Where Beach Street meets the Greenway, Ko Kun Ha, the first instructor of Chinese language at Harvard University, stands clad in a traditional Chinese robe. On Harrison Avenue, the Wongs, two immigrant sisters, stand together. That is, life-sized cutouts of Ha and the Wong sisters.
In Boston’s Chinatown, figures from the community’s past have returned home.
These figures, spread throughout the Chinatown area, are part of artist Wen-ti Tsen’s public art project, “Home Town: Re-presenting Boston’s Chinatown as Place of People – Then and Now.”
Tsen has harnessed the power of art to address harmful changes in Chinatown. “This project is to use art in such a way that will draw attention to the threats with gentrification,” he said.
Chinatown has been a home to Asian Americans in Boston for over 100 years, noted Tsen. As early as the 1880s, Chinese immigrants settled there, mostly running laundries or restaurants. But in the 1960s, so-called “urban renewal initiatives”—attempts by corporations to profit off of marginalized populations by “reinvigorating” urban areas—built a highway cutting into the area and displacing hundreds of families with a ramp and retaining wall.
Now, rising rents and encroaching high-rise buildings continue to threaten the community. According to a 2016 Buzzfeed article, buildings like The Kensington—just blocks from the center of Chinatown—rent one-bedroom apartments for a steep $4,000 per month. The Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund cited that between 1990 and 2010 the Asian American population in Chinatown dropped from 76 percent to 46 percent. University of Massachusetts Boston Associate Professor and co-author of a 2013 Chinatown report Andrew Leong told the Boston Globe last April, “We’re slowly being gentrified out of existence. You’re talking about displacement of those kinds of people that have rented from these unattractive units for decades.”
Tsen’s “Home Town” project is not the only public art piece addressing history in Chinatown. Over 20 panels detailing the history of written word in Chinatown hang in the Tufts Medical School bookstore and China Trade Center in an installation titled “These Words.” The project received significant funding from Tisch College through the Tufts Community Research Committee. “These Words” tries to bring light to Chinatown’s struggle for a public library branch, an ongoing issue for the past 60 years, as well as display the history of the Shanghai Printing Company—the only bilingual press in the area—and the Oxford Street Bulletin Board, a center for community information. Tufts, of course, plays an integral role in gentrifying Chinatown; combined together, Tufts Medical Center and New England Medical Center occupy a third of Chinatown’s total land.
Tsen said that in addressing gentrification in the area, art serves as a powerful medium: “By using art, I think it can be more relatable to the general public than statistics…It’s to get more of the city to be aware of the situation.”
Tsen’s figures are indisputably striking: fully life-sized, brightly painted cutouts of people from the historical Asian-American community stand on the sidewalks for the week. Captions written by Bridgewater State Professor and Chinese Historical Society of New England Vice-President Dr. Wing-kai detail the figure’s stories.
Tsen explained that the figures are all about relatability: “They are real people that people can look eye to eye and relate to…people [viewing the exhibit] get a feeling that they are the [figures] and that they have the history to relate to present day.”
In his “Home Town” project, Tsen collaborated with the Chinese Historical Society of New England. Using the organization’s photo archives, he selected 12 images to enlarge and paint. In the process, he found that while there were Boston Globe photos of working people in Chinatown, there were few photographs that gave them control of their own subjectivity. Most of the people who had their picture taken looking the camera face-on were those of stature and power.
In the second part of Tsen’s piece, he looks to the present. Over the course of a few sessions, he set up stations to photograph residents, working people, and passersby. Tsen photographed hundreds of people to compile an album documenting the people of today’s Chinatown.
Tsen said the spelling—“Home Town” instead of “Hometown”—is intentional. “Hometown, one word, is very much to my mind associated with American movies. It’s very much the Meet Me in St. Louis when people have big houses with a lawn in front. Everything is so neat… it’s very exclusive of the immigrant experience.”
Susan Chinsen, Managing Director of Chinese Historical Society of New England, pointed out that in the case of Boston’s Chinatown, home is a concept that transcends geography. “It’s a place of home for many people, it’s not just about residents that live there… it’s to show that Chinatown is a residence, a location, for people who actually live here, but that you know this concept of home, especially today, is much broader than a geographic address.”
Chinsen noted that while growing up in an immigrant family in Quincy, her family relied on Chinese language services in Boston’s Chinatown and came to buy groceries and see a doctor. Although it was not where she lived, Chinatown served as a home.
Tsen agreed. “I still think of going to Chinatown as a little bit of that part of a home, the part of me that was from China,” he said. “Because of that home quality, that’s why we need to preserve it. The high rise people will go down, they may even eat in Chinatown, but it’s not their home. We need to preserve a quality home for the Asian American families around the northeast.”