DOWNTOWN LOS ANGELES - In a new exhibit at the Chinese American Museum about Chinatown, one might expect the historic district’s iconography — red lanterns, golden dragons and pagoda-style architecture — to predominate.
But in (de)constructing Chinatown, a new multimedia show featuring the work of eight artists, images of the iconic Chinatown are barely present.
Instead, the exhibit, which runs through Nov. 4, channels a variety of alternative perspectives to explore the neighborhood’s more overlooked spaces. In some cases, the focus is more on the dim underbelly of an area whose red- and gold-painted façade is as far as most outsiders look.
“Most of what the museum has done in the past has really focused on traditional history of the Los Angeles Chinatown,” said Michael Duchemin, the museum’s executive director. “So with this show, we really wanted to focus on a more contemporary view of Chinatown today so we could then compare and contrast with those more traditional views.”
While all the featured artists are currently based in Los Angeles, they span a wide range of backgrounds and ethnicities, coming from as far as Iceland and from as close as a couple of blocks from the museum.
Chinatown advocate David Louie, who sits on the El Pueblo de Los Angeles Historical Monument Commission, said the show helps get beyond Chinese restaurants and tourist attractions
“Many folks don’t have an impression of the neighborhood outside of coming down to Chinatown to have dim sum or going to one of the clubs,” Louie said. “But to various members of the community, Chinatown has been much more than that.”
To both Louie and featured artist Betty Lee, Chinatown was where their immigrant fathers started businesses, took up residence and found their niches in American society. For artists Mathew Winkler and Audrey Chan, Chinatown’s galleries were a gateway to Los Angeles’ art scene as emerging young artists.
“We do shows that we hope the Chinese American community will appreciate but we’re also trying to reach out to a much broader audience,” Duchemin said. “A show like this allows us to do that because all the artists are not Chinese American. They’re from many different backgrounds so there are a variety of perspectives — often very whimsical perspectives.”
Something for Everyone
Growing up somewhat isolated from a Chinese American community in Chicago, Chan’s parents gave her flashcards to learn Mandarin as a child.
The simplified imagery on them stuck with her and were part of the basis of her video work, Chinatown Abecedario (Spanish for alphabet). Chan drew simple images for all 26 letters of the English alphabet and wrote a line of alliteration about one aspect of Chinatown that began with each letter.
She then scanned and animated the images, and translated the text into Spanish, Mandarin and Cantonese, looping the series of “moving flashcards” to play continuously in all four languages, with the hope that all the museums’ visitors would be able to understand at least one language.
“Even if just on a more abstract level, I want people to not see languages as a barrier so much, and I wanted it to read like a language lesson — it’s purposefully very didactic, almost like Sesame Street, which I like,” Chan said.
The content — 26 different facts about Chinatown — illustrate both the history of the area and some of the neighborhood’s more contemporary phenomena.
While Chan’s project has the look and feel of a simple language lesson, the statements about Chinatown aren’t necessarily neutral. The language in the work includes lines about xenophobia and cultural clashes.
No Place Like Home
Some of the works showcase the landscape and architecture of Chinatown such as Winkler’s drawings of several points on College Street, or James Rojas’ scale model of the neighborhood.
Other works, like Lee’s photographs, introduce audiences to a cast of lesser-known Chinatown characters, people she met while helping her father run the Home Café in the 1970s and 80s.
“Like many other Chinese immigrants, my parents went into livelihoods like laundries, restaurants, grocery stores — they had two out of three,” Lee said. “I grew up in a laundry and my dark aesthetic probably comes from being there all the time.”
Lee used photos she took in the 1980s, as well as a few staged ones taken recently, placing images of the café’s regulars in front of old photos of the restaurant itself.
There’s a café regular dubbed Mr. Miserable because of his lackluster attitude, a Home Café employee nicknamed “Little Cow” and a homesick college student who visited the restaurant for comfort.
Then there are the darker figures — the men who passed red envelopes for extortion and the robber who pulled a knife while Lee worked the cash register one day.
“I would hope that the characters give Chinatown a little bit more dimension,” she said. “Not everyone knows about the extortion, the consistent robberies, the homesick people.”
There are several events connected with the exhibit slated to take place over the next few months, including a panel discussion on Aug. 16 with Chinatown community leaders and scholars; an interactive art workshop led by Chan on September 23; and a tour and discussion with the artists on Oct. 28.
Other artists whose work is on display are Phung Huynh, Shizu Saldamando, Michael Sakamoto and Heimir Bjorgulfsson.
The museum is open Tuesday through Sunday from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Suggested admission is $3 for adults and $2 for seniors and students. At 425 N. Los Angeles St., (213) 485-8567 or camla.org.
© Los Angeles Downtown News 2012