How ‘Homeward Bound’ Came to Be: A Discussion with Curators Diane Wong and Huiying B. Chan
We're so excited to be hosting HOMEWARD BOUND, an oral history exhibition curated by Diane Wong and Huiying B. Chan.
In HOMEWARD BOUND, Wong, a New York University professor, and Chan, a writer, multimedia storyteller, and community organizer, explore stories of migration and everyday resilience in Chinatowns around the world through photographs, oral histories, and multimedia archives. This exhibit is the first of its kind to honor, preserve, and build on the history and present day issues of Chinatowns through community-led and curated narratives from residents globally.
We had the chance to speak with the curators about what they learned in their research, what inspired them to embark on this project in the first place, and what inspires them every day.
What's the premise of your exhibition?
Diane Wong: The exhibit was inspired by our Homeward Bound series that we did with the W.O.W Project at Wing on Wo & Co last winter. The series of public programs revolved around our travels to different Chinatowns around the world.
Huiying B. Chan: We focused on themes of displacement, migration, and resilience across the Chinese diaspora, and how those themes played out in people’s stories and everyday lives.
How did your backgrounds affect your career choices and, ultimately, your decision to do this project?
HC: I grew up in an environment where I was one of the few Chinese kids in my elementary and middle schools. Going to Chinatown was a big part of where I found community. It was where my parents went every weekend, and where I went to Chinese school. In high school, I joined youth programs where I first learned about Asian American history, something that was never taught to me in schools, or covered much in our U.S. history books.
That led me to becoming interested in social issues in Chinatown, what happened to the community after 9/11, learning about the rampant gentrification in the neighborhood. From there I became active in organizing in Chinatown, where I worked with CAAAV, the Chinatown Art Brigade, and eventually the W.O.W Project.
DW: I grew up in Flushing, Queens, one of the most ethnically diverse neighborhoods in the country. Even though that was the case, nothing in school ever taught me about the histories of Asian immigrant communities. During my time as an undergraduate at Binghamton University, I was lucky enough to take a course titled Asian Americas with Professor Lisa Yun, who introduced me to the field of Asian American studies. It was her book Coolie Speaks that got me to think more centrally about the intimacies of home, diaspora, and community.
Before I started graduate school, I had the chance to work at the Museum of Chinese in America where I put together a walking tour of post-9/11 Chinatown. It was through that experience that I realized how quickly the neighborhood was changing due to gentrification. My work as an artist and educator has been influenced by my collaborations with community organizations who are doing anti-displacement work in Manhattan’s Chinatown including CAAAV, Chinatown Tenants Union, Chinatown Art Brigade, and The W.O.W. Project.
Three years ago I started to work more closely with Mei Lum, who is the fifth-generation owner of Wing On Wo & Co., the oldest continually run store in Manhattan’s Chinatown. When I first interviewed Mei for my dissertation, her family was about to sell their red brick building and porcelain store that had been in the neighborhood since the 1890s. I invited Mei to sit in on the oral histories that I was conducting with other residents and small business owners in the neighborhood, and from those conversations came The W.O.W. Project. It has since grown into a women-led initiative for intergenerational dialogue and action to combat cultural erasure and displacement.
How did the idea for the Homeward Bound project come up exactly?
HC: What happened was after I came back from my travels, I shared my work in a report-back at a Chinatown Art Brigade meeting, where Mei and Diane were. Mei then reached out to me about presenting my work at W.O.W. When I first met her in the shop, she suggested “Let’s make it a whole series.” I was over-the-top on board. Diane joined us, and it evolved over the course of months.
What differences and similarities – if any – did you find during your visits to Chinatowns around the country and the world?
DW: Last October, Mei and I went on a west coast Chinatown solidarity tour. We went to Vancouver, Seattle, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. We wanted to understand how other communities were talking about gentrification and how they were resisting in creative ways. In the span of three weeks we met with tenants, small business owners, artists, and community organizers.
In San Francisco, we met with tenants who lived in single room occupancies and learned about their history to push a community led rezoning plan. We visited the International Hotel, the site that epitomized struggles around affordable housing, dislocation, and urban renewal. In Los Angeles, we met with organizers from the Chinatown Committee for Equitable Development. The changes happening there are similar to what we are seeing here with the influx of yellowface galleries and luxury developments.
In Seattle, we met with youth organizers from Humbows not Hotels and learned about the movement to protest the construction of I-5, a freeway that cuts through the heart of the Chinatown International District. In Vancouver, we met with organizers from the Chinatown Action Group and Chinatown Concern Group to learn about intergenerational organizing and language justice.
Throughout these cities, we found that elders, youth, and families were fighting hard to stay in their homes and in their neighborhoods. We returned more affirmed than ever that resistance to displacement is persistent, creative, and intergenerational.
HC: What first drove me to write a proposal for my project was the question of whether or not the gentrification of Chinatowns was only occurring in the U.S., and if not, what did it look like on a global level? I was also driven by this question of home and wanting to know where the diaspora has been. I had only learned about Chinese migration in the context of Asian American history, within the borders of the U.S. My project was an opportunity to take it to a global level.
In one year, I traveled to the capital cities of eight countries around the world: Lima, Peru; Havana, Cuba; Johannesburg, South Africa; Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam; Sydney, Australia; Singapore; and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I also did some family roots tracing in Guangdong, China.
Every Chinatown was so different. In Havana, where I lived for two months, the Chinatown is now predominantly Afro-Cuban. I met a lot of multiracial elderly folks, who remember when Chinatown was thriving before the Revolution, when it used to be one of the largest in Latin America. I saw what a Chinatown looks like when it’s really gutted of its core institutions, and what that means for us trying to preserve these communities in the U.S. In Lima and Havana, people from second plus generations all had questions about home and where their roots are in China. A lot of people, with the generations, are disconnected from those roots, because of how assimilation works. At the same time, they’re thinking about how identities change, and forming new ones.
In Southeast Asia, things were completely different. It was witnessing how China has colonized countries there, where a marginalized group here in the U.S. is now in power, like in Singapore. Even then they would have policies and practices oppressing immigrant folks, like domestic workers from the Philippines or construction workers from Bangladesh.
When I got to Australia, in my first days there, I learned that I was on Gadigal Land of the Eora Nation. I was suddenly so aware that the immigrants I was focusing on were living on Indigenous lands. There’s a huge Indigenous movement, so much that my time there became less focused on Chinese migration and more about how these narratives fit in with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander histories and resistance.
What do you to get inspiration or when you need to re-energize or reboot?
DW: Living in such a vast city, I enjoy taking walks to the corners of different neighborhoods. One day I decided to walk 30 blocks in the Upper West Side, and I saw a number of Chino Latino restaurants -- La Caridad 78, La Dinastia, and La Nueva Victora. It is fascinating to think about how these restaurants came to be and how dispersed the Chinese diaspora is in New York City. That led us to wanting to organize a public program on Chino Latinos, which is currently scheduled for January in conjunction with our exhibit here at Pearl River Mart.
HC: There are lot of things that inspire me. I often go to open mics at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop, where I was a recent Open City Fellow. A large part of my work is writing and that can be daunting. Projects can seem so big. Being in community with other writers of color, with their generosity and openness – inspires me and keeps me going.
But I would also say it doesn’t feel like work. Recently I was interviewing women who worked in the garment factories in the 1970s and 1980s and eventually became community organizers. They’re not often in public spotlight, but they hold so much knowledge about the Asian American movement. It was doing this work that allowed me to connect with these elders.
Is there anything you’d tell people, “You have to read/watch/listen to this?”
HC: I think people really need to look at the contemporary canon of queer and trans Asian American literature, like the poetry of Kay Ulanday Barrett, Jess X. Snow, and Kit Yan. I’ve taken writing workshops with them and have read their work. It’s knowing who my lineages are when I write and what my work builds on.
As for a TV show I think everyone should watch, that’s “Pose on FX,” which is about ball culture and life in New York City in the 1980s. They have the largest cast of trans actors on a television series and everyone is Black and brown.
DW: I’m currently teaching a class at New York University called Chinatown: Politics, Praxis, and Possibilities. The syllabus is a resource and encompasses a variety of readings about past and contemporary Chinatown issues. For those interested, you can follow the syllabus online. I also recently saw “Dead Pigs” directed by Cathy Yan. It’s a vividly beautiful film set in Shanghai that centers the themes of displacement and women as drivers of social change. That story resonated me given my own family history of displacement in Shanghai.
HOMEWARD BOUND will be on view in our TriBeCa mezzanine gallery from November 10, 2018 through February 2, 2019.