Bulls in a China Shop:
The Asian-American Struggle for Place
Chinatown, one of the most iconic neighborhoods in New York City, is disappearing. Walking along the streets of the Lower East Side, you’ll find more empty windows and shops each year. In English and in different Asian languages, signs, banners, and flyers are everywhere. “CLOSED PERMANENTLY. STOP DISPLACEMENT. STOP GENTRIFICATION. STOP DEVELOPMENT.” Historically, residents of Chinatown have been vocal and active when it comes to the preservation of their community—even in the face of exclusion and marginalization. There are several reasons why they have been resilient in fending off wealthy developers and sociopolitical dislocation, but the one that interests me the most is the vehicle of food.
Ethnic cuisines keep Chinatown and other predominantly Asian-American enclaves alive not only because the restaurant industry is one of the most important economic pillars of these communities, but also because they constitute a key source of identity. As uplifted by an exhibit at the Museum of Chinese in America, food is a gateway to the world of Asian-America. So ingrained into how we view ourselves and our cultures, the balance of sour, sweet, bitter, and spicy defines our cuisine, but, most importantly, it embodies “the ups and downs of life.” Besides funding Asian political activism, cuisine acts as a material representation of Asian culture and identity. It articulates how Asian-Americans view and distinguish themselves and how they define values.
Through my project, I explore the relationship between community, identity, and the American imagination in shaping this fast-changing neighborhood’s past, present, and future. By exploring how food is central to the construction of these communities’ collective identity and mobilization, I will highlight their needs, their growth, and their struggle against gentrification. As Chinatown shrinks and fights eviction from its historical roots, technology such as virtual reality, the vehicle for my research project, is vital in the neighborhood’s documentation. The fluidity of virtual reality helps highlight the duality of Chinatown as a place frozen in time yet ever-changing. Additionally, as a companion and an extension of the virtual reality, I intend on creating an interactive website that will contribute to the visually immersive experience. Through telling Chinatown’s story in this fashion—translating information sourced from literature, oral histories, community events, city archives, museums, and field research into an experiential multimedia work that highlights the complexity of this highly racialized space—I hope to bring the neighborhood to life on a digital level.