The term "Chinatown" often conjures stereotypical images of narrow streets filled with people and a colorful riot of signage. But it means so much more than that.
The Chinatown of my childhood meant weekend trips to visit my grandparents, dim sum, grocery shopping, birthdays, weddings, Chinese New Year, egg tarts, steamed lobster. From the mundane moments of filling orange plastic bags with greens at the vegetable stands, to the excitement of getting a white sponge cake to mark a celebration, so much of that Chinatown was filled with family and vivid sense memories.
It wasn't so simple as I grew older. I was influenced by my father's attitude, who has always seen Chinatown as the place to get away from, and the only measure of success was to leave. I was born and raised in the Jersey suburbs so my experience growing up was much more "mall rat" than "street smart". So I struggled with feeling simultaneously an outsider to Chinatown because I hadn't been a resident with added language/class/education barriers, while feeling deeply connected to a place I've been going to regularly all my life.
As an adult, I realized how important Chinatown was to me, and I've been excited about the ways that it's changed and grown. But I've also been increasingly concerned about the effects of gentrification and how it impacts older generations and the unique culture. My connection is mainly through my family and regular visits to my grandmother, and I had been thinking about how my tenuous connection to Chinatown will change when my grandmother inevitably passes away. I wanted to find a way to participate, but so many organizations didn't feel like the right place for me because of the complexities of identity, and the shame in not feeling "authentic", that I was navigating.
And it's around that time that I found out about Wing On Wo. It seems like I've always walked by a stretch of Mott Street where Wing On Wo sits, catty corner from the Catholic school that my dad attended as a kid, on my way to somewhere else. I hadn't specifically ever noticed the shop, it's one of many that make up the fabric of Chinatown. Mei's efforts to save her family's business and found the W.O.W. project put that bit of Mott Street into a whole different light. It was like the beginning of the Wizard of Oz when Dorothy goes from a black and white world into Technicolor. W.O.W. brought up and articulated so many of the complex feelings and concerns that I had about Chinatown and my relationship to it.
Feeling this resonance led to my first donation to the W.O.W. Project to support their programs. I popped into the shop to pick up my donor "reward", and I had a long chat with Gary, Mei's dad, who helps run the shop. Turns out he went to the same Catholic school as my dad, a few years apart. Suddenly I felt a connection; Chinatown was more than a place, it became an opportunity for community.
Last year I jumped at the chance to join the Chinatown Book Club, which W.O.W. sponsored and donated space for. I feel so fortunate to have met and become friends with some folks in the book club, and we come from so many different places and have a multiplicity of relationships with Chinatown. It's a space where we could discuss Asian American histories that are often overlooked or dismissed: the fight for residents to stay in the International Hotel, the laundrymen in Chinatown who politically organized in the early to mid 1900s, the coolies who had been forced into labor in Cuba, the paper sons who passed through Angel Island. We should all be aware of these histories, as they offer lessons to draw on as Americans to not make the same mistakes again. I felt that it could not just be a way to build community within Chinatown, but a foundation for a dialogue and solidarity with other marginalized groups in imagining and creating a future that is more just and equitable.
I've come to appreciate my complex relationship with Chinatown and how the meaning has evolved for me over the years. Earlier, I had seen things in an "either/or" measure of "authenticity", when everything actually exists in many nuanced ways. Chinatown is a community, it's an idea, it's a culture, and certainly extends beyond physical boundaries. It's Chinese AND American. It increasingly needs to be connected to and support Black and brown communities that face similar and diverse challenges. By embracing the complexities, there's more room and opportunities for Chinatown to flourish and grow in the future, on the community's terms.
July 20th, 2020: Chinatown is in jeopardy because of the ongoing pandemic. I know this is a tough time to be asking for money, but it's so important to support grassroots organizations like W.O.W. who are doing the work to build community and solidarity. This is W.O.W.'s four year anniversary and as part of that they're running a fundraiser for community programming and giving 50% of funds raised to an initiative that supports NYC Chinatown’s resiliency in the wake of COVID-19 and Communities United for Police Reform, an NYC campaign fighting for community safety and police accountability.
To help fundraise for W.O.W., I'm giving away a framed 8 1/2 x 11 print from the Ching Ming Project if you can help me collectively raise at least $1000. I'll randomly select a person who has donated in any amount, send me a photo of your donation receipt and I'll enter you in the drawing.
Pu-erh, time, and reflection.