On a brisk evening last September, just as New York City descended into fall, musician Treya Lam situated themself on the impromptu stage inside Forsyth Plaza. Wedged directly below the Manhattan Bridge, the plaza sits at the heart of Manhattan’s Chinatown. Most nights, this graffiti-lined space stays empty. That night, a crowd packed inside to listen to Lam, while food trucks served bubble tea, banh mi and momos on the street below alongside artists, set up on folding tables to sell braided straw art and elaborate sugar sculptures.
They strummed their guitar and began to sing: “We are the children of the migrant worker, we are the offspring of the concentration camp. Sons and daughters of the railroad builder, who leave their stamp on America.”
Close by was Yin Kong, director and co-founder of Think!Chinatown, the local organization hosting the event along with a second local organization, Asian Americans for Equality. Kong has a talent of being everywhere at once: securing Lam’s microphone, answering questions from volunteers, ensuring distribution of the bilingual programming. But she listened attentively as Lam repeated the chorus: “Sing a song for ourselves, what have we got to lose?”
The vision for this event, a series of pop-ups known as Chinatown Nights, was to build space for fresh approaches in the neighborhood: to kickstart economic recovery from COVID-19 by claiming space for local artists and vendors at night, when footfall drastically declines, and begin planting seeds for a permanent cultural anchor in Chinatown. To create safe space for the community amidst anti-Asian attacks, a time people were afraid to leave their homes.
The vision also built off a deep, sustained movement merging the arts with political organizing in Chinatown, as well as a decades-long fight to secure resources and space for a dedicated cultural anchor. “Our work here in Chinatown,” Kong says, “Is about place-keeping. It’s about celebrating, strengthening and amplifying.”
Lam’s song, We Are The Children, served as a reminder of that movement-building history. “We are a part of the third-world people,” they sang, “Who will leave our stamp on America.” In a neighborhood determined to assert itself and its resilience amid the devastating impacts of COVID-19 and an increase in anti-Asian violence, the lyrics Lam sang spoke deeply to this moment. And yet We Are The Children was written as part of a 1973 compilation of writing, art and music by Asian American artists called Yellow Pearl.
Yellow Pearl was a project of Basement Workshop, an Asian American arts collective formed in Manhattan’s Chinatown in the early 1970s to advocate for healthcare, jobs and resources.
At Think!Chinatown's Chinatown Nights event series, Musician Treya Lam performs songs from Yellow Pearl, a 1973 compilation of writing, art and music by Asian American artists. Yellow Pearl was a project of Basement Workshop.
Though it dissolved in the late 1980s, Basement Workshop helped seed the work of a core group of cultural organizers in the neighborhood, including Kong. They’re harnessing art to advocate for economic opportunity, fight against displacement and gentrification, and create intergenerational spaces that prioritize New York’s AAPI community.
Despite the effectiveness and sustainability of this movement, Asian American artists and organizers have been too often pigeonholed for creating so-called “cultural” or “ethnic” work. They have never gotten a fair share of resources, recognition and dedicated cultural space. In the case of Think!Chinatown, Kong says, “Our approach comes from a lack of access to more formalized performance spaces, even before COVID.”
But now, through a confluence of factors including the pandemic, anti-Asian violence and the destruction two years ago of community hub 70 Mulberry Street, those resources are finally presenting themselves to the neighborhood — more than $200 million announced in public dollars just in the past two years.
But the promises of funding have prompted questioning, and in some cases controversy, about the work ahead at a time of political and social upheaval. The city’s announcement to invest in arts and culture in Chinatown, as part of a proposal for building a new jail here, put into sharp relief the impact of capitalistic-establishment forces on a grassroots movement.
The questions are urgent, and resonate far beyond Chinatown: When the cultural and artistic work has long been under-resourced and marginalized by institutional and government funders, how should that money be distributed when it finally comes in? What are the trade-offs for government and establishment funding — and are they worth it?
For a neighborhood relatively compact in size — Chinatown covers roughly two square miles in Lower Manhattan — it boasts an impressive and dedicated collective of cultural organizers.
Think!Chinatown, established in 2017, works at the intersection of storytelling, arts and neighborhood engagement. In 2016, The W.O.W. Project launched as a women-, queer-, and transgender-led community initiative using art and activism to grow and protect Chinatown’s creative culture. Chinatown Art Brigade, formed in 2015, centers art and culture to support community-led campaigns around issues of gentrification and displacement. There are countless other artists and cultural organizers doing community-centered work, from the Chinatown Yarn Circle to the pop-up calligraphy and tea house Pencilnyc Studio.
This vibrant creative ecosystem emerged from the neighborhood’s basements. One of the earliest cultural spaces is still active in the basement of the Chinese Community Center, at 62 Mott Street, sandwiched between narrow retail shops selling gifts and eyewear.
In early November, the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association (CCBA) debuted its first Chinese opera here – a work in Cantonese, one of several Chinese dialects spoken across Chinatown — since New York’s COVID-19 lockdown. Chinese operas have been performed here since the 60s, but CCBA’s history dates to 1883, when the association was formed to combat discrimination against New York’s Chinese residents following the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Chinatown’s longest-running service provider has been a main player in the neighborhood’s changing power dynamics, as well as an umbrella organization to smaller neighborhood groups and family associations. It’s provided and coordinated services the government did not, such as housing, jobs, business and legal support.
Arts and culture was always part of that equation. Chinese opera groups heavily assisted the CCBA with fundraising to build the Chinese Community Center, where the theater doubles as an auditorium for the New York Chinese School in the same building. Today, the auditorium is one of the few cultural and performance spaces in the neighborhood — and in high demand. “Before the pandemic, the auditorium was used almost every week for performance,” says CCBA President Justin Yu. “We have a drawing [to pick performers] … if you get a number you perform this year, if you don’t get a number, next year.”
The Chinese Community Center officially opened in 1962, at a time when the country was rapidly changing, and the neighborhood would follow suit. The rise of counterculture protests and the Civil Rights Movement intersected with the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which lifted restrictive immigration quotas and ultimately changed the makeup of the United States, bringing an influx of newcomers to Chinatowns across the country. By the late 60s, activists coined the term Asian American to unite the growing population in the fight for equality.
Here in Manhattan’s Chinatown, young Asian Americans were further mobilized by the Black Power Movement and Vietnam War protests. They synthesized that energy inside a tenement-style basement at 54 Elizabeth Street. Basement Workshop became New York’s first Asian American political and arts organization in 1971, bringing together urban planners, community advocates and writers as well as visual, performing and spoken word artists. They merged creative initiatives such as Yellow Pearl with community work like English language and citizenship classes and community health fairs.
As this short history puts it, “Basement was very loose and different artists pursued different interests, but they saw their art in the context of their communities.” As member Bob Lee says, “The real guts of it was that we all had to fight for the recognition and the rights and the needs of our community, and for the visibility of each of our different experiences, and the inequities and injustices in all of that.”
Members of Chinatown's Basement Workshop, circa 1972. (Photo by Bob Hsiang)
Basement ushered in the next generation of what CCBA seeded 100 years earlier: a central hub where art, cultural preservation, community organizing and grassroots services intersected, within a neighborhood that was built off exclusion. In the work, community, cultural and artistic space is fluid. In the same way that the Chinese Community Center houses a performance venue and school, Basement Workshop served as art studio, gallery, meeting space and classroom. The work, then and now, is also intergenerational, placing value on elder wisdom and cultural preservation alongside youth energy around issues such as social justice and contemporary art.
As the basement work emerged, it took different shapes. Jack Tchen and Charlie Lai went on to found the Chinatown History Project, which became the Museum of Chinese in America. Photographer Corky Lee would launch his career and found 21 Pell Street inside the First Chinese Baptist Church to showcase photography, traveling exhibits, films and guest speakers. He died in January from COVID-19, but 21 Pell Street lives on. The Godzilla: Asian American Arts Network formed in 1990 with Basement artists Tomie Arai and Arlan Huang. Eleanor Yung established the Asian American Dance Theatre in 1974; she and her husband Bob Lee grew it into the Asian American Arts Centre, which still maintains a vast collection of contemporary Asian American art.
Bob Lee fought for the arts community not just in Chinatown but across New York City, participating in NYC’s Cultural Equity Group, The Association of American Cultures and the People’s Cultural Plan. In the early 1980s, after the New York State Council on the Arts identified the need for a central service provider for Asian American artists and organizations, he led the formation of the Asian American Arts Alliance. The Alliance now serves AAPI artists across New York City.
Basement members still engage with the newest wave of organizing. Lee sits on the board of Think!Chinatown and works closely with Kong. Arai went on to co-found the Chinatown Art Brigade with Betty Yu and ManSee Kong. This summer, the Metropolitan Museum of Art hosted a recorded conversation between Arai and W.O.W. Project founder Mei Lum. “Hearing you talk a lot about Basement,” Lum told Arai, “I could see a lot of W.O.W. in that and what it means for a lot of young people in finding who they are and what it means to be Asian American.”
But the stakes of creating this work have escalated exponentially since fall 2019, when the city released “points of agreement” as part of its contentious, borough-based jail plan. In addition to building a new jail in the neighborhood, the city would fund things such as upgrades at Columbus Park, a community hub that hosts cultural events, a new elevator at 70 Mulberry Street, which was badly in need of upgrades before the fire, and the acquisition and construction of a permanent museum and new performing arts space for the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA).
The announcement, particularly the $35 million allocated to MOCA, prompted intense questioning about how the community’s artistic and cultural work should be funded, how resources and money are allocated, and whether some funding trade-offs were unacceptable, as many felt the city’s jail plan to be.
Three months after that announcement, a fire tore through 70 Mulberry Street, the neighborhood’s only cultural hub, where the Museum of Chinese in America kept its archives. That was followed in rapid succession by the early economic downturn caused by racialized fears around COVID-19, the devastation of the pandemic, a near standstill of the neighborhood economy, a social justice movement, and the increase in anti-Asian violence.
The Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA), at 215 Centre Street, in Manhattan. (Photo courtesy of MOCA)
For Lee, whom I met in his narrow and compact Asian American Arts Centre office last fall, such a difficult time also reveals itself as a moment of possibility — to “take the first baby steps toward a different kind of society, a different kind of culture.”
In this moment of transformation, a growing abolition movement, and a climate crisis that demands we operate in new ways, Lee wonders if the right step is depending on the city and reinforcing the status quo. “Should we try to enhance the cultural institutions we have in the Asian community with the paradigms taken from the Guggenheim or the MET?” he asks, referring to the Metropolitan Museum of Art. “Or should we find something in what Think!Chinatown or the W.O.W. Project is doing? Something that can be a paradigm for a different way of operating?”
The Museum of Chinese in America not only emerged from Basement Workshop, it emerged from the left-behind belongings found on Chinatown curbsides. Charlie Lai and Jack Tchen met at Basement in 1976 and began noticing a phenomenon as the neighborhood rapidly shifted following the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965: sidewalk garbage cans filled with community artifacts, such as a leather suitcase full of Chinese slippers, letters written in Chinese from wives back home who were prohibited from joining their husbands in the U.S., and store signs of departing merchants.
The pair kept rummaging through garbage — sometimes with residents threatening to call the police — and formed the New York Chinatown History Project in 1980 with the goal of documenting the lives of Chinese residents in New York City. In 1984, they moved their collection to the former school building at 70 Mulberry Street, which had been renovated into a community center for the neighborhood.
This collection evolved into the Museum of Chinese in America, showing exhibits out of 70 Mulberry until moving to 215 Centre Street in 2009. (Its 85,000-item collection was kept at 70 Mulberry until the fire.) Since then, the museum has worked to permanently secure its space on Centre Street — as opposed to leasing it — and establish itself as a social history museum for Asian Americans across the country.
This hasn’t been the only quest for dedicated cultural space in Chinatown. In 2003 a group of cultural organizers formed the coalition CREATE in Chinatown to secure a dedicated performing arts center for the community. The stakes felt high: rent was increasing, making it harder for longtime arts groups to maintain a physical presence in the neighborhood, and the community was suffering following the post-September 11th collapse of the garment industry, a primary anchor of employment.
Amy Chin, a longtime cultural organizer and current board president of Think!Chinatown, co-founded CREATE. “There was a network that did work together, but one by one they all lost their space,” she says, surrounded by the bustle of a small Hong Kong-style cafe on Canal Street. For many years she led the New York Chinese Cultural Center, which lost its 5,000-square-foot loft in 2014 due to rising rent.
From her seat at the cafe, she points to an inconspicuous building across the street — an abandoned 2,300-seat theater that CREATE in Chinatown toured as one potential space. “That building has been vacant for decades,” she says. “And I guess it’s almost representative of how the community values the arts but has been unwilling to put capital behind it.” CREATE in Chinatown conducted a feasibility study, had government funding lined up to seed the effort, but could not secure a commitment from a property owner.
The lack of dedicated cultural space is exacerbated by the discrimination that local arts groups face, and how limited funding and resources result in competition and tensions. “What American society, and the funding sources, think of as art is incompatible with how art and culture really happens in a community, especially in an ethnic community, for lack of a better word,” Chin explains.
Whereas established, white-led institutions primarily receive funding based on multiple categories of artistic discipline, like dance or theater, Chin saw the diverse work of “multi-cultural” groups lumped together to then compete for an already-inadequate apportionment of funding. “My argument was that these organizations are serving whole communities and across disciplines,” she says of the work in Chinatown. “And that budget should be equal to all the different discipline programs added together. But it never was, it was always less.”
On top of those struggles, white-led galleries have increasingly opened outposts in Chinatown, further accelerating gentrification and driving up real estate costs. (In 2016, more than 100 galleries were open in the neighborhood, and 60% of them had opened within the previous three years.) “Now all these galleries are coming into Chinatown,” says Chin, whose work has revolved around the fact that art has always been here. “All of a sudden people say, ‘Oh, there’s art in Chinatown!’ Yeah, well, fuck you!”
The Museum of Chinese in America has navigated these questions and challenges, too, in navigating the institutional, white-led art world. Their path toward establishing themselves as a national museum has caused increased tension around its role as a community partner.
“New York City is a very tricky, tricky arts and cultural funding space,” Nancy Maasbach, MOCA’s president, details over the phone. Since 2016, MOCA has applied for capital funds through the Department of Cultural Affairs. Capital funding is an initial step toward what MOCA hopes is a designation as a cultural-institutions group, or CIG, which would open the door to more city funding and a more sustainable, permanent model.
This 2014 photo shows the original storage space for MOCA's collection of artifacts. (Photo courtesy of MOCA)
While the CIG calls itself “diverse,” it doesn’t include a single Asian American organization. “Chinatown and Asian American communities have never been part of the CIG, they’ve never gotten this kind of funding,” Maasbach says, referring to the kind of money required for MOCA to establish itself as a permanent museum. Organizations in the CIG must own their buildings, then transfer building ownership to the city of New York, a process MOCA spent years trying to crack with limited city support.
Then, the announcement from then-Mayor de Blasio came in October 2019: cultural funding, including funding to buy 215 Centre Street for MOCA, wrapped into the larger, borough-based jails proposal to replace the central jail complex on Rikers Island. The money wouldn’t go directly to MOCA, but through Department of Cultural Affairs capital funding to the seller of the property.
Maasbach says the museum never agreed with the city to receive funding through the jail plan: “People say I had backdoor dealings with the mayor. The mayor does not know me and I’ve never had a backdoor dealing.” (There’s disagreement within the Chinatown community regarding the degree to which MOCA representatives advocated for their piece of the funding pie.)
Tensions only grew as the next two years through the pandemic played out. By the time MOCA reopened after a year-long shutdown, with a new exhibit called Responses: Asian American Voices Resisting The Tides Of Racism, protestors outside chanted “Boycott MOCA” through a bullhorn and pressed posters against museum windows.
Rocky Chin is a civil rights attorney and former board president of the Asian American Arts Alliance who began organizing in Chinatown in the 1970s. He notes that the questions and challenges around city funding, and the trade-offs involved, have been present since the days of Basement Workshop. Today he worries that MOCA has become the unfair scapegoat during a time of momentous upheaval. He and 70 others started a petition to “appeal for healing at MOCA and Chinatown,” a plea to redirect the fight against the borough-based jails to City Hall.
But many others, from longtime cultural organizers to young residents, have taken strong stances against the museum. The Godzilla art collective decided to withdraw their work from a planned MOCA retrospective because of the museum’s perceived complicity in the jail plan. Chinatown Art Brigade sent a letter to MOCA demanding that the museum reject the funding and publicly oppose the jail. Past MOCA staff also penned an open letter outlining their concerns about the museum expansion.
“What American society, and the funding sources, think of as art is incompatible with how art and culture really happens in a community, especially in an ethnic community.”
Chinese Opera in the CCBA basement auditorium. (Photo by Emily Nonko)
“We can see how art and culture is so tied into development and investment in Chinatown,” says Arai, whose work under Chinatown Art Brigade has raised awareness of displacement in the neighborhood. “The ways in which MOCA has art-washed a really questionable concession from the city, connected to a jail plan, is exactly what will happen throughout the community if we’re not careful.”
“I’ve been at my desk and broken down in tears,” Maasbach says of the last two years, now fighting back tears over the phone. “The hardest part is continuing. For me and for the team to step back and say, where are the wounds in this situation? We need to be better and more compassionate about why this is all happening.”
Two more projects shine additional light on what public funding might mean for the community. In October 2021, the city announced $170 million to rebuild 70 Mulberry and maintain it as a community and cultural hub. One month later, the state of New York announced $20 million for a post-COVID revitalization effort in the neighborhood.
70 Mulberry Street has long housed five local nonprofits, including longtime tenant MOCA, which held its archives there. (MOCA recovered most of its archives post-fire in a massive effort.) More recently it became a site of collective community visioning — and once again, the need for a dedicated performing arts center emerged. CCBA President Justin Yu points out the basement theater at the Chinese Community Center doesn’t have elevators: “For the older generation who would like to enjoy, they can’t,” he says. “At 70 Mulberry Street, we propose to have at least a performing center there that’s modern, since we don’t have an elevator and we’re highly demanded.”
Think!Chinatown has also been intimately involved in how 70 Mulberry is reinvented. The summer following the fire, when the fate of the building was unsure, the organization helped organize a rally harnessing the community’s overwhelming desire to preserve it as a cultural center. Soon after the mayor announced a funding commitment, the formation of the 70 Mulberry Advisory Committee and a 90-day community visioning process, a process Think!Chinatown actively documented on its website.
Think!Chinatown’s vision for 70 Mulberry would expand accessibility of the space to include a new generation of cultural organizers. “There wasn’t an intentional sharing of space or seeing how resources could be shared among the community,” Kong says of the past set-up. “It hasn’t been a place where people go to hang out — there’s so much possibility with the new vision.”
She believes, however, the city must increase transparency around the process and include more opportunities for meaningful community engagement: “There’s no centralized source of information … We shouldn’t have to chase the city to get answers to things they’re supposed to tell us.” While the city couldn’t provide a project “point person” for an interview, a press representative outlined how work on the project is active, with the Department of Design and Construction developing a solicitation for building design vendors to complete the initial design work.
During a free program at Chinatown Arts Week 2021, Richard Chang portrays Wong Chin Foo at 21 Pell Street, steps from where Wong founded the “Chinese American” newspaper in 1883 and the Chinese Theatre (5-7 Doyers St). Wong wielded pen and pulpit to fight against the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and urged members of the community to become citizens and vote. (Photo by Edward Cheng)
The $20 million in state funding will help the neighborhood “build on its history as a cultural destination in order to preserve and return the neighborhood to a vibrant downtown area,” according to a press release by Governor Kathy Hochul. The community visioning process will kick off this year.
For a portion of the $20 million funding, Think!Chinatown and other community groups pitched a vision to transform Forsyth Plaza — the site of the Chinatown Nights popups — into an arts and cultural site, where regular night markets showcase local art and incubate food vendors.
The groups have also discussed how the underutilized city-owned property, the East Broadway Mall, can be the site for a business incubator and performing arts space. “It would really become an anchor,” Kong envisions. Think has never had a formal office, but will build its first studio space this year. “I’m dreaming personally of finally having a space for ourselves there, to build our studio and office space around a kitchen.”
Rebuilding 70 Mulberry still requires momentum and continued community engagement with the city; allocating the $20 million state funding depends on upcoming community engagement. “It’s always been about work that’s rooted in the neighborhood,” Chin says of what’s ahead. “If we can just keep that feeling, and expand on it as a foundation, we will achieve what we set out to do.”
I ask Bob Lee, during a long and winding interview at his office, if he recognizes the energy of Basement Workshop in the cultural organizing happening today. “Well, yes,” he responds. He talks about a recent exhibit, titled HEARTMIND, which took place in the back room of well-known Chinatown retailer Pearl River Mart and the vacant storefront at 1 Pike Street.
To assemble HEARTMIND, Think!Chinatown brought three young curators to the Asian American Arts Centre to go through its archives with Lee and select what resonated most in the current cultural climate. “The whole idea is that we’re in a renaissance of discovery and exploration of Asian American identity, and a lot of the younger people, who are newly thinking about this, don’t actually understand the depth of our history,” Kong says of the effort.
The East Broadway Mall, which Think!Chinatown hopes to convert into a business incubator and cultural hub. (Photo by Emily Nonko)
The curators, Lee says, “chose so many things that I would have never thought would be capable of bringing across the message of what is Asian American art, who are we, and what is our community about?” Those questions seem to resonate as powerfully today as they did during the upheaval of the 1970s.
“An Ode to Our Generations: Remembering the Music and Memories of Yellow Pearl and Basement Workshop” is another Think!Chinatown project to explore past work and connect it to present day through oral history, song and storytelling. For Rochelle Kwan, Think’s storytelling lead, the experience prompted her own questioning around identity and community: “I’m excited to invite more people into our work, including myself,” she says. “I hope that all of this work feels more like an invitation for people to be a part of it, explore what it means to talk with each other, and use these spaces just to be joyful.”
Last year’s exhibition, Souls of Chinatown: Passion, Hope, Resilience, brought together Basement and Godzilla members Tomie Arai and Arlan Huang with the W.O.W. Project, Think!Chinatown, Art Against Displacement and other local organizations and artists to highlight people in the neighborhood who were dedicated to the community.
“I brought work that I had done 40 years ago and work I had done more recently,” Arai says. “It was the first time in a long time I could share my work as an artist with the neighborhood … it was a great occasion to think about old work and that question of what kind of impact artists can have on the neighborhood.”
It also seems like cultural organizers are taking up the challenge of creating, as Lee put it, “a paradigm for a different way of operating.” Arai, speaking of the work by Chinatown Art Brigade, says, “I think this moment has allowed us to rethink how we can work together not just as cultural workers, but how we bring that in a meaningful way into the lives of other people.” Chinatown Art Brigade — which is developing an abolitionist framework tied to issues of gentrification, labor, immigration, healthcare and the other issues that uphold capitalism and white supremacy — aims to utilize that framework in advancing opposition to the city’s borough-based jail plan.
For Think!Chinatown, the hope is to secure new, accessible community space to finally house this work, as a first step in anchoring this latest wave of cultural organizing. Such a vision echoes the early days of Basement Workshop — flexible community space, not tied to any one program or discipline, a blend of arts and culture with the everyday lives of Chinatown residents. This newest space might not be in a basement, but the organizers know full well the history they’re building from.
The work hasn’t come full circle, exactly, but it’s intersecting in a way that’s preparing young Chinatown organizers for what’s ahead. In one Ode to Our Generations recording, Think!Chinatown members Kong and Kwan discuss the act of creation across generations, with musician Treya Lam and Basement member Arlan Huang.
Huang reflects back to them: “I see history as cylindrical, it’s not from past to the future … things never repeat, but you bump into the same things along the way and they’re all different.”
He addresses them: “What a journey. It’s just starting really, right?”
“I feel like it’s going to be a long path, so I just want to be ready for it,” Lam tells him.
“It’s your time,” he responds, “And it is the best time.”
This article is part of “For Whom, By Whom,” a series of articles about how creative placemaking can expand opportunities for low-income people living in disinvested communities. This series is generously underwritten by the Kresge Foundation.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated to clarify who is speaking in the final anecdote.