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At SF State, Multigenerational Art Celebrates the Power of Chinatown Communities

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Lenore Chinn, 'Children on Bridge at Portsmouth Square,' 2019. (Courtesy of the artist)

After months of looking at art on our computers and gadgets, institutions throughout the Bay Area are once again welcoming visitors to experience and appreciate art in person. In that spirit, San Francisco State University’s Fine Arts Gallery’s first offering since March 2020, Power of Community: Chinatown Then and Now, prompts us to think about what community means in strained political times.

Power of Community is the first publicly accessible exhibition since the school reverted to online teaching in compliance with statewide health protocols. Working with SFSU students enrolled in the innovative ART 619 Exhibition Design course and in support of the Stop AAPI Hate coalition, curators Sharon Bliss and Kevin B. Chen conceived of the exhibition as a welcoming gesture to visitors from the campus community and beyond and, most importantly, a clear signal that both the gallery and the college value racial diversity.

Walking into the gallery, my attention was initially drawn to two video installations. The first, Chinatown Alleyway Tours, features video producer Mitchell Chang describing how the Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC)-sponsored program pivoted from in-person to virtual tours of San Francisco’s Chinatown murals when citywide shutdowns forced activities indoors. Volunteer youth guides took the lead by designing a proxy tour using the popular video game Minecraft, footage of which is included in the installation. In this format, interested users are invited to sign up for Saturday morning tours, currently offered twice each month, and experience Chinatown as avatars moving through a virtual reconstruction of the district. While the interface creates a digital remove, the experience of learning about the neighborhood’s rich history from passionate youth leaders remains, thankfully, the same.

The second video component, Altar-n8 Realm, highlights Chinatown businesses that may be struggling through the pandemic-fueled economic downturn. Four short videos, directed by local media-makers Broad Target, contextualize an outdoor augmented reality (AR) exhibition designed by the Oakland-based art collective and creative studio MACRO WAVES. Visitors to the SFSU installation can watch participating business owners describe both the joys and challenges of small business entrepreneurship, and learn about the annual Qingming Festival, which honors generational spiritual and material bonds in Chinese culture.

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Power of Community also features three remarkable photography installations. To the left of the gallery entrance, Benjamen Chinn’s (1921–2009) stately black-and-white photographs provide a glimpse of Chinatown in the 1940s and 50s. Chinn served as an Army aerial and public relations photographer during World War II before enrolling at the California School of Fine Arts (now San Francisco Art Institute) to study with West Coast photo heavyweights Imogen Cunningham and Minor White.

Two men unload a pig from a truck.
Benjamen Chinn, ‘Untitled (Pigs to Market),’ no date provided. (Courtesy of the Family of Benjamen Chinn)

Chinn often shot from the doorway of his Commercial Street family home. From that vantage point, he captured the psychological line between domestic and public spaces, what it meant to step from the protection of home and family and into a city that wasn’t—and still isn’t—always welcoming of Asian Americans. Chinn’s compositions show nothing of the rampant anti-Asian rhetoric against which Chinatown stands as a bulwark. Instead, images such as one that features workers hefting a large pig to the butcher shop and another showing a window washer at work document the district as a small business hub.

The Chinn family is also represented by a contemporary Bay Area legend: artist and activist Lenore Chinn, who happens to be Benjamen’s niece. Best known for her large-scale photo-realistic paintings and pioneering arts administrative work with the Queer Cultural Center, Lenore Chinn’s photographs riff off and contemporize many of the themes visualized in her uncle’s images. Photographs of Asian Art Museum contemporary curator Abby Chen protesting AAPI hate crimes in 2021, children happily mugging on the bridge at Portsmouth Square, and a restaurant worker’s quiet reverie in sight of the famed R&G Lounge convey the same sense of people and place captured in the elder Chinn’s black-and-white photographs decades before. Together, their work creates a sense of continuity in a vulnerable moment.

Lenore Chinn, ‘Abby Chen at the Stop Asian Hate Rally at Portsmouth Square,’ 2021. (Courtesy of the artist)

At the far end of the gallery, photographic selections from the 2020 book Chinatown Pretty close the exhibition on a defiantly positive note. Photographer Andria Lo and writer Valerie Luu document the sartorial styles of elders in Chinatowns across North America, recording their stories and happily fan-girling over unexpected combinations of plaids and puffy jackets. Local luminary Dorothy Quock makes an appearance, as does You Tian Wu, a.k.a. The One, whose screaming-red suit and floral tie blinded me with its brilliance.

Watching Chinatown Kite Shop owner Albert Chang speak with such pride about his family’s 52-year-old business in one of the MACRO WAVE videos, I recalled news footage from the previous 18 months of other elderly Asian men and women who were assaulted because misinformation and racism made them targets. Chang’s voice and the voices of survivors of anti-AAPI violence may be reedy with age, but they are clear in their want of simple human respect. It’s also a reminder that while projects such as Chinatown Alleyway Tours and Altar-n8 Realm gently encourage us to help struggling businesses survive this fraught time, our greater responsibility is getting to know our neighbors.

‘Power of Community: Chinatown Then and Now’ is on view at San Francisco State University’s Fine Arts Gallery (1600 Holloway Avenue, Fine Arts Building, Room 238) through Oct. 20, 2021. Details here.

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