your founding?

TA: Creating new models of artistic production that exist outside of the art world/art system is something that attracted me to the idea of establishing a brigade or a working group that could be organized around artistic actions. As an entity, the Brigade functions as a collective and tries to be anonymous. This frees us up, as artists, to more closely examine how we relate to the mainstream, the community and to each other. We understand that we have a lot to learn from our community partners and we accept the challenges that come from making art in places where the work that artists do is often misunderstood because it has always been viewed as a privileged activity. Exploring the ways in which artists can work effectively with community groups is one of our core goals.

BB: Are you seeing the message getting through or is this just playing to the base?

BY: Our primary audience is the Chinatown residents. But our secondary audience is the gentrifiers, the gallery owners, bar owners – we want them to really think about their own actions and the consequences they cause. Do they understand the role they play in gentrification? Do they care? And we want to reach those that do care and that they can do something to help keep the longtime Chinatown residents in their homes. We understand that gentrification is systemic and structural. Mayor de Blasio has announced the neighborhoods he is hoping to “rezone” so it can make way for more displacement of working families from their homes…but at the same time as individuals we all have the power to do something and get involved.

There are also a lot of artists who have opened up independent art galleries in the neighborhood. There has been recent press attention given to all these new galleries that now see Chinatown as the new Chelsea and have exotified Chinatown as a “dirty” place with “smells” and “chaos, colors and odors.” This is deeply offensive. We want them to understand what they are doing and how they are gentrifying Chinatown. They may think they are not as “evil” as the developers and banks but they are still cogs in the machine of gentrification.

We are also reaching out to passerby who maybe empathetic to the issue and want to learn more and get involved. Our project has attracted a lot of positive response from the Asian American community who want to plug in.

MK: We ran an evening of projections two days before CAAAV’s Rezoning Town Hall in August, and we noticed that Councilmember Chin sent a few staffers to attend the town hall.

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Photo: Louis ChanBB: How do you define victory in a gold rush zone where money talks and decisions are rammed through?

BY: Victory for us is defined in the new relationships we are building through the Chinatown Art Brigade and CAAAV partnership. Through the cultural project we are getting more folks involved in the anti-displacement organizing work. Ultimately it’s about building the base and the power in our community to not only push back but advance a vision for a Chinatown we want to see. We are also challenging the dominant narrative that Chinatown residents are passive and won’t fight back – we are telling stories of people who are being displaced and are resisting.

TA: I was surprised at the way in which the projections felt like celebrations despite the serious and sometimes angry nature of the messages we projected around gentrification and displacement. People were excited. Seeing the stories and images of Chinese tenants projected onto neighborhood walls generated a huge amount of curiosity and attention. People on the streets were smiling, pointing, and gathering in groups to watch. Inviting passersby to send personal messages to landlords and share their feelings about Chinatown through the People’s Pad, became a powerful intervention on the spaces in which they lived. Even if the project failed to reach Wall Street developers, I was gratified that we had created, for just a few moments, a fierce sense of common purpose and pride.

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