Oral Histories, Activism, and Chinatowns and Future Cities with Diane Wong, Melissa Liu, Mei Lum, and Jenni Loo

How do oral histories help create frameworks for cities of resilience? Diane Wong is doing a doctorate on gentrification’s impact on low-income immigrants and the mobilization of New York, Boston, and San Francisco Chinatown residents in their fight for their homes. She describes her process of building trust with local organizations and some of the challenges in collecting her research. Mélissa Liu is the first storefront artist-in-residence at Wing On Wo & Co.’s The W.O.W. Project founded by Mei Lum, and talks about her time collecting oral histories and creating red Lunar New Year envelopes. We’re also joined by Jenni Loo, who speaks to her experience interning and volunteering with The W.O.W. Project.

Why oral histories?

Collecting oral histories is part of a long process towards healing the multi-faceted, and at times invisible, pain of diasporic or migratory separation from Chinese identity, language, and culture…

Diane remembers a mentor’s work in looking at Chinese Coolies (indentured servants from China in Peru and Cuba during the 19th and 20th century) as inspirational to how she would go on to “look at how Chinese immigrants not only survived but thrived and create their own spaces.

“Oral history represents the intimacy I wanted to build with my own family about their migration history. They weren’t very open about their experiences with the Cultural Revolution or migrating to the US. A lot of the trauma was erased, and I really wanted to get an understanding of that and make these narratives visible and accessible to younger generations. “— Diane Wong

I was one of 10+ Chinese or Chinese-American identifying volunteers who offered to help transcribe interviews Diane and Mei conducted with small business owners and community activists in NYC’s Chinatown — one piece of her research into Chinatowns nationwide as part of her PhD at Cornell. Transcription is labor intensive and no small feat — a task academics will often contract out to anyone willing to take the job, even if they have no stake in the research subject. Getting stakeholders in Chinatowns’ success has been really important for her in “expanding the boundaries of how accessible researchers and social scientists can make [the] work.” In the future, Diane and Mei hope to create a multimedia website that tells stories of Chinatowns’ residents that counter the assumption that Chinatowns are dying, and not thriving.

Jenni also shares the desire to re-connect with her immediate family. “My father, who had immigrated to the U.S. as a teen, was always the most vocal when talking about his childhood in China. I grew up only speaking English — they phased out Chinese so I could assimilate better in the States and become more successful.”

…and so is appreciating food!

Melissa’s introduction into oral histories was through food. She would meet her grandaunt in Chinatown and their way of bonding and sharing stories was inextricable with the act of sharing food. Being a member of the Chinese Indonesian diaspora and having grown up far away from other Chinese Americans, this was very important for her to understand the community aspects of the neighborhood as well as reclaim part of her identity.

“I invested a lot of time learning about these cultures that weren’t relevant in my own ethnicity and identity. When I came to New York I met so many Chinese and Asian Americans who were so much more connected to this part of themselves and I started to wonder, ‘why don’t I have that?’ Getting older helps though. I feel more comfortable owning it now, rather than when it was it was enforced (ie Chinese school).” — Melissa Liu
Fei, Melissa, and Jenni, with Mei as photographer, and Diane on Google Hangouts

Why Chinatowns?

For a lot of immigrants it represents a collective imagination of home in a new land

And for the group, NYC’s Chinatown represents resiliency and resourcefulness, of family and warmth, and the generosity that comes with a small and tight-knit group of people who managed to maintain a strong cultural identity and local economy, even when at times it seems like the City of New York would rather it not be there. Diane reminds us that “originally, no one wanted to live in the Chinatowns. Many were forced to, due to exclusionary measures and barriers to assimilation.” The importance of mutual aid is highlighted by organizations like CAAAV (Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) founded in 1986, whose “work originally came out of a response to rising anti-Asian violence across the country, including the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982.”

Diane’s favorite place in Chinatown is where the bus drops her off from Flushing, at Confucius Plaza. For her, it signifies Chinatown’s continual support for old and new immigrants in NYC, as well as its fluid and expansive boundaries, and “the different ways in which we define what that neighborhood is.”

Jenni touches upon the American Dream her parents, and many other parents raising their children in Chinatown, have:

“Part of the dream is that their kids grow up in Chinatown and then move away, become successful elsewhere, and stay there. Do I choose to stay in Chinatown for the rest of my life because I really value the history there, or do I fulfill my parents’ idea of success? For me, the history is more important.” — Jenni Loo

Objectivity, subjectivity, and trust

Diane describes battling the boundaries between objectivity and subjectivity throughout her academic career. “Being a social scientist, you’re often told you have to be objective with the kind of research you produce and the data you collect. I have to be honest with myself, and accountable to the folks that I include in this project, who do have a stake in the neighborhood and are at risk of losing their homes: there’s no way I am objective. With this book, I explain clearly to the audience that I am a second-generation Chinese American woman, and there is subjectivity in that. A lot of this research is going on spontaneously so it’s hard to put on one hat versus the other because you will make friends. But as you step back from the interviews and go into transcription mode, there’s a certain point where you have to look at the bigger picture and weave them into the larger story that you want to tell.

Melissa mentions early on in the interview that she didn’t have a deep relationship to the Chinatown community when she started her storefront residency. “That was something I thought very hard about before I applied for the residency. A question that came up during my artist talk was whether or not I was the right person to do this project. It’s a good thing to think about, as artists who actually live and work in the community would benefit greatly from the resources.” Through her collection of oral histories however, she became very familiar with the friendships and networks built over many decades spanning across different shops and locations. “It felt good to earn their recognition and trust. But that takes a lot of time.”

What can Chinese Americans do for Chinatown and the nation?

“Oppressions are connected. Displacement won’t stop unless we’re able to make connections between what’s happening in other communities: in Harlem NYC, or in Boyle Heights LA, or the Mission District SF — all these different communities with predominantly immigrants or communities of color who are facing the same issues. It’s a systemic issue. I hope that Chinese Americans can take on the task of communicating this to our elders and community in ways they can understand. Go door to door. Be on the ground. Support the work of those on the ground.” — Diane Wong
  • Pay attention to preservation laws
    Melissa brings up that “outsiders of the community or a small percentage of the neighborhood may want to pass preservation laws in Chinatown,” an issue about the maintenance of buildings so they appear Chinese without consideration of the people living in the community. Who gets to decide what is preserved, would it just be the oriental aspects of buildings? “What is valuable to the neighborhood and the culture? Chinatown isn’t Chinatown unless the people are there. It’s so challenging to come to an agreement about this,” Mei and Diane add.
  • Counter eviction and displacement
    Chinatowns in Boston, Philly, NY, SF, LA are all facing eviction and displacement. being located in city centers makes it worse.
“Racism and capitalism separates us based on our differences. We really need to fight against that, whether it’s disproving stereotypes, or identifying ways we’re projected against other groups who we’re actually similar to.” — Melissa Liu
  • Pay attention to rezoning plans
    Diane says about the NYC rezoning plans (which will push forward Chinatown community initiatives) that “this is something people are pushing for. It’s been proposed but no action has been taken by the city boards and mayor’s office as of yet.”
  • Help with planning for Chinese and Asian American arts and culture
    During the Arts + Activism roundtable, Bob Lee of Asian American Arts Centre stressed the importance of looking over the NYC Cultural Plan and participating in the proposal process
“Politicizing people around my age is definitely a priority. A lot of Asian American youth are complacent because they are benefiting from the system. We need to get people to realize this is not an isolated thing and that we should ban together with our and other communities.” — Jenni Loo

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