In Chinatown, a Conversation About New York’s Newest Art Gallery Scene

Wing on wo event

From Left | Mei Lum, Tomie Arai, Michelle Marie Esteva and Herb Tam

Yesterday, The W.O.W. Project hosted the second event in its Summer Series of workshops and discussions. The panel discussion titled “Chinatown: New York’s Newest Art Gallery Scene?” was a conversation focused on the emergence of art spaces throughout Chinatown and how they are affecting the neighborhood. Co-moderated by the Chinatown Art Brigade‘s Tomie Arai and Betty Yu, the panel included Michelle Marie Esteva from Chinatown Soup and Herb Tam from the Museum of Chinese in America.

Both panelists addressed the importance of art galleries in communities. Tam addressed the overall purpose of galleries and said, “They are as much an art space as a social and cultural time capsule.” While Esteva emphasized that the mission of Soup is, “preservation. That is the main goal,” she said.

The conversation quickly took a heated tone as people talked about the underlying issues that residents face as new businesses come to Chinatown. Topics of rent escalation, racism and classism were discussed in what became a difficult, but important conversation about gentrification. One Chinese resident said, “Our whole lives have been about displacement. We had to form our own Chinatown and to see it be taken away is scary.” Others questioned the amount of outreach that new galleries are doing with the community and whether galleries in the surrounding areas are holding themselves accountable. Many residents seemed conflicted by their desire for more art spaces and the fear of what an influx could mean for residents and local businesses.

Mei Lum, the new owner of Wing On Wo and Co., on Mott Street (previously interviewed by the Lo-Down here), started the W.O.W. Project initiative as a way to raise cultural and historical awareness and to develop projects that will bring together the local business community. The hope is to help Chinatown prosper without having to sacrifice most of its culture or its long-term residents.

So far, Lum has definitely provided a platform for individuals to collaborate and engage in complex, often painful, but necessary discourse. Although these conversations don’t always offer solutions, they do encourage a step in the right direction. One thing that panelists did agree on: “If change is inevitable,” Tomie Arai said, “we have to be a part of it.”

Visit the W.O.W. Project’s events page for future happenings.