In fact, Chinatown has been the home to generations of radical organizers and artists, collectives, and movements that have demanded answers to the same questions organizers are asking today: Who gets to live in Chinatown, and under what social conditions? Will art reinforce existing power relations, or help us envision a neighborhood with room for a multigenerational, immigrant, working class population?
Without an understanding of Chinatown’s cultural movements, historical and current, we risk equating whiteness and gentrification with artistic creativity, and Asian immigrants and longstanding residents with victimhood. Below are some examples — but by no means a comprehensive list — of collectives, organizations, and artists that have defined the cultural life of modern Chinatown. In examining this history, we see that today’s artists and activists are not alone in fighting for a dynamic and inclusive arts ecology. Galleries and museums needn’t disrupt or distance themselves from a neighborhood in order to present art; indeed, the most vital art often grows out of connection to community and place.
Around 1969, a loose collective of young people started to meet in a musty basement in Chinatown. All over the country, students were striking, picketing, and tossing out the term “Oriental” in favor of “Asian American.” Calling themselves “Basement Workshop,” these young people wanted to play a part in defining this idea of Asian American. Basement acted as an umbrella organization, a site where anyone with the interest and determination could organize cultural programs. They published the landmark Bridge magazine and the set of folios, Yellow Pearl. They ran a youth program, gathered resources(at that point very limited) on Asian American history , and offered silkscreening, choreography, photography, and film workshops.