Box Burners


How We Stay

Placekeeping can take many forms. For the young organizers of New York's Chinatown community, it's an act of resistance. As higher rents and unfamiliar businesses made their way into their neighborhood, locals turned to community gatherings, art and education in a shared solidarity to stay. "How We Stay" sees this change through the lens of Wing on Wo and the Chinatown Art Brigade.

AIRED: March 26, 2020 | 0:10:52

[ Indistinct conversations ]

We are part of the Chinatown Art Brigade.

We're doing a mapping project to preserve some of the memories

that people have with the space, with Chinatown.

A place that you know is not there anymore and you miss

'cause of maybe high rents

or something from way in the past

or even just even yesterday

or something that's still there that you're really fond of

that's, like, a part -- like, a staple

or character of Chinatown.

Can you put this one right next to Golden Carriage Bakery?

This one?

Right next to it?

[ Indistinct conversations ]



Gary: We stand and face the storefront,

and we view the world like it's a fishbowl.

That's the fishbowl outside to us.

And for all the people who are looking into our shop

and looking at our life and what we live

and our movements as a fishbowl.

So it's a mutual way of looking at each other's worlds.

Hello, hello. How are you today?

-Good. -Alright.

Of course. Yes, yeah. Mm-hmm.

This business was founded

by my wife's great-grandfather back in 1890,

and it was located a half a block away.

Back in the day, it sold Japanese goods

and Chinese dry goods and canned goods,

a meeting place for immigrants

to speak of their familiar foods,

their familiar living standard in China,

their family, the village.


Our primary goal in the space

has been maintaining this lifestyle,

preserving the culture of our family,

perpetuating a rhythm and ritual that we all enjoy

and has given us a sense of security

in the midst of change around us.



There are so many places recently

that have shuttered in Chinatown.

Specifically on Mott Street,

there's a bookstore called Ming Fay Books,

like, just one block up on Mott

between Pell and Bayard.

And that spot is my --

has always been the place where my grandma goes

to buy her newspaper every morning.

So when she learned that that was closing down

and she wouldn't be able to go there anymore,

she was like, "Oh," like, "where am I gonna go?"

And for her, you know, over the years

and living through all these changes in Chinatown,

it's like, "Okay, well, I guess I just need to carry on

and figure something out."


Wow, when did that close?

This summer. It closed in July.

And you know what's there now?

Tourist souvenir shop.

Oh, really? Another one.

I've been reading, you know, like, Mindy Fullilove,

like, her work, and she talks about just, like,

disruption within communities.

And, like, most people think, "Oh, well,

the physical disruption, that's one thing,"

where people talk about gentrification

as just the physical aspect of being dislocated.

But then the mental trauma, the psychological trauma,

which super hard to document.

Fullilove: The reality of living with the loss

of something as large as a well-functioning neighborhood,

that loss is almost impossible to put into words.

Their special homes that they've worked so hard to have

are gonna be bulldozed,

that their churches are gonna be destroyed,

that their networks of kinship and friendship

are gonna be dispersed.

This is all hovering over their heads.

To lose the place of those things

creates a deep, deep grief in our hearts

that we cannot escape, we cannot assuage.




Mei: When you grow up with something your whole life,

you never really realize how special or unique it is,

because you take it for granted

and you expect that it's always gonna be here.

I had spoken to my dad,

and he had told me that they had decided

to put the building on the market and shutter.

And that could mean, you know,

this place could be replaced by a large luxury tower.

It could be a bank.

It could be a business

that's not for the people that are from here.

And we would be contributing to that by letting this go.

And so I spoke to my dad and my grandmother and said,

you know, "What would you think if I just maybe tried it out

and just, like, run the shop?"

Wong: I definitely sensed something different

walking into here immediately --

the energy and the sense that this place has been here

for a very long time and that it was special.

And I ended up talking to Mei

just about their relationship with the store,

what it was like growing up here.

We sat in the kitchen thinking about

what it would mean to create a community initiative

that was grounded from inside the store

to really address issues like gentrification and displacement.

Gary: You go online, we have a website and social media.

My daughter brought us into the 21st century.

So it's been whiplash the past three years.

Mei: You know, it's something that's very nontraditional.

In that way, we're trying to challenge folks

to think outside of the box

with how a storefront can contribute to a neighborhood.

We're thinking about, you know, how this place,

the storefront can be a site of storytelling

and cultural production and resistance.



It's very inspiring to hear the new generation coming up

and having inspiring ideas about what to do to reach out,

to be a part of the community and help.

Mei: At the same time, this is also kind of, you know,

a regeneration of an idea

that has always existed in our community.

General stores were very common,

and general stores were used as community hubs.

This is something that is in line with honoring our legacy.

Sometimes I think with, like, art and culture,

it can help unleash an imagination

that gives us permission to imagine

in a way that we wouldn't be able to.

And I think one thing that was really inspiring,

I think, for Chinatown Art Brigade

is what you've done in this space here at Wing on Wo.

You decided to not only keep the store open,

but also create a space to really foster

more of a community-oriented next generation,

just a community space for folks to have talks and sessions.

And you're doing an artist-in-residency program.

I mean, amazing.

[ Drum playing ]





I think before W.O.W., I thought of art and activism

as being extremely separate

because a lot of the art that I encountered

was very detached from the community.

If it doesn't happen in conjunction

with direct organizing,

I don't think it will save us,

but I think it's definitely integral

to changing the hearts and minds of people.

It's how we communicate.

It's how people, you know, become receptive to new ideas.

We're all, like, interweaving our stories together,

and we're presenting it to people who also want to share,

who also have personal stories

that they would like to share with us.

And I think that's really powerful.

Everyone is involved, and you would start to feel

like you're at home with everyone around you

because they're sharing the same ideas.

And through art, like, you're really expressing yourself

and what you feel is valuable to you.

Woman: That's how art is gonna contribute to community health

and us flourishing as, you know, groups of people living together

and trying to make it in the world.



[ Indistinct conversations ]


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