When Diane Wong sat down to interview Mei Lum as part of her research on gentrification in Chinatowns, Mei’s family was about to sell the building and business they’ve run on Mott Street since 1925. Instead, their conversation about neighborhood change led to a series of interviews with neighbors and a year of community dialogue at the W.O.W. Project. As land values rise, art galleries and luxury developments encroach, traditional establishments close, and the multigenerational immigrant family households that traditionally called it home decline in number, Manhattan’s Chinatown has been experiencing dramatic change. Through the W.O.W. Project, Mei has turned the family porcelain shop into a space for discussion of the changes people do and do not want to see, and the role that businesses old and new play in Chinatown’s ecology.
On the anniversary of their fateful interview, and on the eve of the lunar new year — when W.O.W. aims to launch a new Chinatown tradition — we sat down with Mei and Diane for a follow-up conversation. Here, they debrief on the last year of community dialogue, neighborhood roots and family ties, and their hopes for the new year. –M.M.
How did you two start working together?
We met exactly one year ago today. I’m working on a dissertation in political science at Cornell University, looking at gentrification and resistance to displacement in Chinatowns across the country. I started fieldwork around this time last year, conducting interviews to understand how residents and small businesses in New York City’s Chinatown were impacted by gentrification. I was talking to as many immigrant storeowners and residents as I could about whether they were seeing the effects of gentrification and how families were being affected by displacement. When I walked into Wing on Wo, I saw a historic picture of the store hanging on the wall and immediately knew that it was a special place. Luckily, both Mei and her dad, Gary, agreed to be interviewed.
The timing of meeting Diane worked out really well. A lot of changes and decisions were being made about our space, the shop and the building, and to have a third party to speak to helped a lot with making sense of things.
The shop has been in our family for five generations now. I came back to New York from China in early November, and learned that my family had made this decision to sell it. They were in the process of putting the building on the market. They’d hired a broker and were looking at bidders and things like that.
By January we were already looking at interested buyers and talking to lawyers, and by February we were down to the wire. We had a bidder in mind, and were about to sign a contract, but in late February we began to reevaluate what selling the building would mean. And in that time I was going on interviews with Diane, starting in December or early January through March.
That first interview with Diane was really therapeutic, a way for me to talk about my reintegration into the community and the new lens that I brought to viewing the neighborhood after being away for so long — seeing these changes as an insider, but from an outside perspective as well. Having that space to share all my emotions around the possible erasure of a place that meant so much to me allowed us to connect, such that we later became really good friends and collaborators.
What made you interested in this topic? Who were you talking to, and what kind of things did you see and learn about what was happening in Chinatown through those interviews?
I had put together a walking tour of post-9/11 Chinatown for the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) six years ago. Not many people realize it, but Chinatown is the closest living and breathing residential area next to the World Trade Center buildings — it’s less than ten blocks away. The social, economic, and health effects of that event were catastrophic for Chinatown residents, and my role was to document how the neighborhood had changed since. Many stores closed and a lot of Chinese workers couldn’t get to their jobs because the entire neighborhood was turned into a frozen zone. The police put up checkpoints throughout Chinatown and residents had to carry IDs in order to get around. Many garment factories had to relocate to Brooklyn or outside of the city altogether. Those kinds of changes had already been happening in Chinatown, but everything was exacerbated after 2001. There are now a lot of developers converting former garment factories, as well as rent controlled units into market rate apartments, and Chinese immigrants are being displaced — that’s the entry point into my current work on gentrification.
The current literature on gentrification is ironic in that so much has been written but we still know so little. Most studies have centered on the causes of gentrification and on the role of middle-class gentrifiers, ignoring what happens to existing communities. We don’t know much about how the residents who are displaced and how some are fighting to stay in their homes. I want to flip the narrative that residents are pushed out without any kind of agency, because people are out here strategizing and organizing. I am working with a group in Chinatown called CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities, which does a lot of tenant organizing work against evictions and predatory landlords. I interviewed tenants who were involved in some of the high-profile cases, like 90 Elizabeth Street and 22 Spring Street. Both of those buildings were successful in establishing tenant associations and mobilizing against their landlords.
Coming into this project as an activist, were you surprised to be focusing on landowners and business owners as opposed to tenants organizing against predatory landlords?
It has definitely been a strange transition. Initially I was doing mostly on-the-ground tenant organizing work, going door-to-door twice a week, and visiting buildings in Chinatown to see if tenants had issues with their landlords — a lot of them didn’t have hot water, heat, gas, repairs, the basics — but never once did I encounter a landlord. Until I met Mei, I never really thought about how conscious landlords could be a force to combat gentrification. The reality is that small business owners and property owners do make up a lot of Chinatown, and they help shape the neighborhood into what it is and could be.
We started interviewing a lot of second- and third-generation Chinese American property owners, to figure out what their role was in the neighborhood, and how they were thinking about their role as the neighborhood changes. We went on dozens of interviews in the span of two months. The conversations made me realize that it is possible for small property owners to creatively organize against displacement alongside low-income tenants.
There’s a big gap in story sharing from land and property owners. When I go to different meetings and conversations about housing justice, it’s challenging for me to wear all my hats at once: business owner, property owner, and resident. In that context, I don’t think property owner would be the first hat I would reach for. It’s tough to convince property owners to sit on a panel and talk about their role, because that comes with a lot of assumptions from the community: “Oh, you’re a property owner. Your building is worth millions of dollars, you must be very wealthy.” In fact, it’s very hard work and there’s a lot of administrative things and taxes that we have to be on top of. It’s a common narrative that all property owners are evil and just want to squeeze money out of their tenants, but the more you talk to small property owners, the more you realize that they also care about the neighborhood. They know that they have some type of control of what type of people become part of this place, and they take it seriously.
We need to complicate the understanding of who landlords are, especially in immigrant communities like Chinatown. Families like Mei’s aren’t the same as large-scale developers like Extell, R.A. Cohen, Marolda Properties or predatory landlords like James Fong. Those are the ones who are flipping properties and forcibly evicting tenants from Chinatown. I think that it is important to be precise in naming who is responsible for the mass evictions and displacement we are seeing.
There also need to be people who are willing to step up and challenge that narrative; I think up until now there hasn’t really been any landlord or property owner who’s vocal in that way.
What are the things that came out most prominently over the course of your interviews?
There’s this false narrative that Chinatowns are dying, and people don’t really want to live there anymore — we need to “revitalize” them and make them “livable” again. Chinatown continues to be a dynamic neighborhood that has a long history of resilience and resistance. It continues to be to so many recent and older immigrants. Younger Chinese Americans are claiming their roots in Chinatown, and some of them are even planting deeper roots. This is the Chinatown that I learned to love through my interviews.
With the growth of “ethnoburbs,” cities are no longer necessarily the center of immigrant communities. What role do you see Chinatowns playing in the future?
It’s true that Asian families are increasingly living close to one another outside the city in “ethnoburbs,” but at the same time, they’re all connected. That’s why you see so many buses in New York City going between Sunset Park, Chinatown in Flushing, and Chinatown in Manhattan: people see these neighborhoods as connected to one another. Even if you’re from the outer areas, like Long Island, people travel into Chinatown or Flushing for a reason: for the language schools, for herbal remedies, to meet with relatives and friends, and to run errands. Chinatowns will continue to play a vital role in cities. However, the changes that we are seeing in Chinatown aren’t natural. A lot of people think that gentrification is a natural process, but there is nothing natural about the physical uprooting of families that have called Chinatown home for generations. The push for luxury development and displacement in Chinatown is led by politicians, by developers, by people we can name. It’s not inevitable.
I think that a lot of people’s concerns stem from visual changes in the neighborhood. That might be the disappearance of a favorite bakery, or a grocery store; an immediate alarm goes off when those places disappear. I also think race does play a role in the gentrification in Chinatown. Chinatown started as a really small community: everyone knowing everyone within a four-block radius, saying “hello,” knowing all the businesses. That’s changed now. In the interviews, we heard a lot of nostalgia for that time period. It was a really quaint, familiar place, almost village-like. Now new people are coming in, we don’t know them, and they look different from us — what does that mean? The challenge is making sense of how to maintain our roots in the neighborhood, and honor our history, but welcome new people as well. Or do we welcome them? I think that is the question for a lot of residents currently.
So where does the W.O.W. Project fit into this?
The W.O.W. Project wasn’t the W.O.W. Project when it started. It started as an idea about gathering people in a space to talk about the trends that we observed through listening to these stories. The shop seemed like the perfect place and platform to hold these conversations. In fact, a few weeks ago Diane sent me the recording of the interview she conducted with me last December. After listening to it, it made me realize that early on I was actually already starting to think about ways we could revitalize the shop and engage the community outside of it just being a porcelain store. When Diane and I came up with the idea of holding a panel discussion to share the stories of our interviewees, it seemed extremely fitting to have this conversation about younger generation Chinatown business owners at W.O.W, as I began to consider taking over the business more seriously myself. After we saw the response and the reaction from the community, and even beyond, from different Chinatowns, we realized that it could be a bigger thing, and we could build off of this one conversation.
In that first gathering we saw an intergenerational audience; one of the concerns that came up was the importance of having an intergenerational exchange with specific business owners. Thinking about these new business owners who have opened non-traditional Chinatown businesses like ice cream shops, bike shops, and galleries — how do you make sense of that with an old-school noodle shop, or a roast pork shop? Is there learning there? If there is, how can you facilitate that? What are some ways in which we can bridge the gap between generations?
What are some of the gaps you are seeing between generations? Are there conflicts, or just a lack of communication?
I can start from my personal experience at the shop and working with my family. I’m the fifth generation, and my dad works in the space too, so he’s the fourth generation, and my grandmother and my great aunt are of the same generation: we’re all in that space, in a 92-year-old business, trying to push towards this new goal together, to revitalize the space, to bring some new energy. Some challenging conversations emerge around updating different systems, or changing the way things have been done. The question that I think pops into my grandmother’s mind is, “Why change it when it’s been working for so long? What’s the benefit?” In general, confronting new ideas, she wonders, “Where does that come from?” I try to help her to understand why I’m trying to do new things and go in a different direction by finding a commonality point. My grandmother and I have the experience of taking over the shop in common: she took over the shop in the ’60s. She was young when she took it on full time. So I just try to create a space where I can say, “Hey, do you remember when you first took over the shop? What were some challenges you faced?” She was in an even tougher situation than me, because her dad had passed away and he held all the knowledge about running the shop, so she had to teach herself. Now it’s intuitive to her, so I have to remind her that it’s challenging for me, I don’t have the immediate reflexes of what to do, yet.
On the larger issue of Chinatown and the importance of intergenerational dialogue, I think if we want Chinatown to remain a living and breathing neighborhood we have to bridge the gap between generations. It’s essential for knowledge to pass on. Whether business-related, or cultural, or historical, the younger generations need to inquire and learn about what happened before them.
How do you start conversations like that?
I often think of this quote from James Baldwin: “If I love you, I have to make you conscious of the things you don’t see.” This is the framework that I like to use when it comes to intergenerational building. This year I made an intentional effort to talk to my family about my research, to make those connections for them in ways that they can understand. I think, for my mom especially, it took a while for her to understand what I do and the relevance of my work.
I was able to connect my research to her own immigrant experiences. She grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, and she was sent to the countryside in her twenties for re-education and to work as a barefoot doctor. She ended up migrating to the US in her thirties to start a new life. She knows what it is like to lose a home and to be uprooted over and over again. Connecting my work on displacement to the trauma of losing a home resonated a lot with her. Those earlier conversations were really difficult, but she agreed to come with me to one of my first interviews, which was with a tenant who risked being evicted from his home. My mother came with me to interview him and his 90-year-old mother. I can’t even describe how healing that experience was, to have your work affirmed and finally understood by someone that you love so much. Intergenerational building takes a lot of trial and error, a lot of discomfort, and a lot of searching for common ground to stand on.
The W.O.W. Project is trying to create a space for those interactions. We want to create a collective vision for the future.
What are some of those interactions and some of the things you’ve done over the last year?
We put on the first W.O.W. Project panel discussion in May, with second- and third-generation Chinese American business owners discussing how they see their role in a changing neighborhood and how they play into shaping the future of Chinatown.
Following that conversation we collaborated with an artist collective called the Chinatown Art Brigade, three amazing women who are doing a public projection project focused around gentrification in Chinatown. We partnered with them for a panel on the “Chinatown Gallery Scene,” and tried to engage gallery owners in a conversation about whether community art and culture can coexist in the same space. It was the first conversation that had ever happened around this topic, so a lot of tension was released from that. This has been in the back of many people’s minds as they walk around the neighborhood, and so it made for quite a loaded conversation. The art scene is a huge part of the gentrification of Chinatown. That was the most emotionally draining program that I’ve run so far. Since then the Chinatown Art Brigade has had other conversations, building off of that conversation, through a project called Decolonize This Place.
The third program was inspired by the 50-plus-year-old crates that our porcelain inventory had been shipped in from Hong Kong to New York; we put out an open design call for work from the community repurposing the materials. That was really a nice one to follow up with, because it was celebratory and a completely different format — an open house for folks to walk around and interact with the designs and talk to the makers.
We are currently having Diane’s interviews transcribed, to be housed on the W.O.W. website. In 2017, we’re looking to expand the interviews, to pursue specific themes and directions and speak to even more even more small property owners and business owners. I’d like to try to organize a panel including but not specific to landlords about the economic development of Chinatown more broadly.
There’s also the possibility of expanding our work beyond New York’s Chinatown. Our work is so local that it can be difficult to frame it in a larger context, or to see it as part of a much larger and international question. Hopefully this will be the first step beyond New York, to connect with West Coast and Midwestern Chinatowns.
Finally, we’re working on the artist residency, through an organization called China Residencies. Our artist in residence, Melissa Liu, is running workshops and collecting oral histories. Her project explores how we can have conversations with our elders about what it means to be Asian American in America. It challenges the tradition of giving red envelopes during the Lunar New Year. Instead of giving money, which is what we usually do, Melissa is encouraging people to think about the questions they have for their older relatives, writing them down, putting them in an envelope, giving it to them, and then having them answer and give it back. There will be four workshops in total throughout January, going through the process of making the red envelopes — we’re covering silk-screen, paper cutting, things like that. Then we’ll make a short video, and Melissa will create a visual window display for the shop out of the materials.
We install in mid-January, and then work towards the opening on the 26th — but we’re not planning on the traditional art gallery opening. We want to hold different openings for different audiences and really open it up for interaction with our intergenerational Chinatown community. We hope that over time it will grow into this tradition of, “Oh, let’s go to Chinatown to look at the windows for Chinese New Year,” and that that will cultivate intergenerational conversations.
How does your family feel about the changes you’ve been making at the store and the work you’ve been doing there through the W.O.W. Project?
They’re amazingly supportive. I’ve been really moved and touched by how much they’ve been behind all of the work. I always eavesdrop on my dad when he talks to customers and introduces the store, but then goes into his spiel about the W.O.W. Project and the way he talks about it is exactly how I would talk about it. Obviously, he puts his own spin on it, but that’s when I realize how close it is to him as well.
What has surprised you the most in the course of this last year?
I’m grateful that research has allowed me to meet people I can’t believe weren’t in my life earlier. It always surprises me how strangers are able to welcome you into their lives so generously, without asking for anything in return. This is especially true for the tenants I work with and for people like Mei—people who give back to the community so endlessly. It makes me think about how I can use my work to uplift the folks that have helped me out so much this past year, and how I can forge a new understanding of what knowledge is. Knowledge doesn’t count as knowledge unless it makes a difference in the world.
This year I’ve learned the power of sitting down with people, talking and listening and being present. This grew from one interview with Diane, into a very long chain of sharing stories between many community stakeholders; there’s so much power there.
Mei, what do you want to dedicate 2017 to?
I’m really looking forward to a Visioning Retreat, which is meant to help my family and different people who’ve been involved in the W.O.W. Project’s programming and development over the past couple months take ownership over the project and help shape what 2017 will look like for our growing grassroots initiative. It’s part of transitioning into being more of a community-owned initiative. I’ve felt in the past couple of months that it’s grown to be larger than me — I’m trying to tame it and control it, but it’s getting a little unwieldy. I’m looking forward to reflecting on and celebrating what happened in 2016, and appreciating the people who have been a part of it. In 2017 I want to do a huge fundraising boost for the W.O.W. Project so we can do even bigger and better things.
Well, we wish you a big red envelope full of funding this new year!