New York Was Not Beijing

I talked to Wei Zhang online last night. Due to the limited information about him online, I only knew only that he was one of the Chinese artists who emigrated to New York in the 80s — nothing else. I want to write a story about the new life in New York of a group of Chinese artists. I vaguely know that they came from a closed country, with experiences of the Cultural Revolution. But with little knowledge about what actually happened during that time, I had no idea what Zhang was going to tell me.

Wei, now 65, he told his story calmly. But I was overwhelmed throughout the interview.

“My mom was a language teacher teaching Russian [during the Cultural Revolution]. Every day she went to school and got beaten by the Red Guards. She came home with wounds and cuts here and there. The blood made her shirt stick to her skin and she couldn’t take it off.”

“Every day the Red Guards went to my grandparents’ courtyard. They searched every room, stole furniture, burned all books and paintings, and beat my grandma. My grandma was beaten nearly dead. She lay on a wooden board for three days, and then died. Nobody dared to come close and save her.”

Zhang told me about his difficult time as a child born into a “bad family”: His mother was a Russian teacher — an establishment intellectual, teaching the language of a country that China openly denounced. His grandfather had been one of the first capitalists in China before the Revolution. So it couldn’t be worse. He still remembered how he was isolated, insulted and bullied in school. Fifty years has passed, and Zhang returned to Beijing years ago, but he still refuses to talk to any art groups or associations within the party-state system in China.

The first half of the interview brought me to tears, while the second half cheered me up. During his stay in New York after the Cultural Revolution, he advocated for the right of street artists in New York to sell their work in public places.

During that time, street artists were required by the city to apply for permits if they wanted to sell their art. Zhang and a group of other artists answered with protests, risking their paintings being thrown away and ruined. In the article, “War of the Paintbrushes,” published in the The New York Times Metro Sunday section in 1998, Zhang was quoted saying, “I left my country to come here for freedom for my art and my life. Now I’m fighting the Giuliani government for the same thing.”

Zhang sent me a scanned version of the newspaper story after the interview. Under the headline is a photo of Zhang, then 46, holding a poster with his slogan, “New York is not Beijing.”

Zhang was one of the core activists in the Artists’ Union, which fought City Hall for seven years. “Every time I heard that there was a protest, I’d put down anything I was working on and go to the street [to protest],” said Zhang. “No matter if I was about to meet a collector to sell my work or if I had other important things, [activist artist] Robert Lederman told me that nothing was more important than protecting our freedom of speech.”

The artists sued Mayor Giuliani, the New York City police commissioner and the head of the Parks Department. In 2003, they won the case. Since then, the right to sell art in public places in New York is protected by law.

After the interview, Zhang sent me many pictures of him protesting on the street, and of related publications. “I have many of these. Just let me know if you need more,” said Zhang. It seems that I finally have the first character in my story — and that his story has a platform where it can be told.

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