“Dogman” Sculpture Stirs Controversy in Chinatown (Updated)

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Just as Lunar New Year celebrations are beginning in Chinatown, controversy has erupted over a statue that was supposed to be unveiled in Chatham Square this week.

The Chinatown Partnership and Chinatown BID commissioned the Australian artists Gillie and Marc Schattner to create the, “Good Fortune Dog,” part of their “Travel Everywhere with Love” global sculpture project. But the “Dogman” installation was cancelled after Chinatown activists launched an online petition, arguing that the sculpture, to be placed in Kimlau Square, is culturally insensitive.

According to the petition, initiated by well-known local arts advocate Amy Chin, it would have been demeaning to place the statue, “under the Arch named for Lt. Benjamin R. Kimlau,” who died in World War II fighting for the United States. “This insulting image of a ‘Dog-Man’ has no place next to this sacred and solemn community site where we honor our community heroes.” Questions have also been raised about the process used to select the project for one of the neighborhood’s most visible public spaces.

Wellington Chen, head of the Partnership and BID, told The Lo-Down earlier this week that the unveiling was cancelled due to the controversy and his organizations are now paying to store the 900 pound statue. While efforts are being made to install the piece somewhere else, finding a new location has not been an easy task.

The installation was planned in collaboration with “Art in the Parks,” a program administered by the NYC Parks Department. Reps from the city agency appeared before Community Board 3’s parks committee last Thursday night, offering project details. A handout explained:

The Dogman sculpture will be holding a beautiful red apple. Since 3 is a lucky number during the Year of the Dog, the apple will feature 3 leaves. In Chinese, the word for an apple is ping, the homonym of which is peace. Especially in today’s day and age, the apple symbolizing peace holds particular significance, and will help spread the message of diversity and acceptance for all beings.

Kimlau Square. Photo via Explore Chinatown website.

Kimlau Square. Photo via Explore Chinatown website.

The Parks Department was not seeking the community’s approval, and there was no vote last week. Karlin Chan, a Chinatown activist, is a member of the parks committee, and he was on hand for the meeting. While the Parks Dept. reps did indicate a general location for the statue, Chan said they were not specific. During the meeting, Chan said he took notice of the “Dogman’s” western-style suit and lack of Chinese imagery and symbolism.  He is among the more than 500 people who have signed the online petition.

In the Chinese press, Chan told us, the board has come under criticism for failing to oppose the installation (Chan is the only Chinatown resident on the committee). He pointed out that not a single member of the Chinatown community came to the meeting. Chan argued that opponents of the sculpture had an obligation to show up and speak out, rather than simply relying on the community board to advocate for their points-of-view.

Another longtime activist, Jan Lee, has been critical of the community board’s role in vetting the “Dogman” sculpture. Parks Department officials routinely appear before local community boards to provide information about public art installations, but the agency never asks for their approval. Lee says, however, that board members, appointed by local elected officials, obviously have a responsibility to represent the community’s best interests. Even if the city doesn’t invite it, board reps should be the neighborhood’s “fail safe,” pushing back against projects that fail to reflect local values, said Lee. Separately, he also objects to the Chinatown BID’s efforts to position itself as the local arbiter of public art. The organization, he believes, had an obligation in this case to consult with members of the community, including Chinatown-based arts organizations.

Wellington Chen said his organizations have the utmost respect for war veterans. The Lt. B.R. Kimlau/American Legion Post 1291 was consulted beforehand about the sculpture. Chen noted that Gillie & Marc’s sculptures have been embraced around the world, and have been displayed in numerous locations throughout New York City without incident. He pointed to the artists’ mission statement, which explains, “Gillie and Marc’s beloved Rabbitgirl and Dogman tell the autobiographical tale of two opposites coming together to become best friends and soulmates. Without a definitive race, religion, or culture, they symbolize the acceptance of all people as one.”

Chen said he sees the controversy over the sculpture as counterproductive and self-defeating. The only goal, he said, was to bring a highly regarded art work to the neighborhood, and to create some much-needed foot traffic in the area.

A spokesperson for the Parks Department said, “Parks supports the Chinatown Partnership’s decision to find an alternative location for this public artwork, and we are working closely with them to accommodate its installation as soon as possible.”

UPDATE 2/19 Although we contacted Amy Chin, who started the petition, before publishing this article, she was unable to respond immediately due to the Lunar New Year holiday. Chin replied to us over the weekend, saying that the petition was started on Tuesday, after she heard from several concerned local residents. They were angry, and determined to start a petition, but lacked language/computer skills, so Chin helped set up the campaign. Chin points out that she and others strongly support the presence of public art in Chinatown. However, she believes there should always be, “an open process with more community engagement and input, especially from local arts lovers, artists and arts organizations.” The Chinatown BID is funded through assessments paid by property owners.  As a publicly funded organization, said Chin, the BID owes the neighborhood that type of process if it’s going to bring public art to the neighborhood.

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Chinatown Leaders To be Honored at Upcoming Gala

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The Chinatown Partnership and Chinatown BID last week hosted a luncheon to announce the honorees for the organizations’ awards and benefit gala coming up at the end of this month. The event was held at Jing Fong restaurant on Elizabeth Street.

Among those being recognized this year is Peter Lau, a longtime community leader who died this past spring at the age of 66. Lau came to this country from Hong Kong in 1971. he was the co-owner of Confucius/Mannings Pharmacies & Surgical Supplies, served on the boards of the Partnership and the BID and volunteered his time to educate seniors about their healthcare decisions. Lau was also active in several local non-profit institutions, including the Chinese American Planning Council’s Project Open Door Senior center and Hamilton-Madison House.

Other honorees are to include: Alex Chau of the Bac-Ai Pharmacy; immigration lawyer Edward Cuccia, Shining Sung, American Representative of the Chi Mei Museum of Taiwan; and Tommy Lin of the mayor’s community affairs office.

The gala will be held June 29 at Jing Fong.

Chinatown Businesses Awarded $79,000 in Post-Sandy Grants

Grant recipients and community leaders posed for photos last week in Chinatown.

Last week, 79 business owners in Chinatown received grants to help them bounce back from the after-effects of Hurricane Sandy. The program was set up by the Chinatown Business Improvement District and the Chinatown Partnership.  Each business was given a check for about $1000.

At the urging of City Council member Margaret Chin, the groups launched a fundraising drive, including a benefit dinner, which raised $79,000.  There were small donations but also some big contributions to the fund.  First American International Bank (FAIB), CAIPA (Chinese American Independent Practitioner Association) and the Magna Carta Insurance Company all donated $10,000.

About one-third of the recipients were restaurants, which were closed for more than a week following Sandy and were forced to throw out a lot of spoiled food. Other recipients included Chinese herbal medicine stores and beauty salons.


$45,000 Raised For Chinatown Sandy Fund

City Hall Steps.

it was a show of force earlier today at City Hall, as local elected officials and community leaders came out in support of a relief fund for small businesses in Chinatown impacted by Hurricane Sandy.  The effort by the Chinatown Partnership and the Chinatown BID has already raised $45,000.  All of the money will be used for a grant program; eligible businesses are encouraged to apply for assistance.

The campaign includes a benefit dinner at the Grand Harmony Restaurant, 98 Mott Street, on December 19.  Today, Grand Harmony owner Tony Chen said his business was dealt a serious setback from the storm. Not only was he shut down for a week and forced to throw out  a lot of spoiled food, but Chen said his customers have not come back in large numbers since the storm. He estimated business is off by about 30%

Community Board 3 Votes on Chinatown BID Tonight; Opponents Sharpen Attacks

East Broadway merchants say they cannot afford a BID.

Supporters of a Chinatown Business Improvement District hope three is a charm.  Having already won the endorsements of Community Boards 1 and 2, they anticipate Community Board 3 will do the same this evening. In spite of this month’s victories, opponents are not giving up the fight. In the past several days, they’ve sharpened their attacks on the plan, as well as the BID’s chief backers.

On Friday, several merchants and property owners gathered in the offices of the Lin Zexu Foundation, in Chatham Square, to declare the battle is just beginning.  Members of the Chinatown Small Business Association said they could not afford to pay the assessments the BID wants to charge. They also criticized the group backing the BID, the Chinatown Partnership, which has declined to detail exactly how it spent a $5.4 million street cleaning grant from the Lower Manhattan Development Corp.

CB3 Panel Backs Chinatown BID; CB2 Weighs in Tonight

Tuesday night, Chinatown business and political leaders won an important victory, as Community Board 3’s economic development committee voted to support their proposal for a business Improvement District. Many more steps lie ahead, including five more community board meetings and assessments by the City Council, borough president and mayor.  The next stop: Community Board 2’s business development panel, which meets tonight.

It was standing room only in a meeting room on Eldridge Street. Supporters and opponents of the BID plan took turns addressing CB3 members. David Louie, BID steering committee co-chair, pleaded “let’s help ourselves,” adding. “we live and work in the community and we want to see it grow and flourish.” City Councilmember Margaret Chin, a lifelong Chinatown activist, echoed Louie’s sentiments, saying the creation of a BID would allow businesses and residents working together “to build a better future for our community.”

Chinatown BID Supporters Step Up PR Campaign

The group behind a campaign for a business improvement district in Chinatown is stepping up its pr offensive.  We received a lengthy news release earlier today touting the establishment of a BID as an anecdote to several of the neighborhood’s most vexing problems. It begins:

Business Leaders on Lower East Side & Chinatown Agree on New Boundaries

Lower Orchard - part of the LES BID's proposed expansion plan.

There’s been lots of talk recently about the pros and cons of creating a Chinatown Business Improvement District. Critics of the plan have emerged both in the historic heart of Chinatown, but also in Soho and the Lower East Side.  One major point of contention: the proposed BID’s expansive boundaries, which some people feel would amount to a hostile takeover of parts of the LES, Soho, Noho and Nolita.

In recent weeks, community leaders in all of the impacted neighborhoods have been working to head off  a border war.  It may be awhile before Chinatown and Soho come to terms. But in the last few days, it appears the Lower East Side part of the puzzle has fallen into place.