Episode 28: Chinatown Art Brigade

(un)making

Episode 28: Chinatown Art Brigade

By Weston Teruya April 11, 2018

Weston Teruya welcomes artists, arts administrators, and cultural workers of color to get real about their lives, practices, and careers. Each episode is an in-depth look into how art gets made, but more importantly how these folks are seeing to the system of art’s (UN)making.


This episode features a conversation with Tomie Arai, ManSee Kong, and Betty Yu from the New York-based cultural organizing and activist collective, Chinatown Art Brigade. The three co-founded the group with the help of social justice movement building organization, CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, who wanted to develop a culturally rooted complement to their tenant organizing work in Manhattan’s Chinatown. All three are from New York and have deep connections to the neighborhood: Tomie is a longtime public artist who has been creating work in the community for decades. She was one of the core members of formative Asian American arts collectives like the Basement Workshop in the 1970s and Godzilla in the ’90s. ManSee came up as a youth organizer in the neighborhood and became a filmmaker to facilitate the telling of stories of social movements, grassroots organizing, and families in her community. Betty is a filmmaker, media educator, and organizer who has created work to share the stories of garment workers like her parents.

Together, with the other members of the collective, they create public platforms through which neighborhood residents can tell their stories, articulate their demands, and assert their presence in a rapidly gentrifying area. Some of the most visible of these tactics have been projector interventions on the facades of buildings in partnership with the Illuminator, but also include workshops, resident-led mapping projects, a language justice project that builds bridges with transnational students and workers, and a pledge outlining tangible steps for allies and newcomers to Chinatown who want to resist their participation in the gentrification of the neighborhood.

In the art world, Chinatown Art Brigade has most recently been visible for the protests they mobilized in response to the Omer Fast exhibition at James Cohan Gallery that displayed the artist’s narrow perception of a dilapidated Chinatown storefront business. The show exemplified the severe disconnect between high end galleries and the neighborhood they are gentrifying—fetishizing an aesthetic of blight; a community and culture depicted as stripped away, ready to receive the boon of new development. But as Chinatown Art Brigade notes in our conversation, the gallery protest and even the larger influx of 130 galleries in the neighborhood is only the most visible edge of a much larger process of displacement and systemic disenfranchisement.


*Full disclosure: I originally invited Chinatown Art Brigade out to Oakland to present as part of the Kenneth Rainin Foundation’s Exploring Public Art Practices Symposium I co-organized in March, which enabled us to have this conversation after the symposium. Even though we have a bit more of an entwined presenter relationship than with most interviews, I think it’s critical to be able to share Chinatown Art Brigade’s perspective on cultural organizing work here.

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Chinatown Art Brigade is a cultural collective of artists, media makers, and activists creating art and media to advance social justice. Their work is driven by the fundamental belief that collaboration with and accountability to those communities that are directly impacted by racial, social and economic inequities must be central to our cultural, art, or media making process. Chinatown Art Brigade collaborates with the Chinatown Tenants Union of CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities (http://www.caaav.org), a grassroots non-profit that organizes low-income pan-Asian communities around tenant rights, fighting evictions and displacement. Follow Chinatown Art Brigade’s work on Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook.

Tomie Arai is a public artist who collaborates with writers, architects, historians, curators, and local communities to create work that explores the rich cultural diversity of the Americas. She has designed permanent public works of art for the NYC PerCent for Art Program, The San Francisco Arts Commission, the MTA Arts for Transit Program, the NYC Board of Education and the US General Services Administration Art in Architecture Program.  Her latest public commission will be an architectural glass mural for the new Central Subway Station in San Francisco Chinatown, sponsored by SFMTA.

ManSee Kong creates films and videos inspired by stories of liberation and justice from grassroots organizing campaigns and narratives grounded in social movements. Current directorial projects include a feature documentary about Pvt. Danny Chen, a 19 year-old who died after being racially and physically hazed by fellow soldiers during his deployment in Afghanistan, and “Chinatown Tenant Stories”, a video series about gentrification and displacement through the voices of low-income immigrant residents of Manhattan Chinatown.

Betty Yu is a multimedia artist, filmmaker, educator and activist raised in Sunset Park, Brooklyn to Chinese immigrant parents. Ms. Yu's documentary “Resilience” about her garment worker mother fighting sweatshop conditions, screened at  film festivals including the Margaret Mead Film and Video Festival. Yu’s multi-media installation, “The Garment Worker” was featured at Tribeca Film Institute’s Interactive. She co-created "Monument to Anti-Displacement Organizing" that was in the Agitprop! show at Brooklyn Museum. Betty was a 2012 Artist-in-Resident and received the 2016 SOAPBOX Artist Award from Laundromat Project. Betty won the 2017 Aronson Journalism for Social Justice Documentary Award for her film, "Three Tours".

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This episode is funded in part by the California Arts Council, a state agency.

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