According to this article, Chinatown’s are being squeezed. This is an old story; people have been predicting the demise of Philadelphia’s Chinatown since at least the 1920s. It is true that gentrification is an issue, and that new immigration from China and elsewhere is down. investment from China is up. If Philadelphia’s Chinatown is dying, I’ll believe it when I see it, given the history.
I know I’m a little late to the party here on this, but it took me some time to find the time to write this!
Much has been made of Miley Cyrus’s performance at the VMAs in September–most of it hand wringing and pearl clutching over the spectacle of a young woman, a former Disney performer, expressing explicit sexuality in public. I am the last to join in such hysterical slut-shaming. Some more reasoned responses point to Cyrus’ problematic appropriation of black culture to elevate her own cultural visibility, or as a marker of imagined transgression, racial or otherwise. As one professor interviewed put it, “she needs to take an African American studies class.” My reaction to Cyrus’ escapades is similar but it is not the appropriation alone that I find problematic. The story of white performers appropriating the music, gestures, and culture of black performers to line their pockets has a long history. But more troubling for me was Cyrus’ appropriation of black bodies, specifically black women’s bodies, to further her agenda of self expression, and the terms within which she did so.
At the VMAs, Cyrus performed with a background group of exclusively black female dancers. This bevy of teddy bear Hottentots danced and twerked with Cyrus, emphasizing their larger buttocks and thighs. At one point in the performance, Cyrus leans over and smacks the butt of one of the twerking dancers. Surrounded by large bottomed black women, Cyrus mimicked their movements, drew attention to their lower bodies, displayed them as a spectacle that in some way embodies her new identity. In doing so, she drew on a much older iconography and vocabulary of transgression, through the grotesque black body, that ultimately reproduced the racial boundaries she claims to transgress or blur.
The juxtaposition of her slender white body with these larger black bodies presumably rendered her performance shocking or transgressive. Cyrus drew on long standing cultural associations between black women’s bodies and active or deviant sexuality to give her own body its transgressive value. But while she claims a corporeal affinity with these black women whom she calls her “peeps,” her performance in a flesh colored bikini only served to underscore and highlight her own whiteness.
Cyrus’s preoccupation with the black female body, particularly the buttocks, references a historical preoccupation with black women as symbols of sexual savagery and corporeal deviance, embodied by the life of Saartjie Baartman, known as the “Venus Hottentot. “Baartman was a Khoisan woman who was enslaved and carried from Southern Africa in 1810, and subsequently exhibited as an exotic museum object around Europe until her death in 1815. Baartman was a sensation, and most of the period images of her portray the obsessive preoccupation with her lower body as an object of fascination and horror.
Bartman’s impact was not confined to the world of the museum or carnival sideshow. The image of black women as grotesque bodies, often juxtaposed with normative, non-grotesque white women, permeated Victorian visual culture. In advertisements for stove polish or soap, for example, black servants were displayed side by side with their white mistresses. In many cases, black women were portrayed as corporeally grotesque – unbounded, overly large, deviantly gendered. Often the black woman was physically larger than the white woman, with large feet, broad shoulders, and dark skin. This portrayal of black women treated their bodies as indexical of their fundamental, and inferior difference.
In the anti-fashion satire, The Grecian Bend from 1868, a fashionable white womans’ body, unnaturally distorted by the use of corset and bustle, is mirrored in the grotesque black body who gleefully pats her own naturally large posterior. The implication is that the tightly laced and bustled body is a grotesque vision of artificiality, that it resembles in some way the savage body, even as its very artificiality emphasizes that it is not the same. Cyrus’ representations do something similar in that the juxtaposition of her own body with Others ultimately reveals how different she is.
My suspicions about Cyrus’ flirtation with the grotesque were confirmed when a week later, she was reported to have performed with a dwarf in Berlin, perpetuating her own flirtation with the carnivalesque, yet still in ways that highlight her own normativity. Cyrus claims to want to “be black,” does she also identify with being a dwarf? Her attraction to such difference may express her sense of her self as a freak, her desire to transgress the norms of her own Disneyfied upbringing. Yet in drawing on the corporeal vocabulary of the grotesque, all she really does is reinscribed the difference of those whose bodies do not conform to those norms, ultimately reinforcing a sense of their otherness.
Murals are a powerful mode of communication in urban spaces, a vivid way of conveying important values and narratives in an immediate and visual way. And because they are located in and part of the existing urban landscape, they have a lot to say about place as well. grounded in the community, they create, reinforce and embody a sense of place.
This is true in Philadelphia’s Chinatown, which, despite its small size, has many murals communicating the culture and history of the neighborhood. Here are a few that speak most to the community’s sense of history and place. Each not only communicates images of Chinatown heritage, but do so on sites that embody important memories of struggle and survival for the community.
“History of Chinatown,” 10th and Winter
Perhaps the most important mural is the “History of Chinatown” mural, by Arturo Ho, and located at 10th and Winter Streets. This mural, commissioned for Chinatown’s 125th anniversary, portrays the history of the community from the arrival of the early laundrymen to the fight against urban renewal in the 1960s/70s. The site of this mural is historically significant, as the 900 and 1000 blocks of Winter were two of the most affected by extensive demolition to make way for the Vine Street Expressway and other redevelopment projects. Facing Vine Street, the mural stakes a claim to territory, publicly announcing a northern entrance to historic Chinatown.
In the mural, drops of water from a laundryman’s work transform into a highway. There, bulldozers are being stopped by protestors who carry signs proclaiming “homes not highways,” a slogan from the Vine Street fight. Holy Redeemer, the Chinese Catholic Church endangered by the expressway appears, as does the Friendship Gate and the address of the original laundry at 913 Race Street.
Gim San Plaza
Another mural that appears on a site dramatically affected by demolition in the 1970s is the mosaic mural on the north side of Gim San Plaza, a mixed-use commercial/residential structure occupying the east side of North 9th Street between Race and Cherry. Gim San Plaza was erected by Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation (PCDC) in 1985.
The mural, by Taiwanese born artist, Lily Yeh, is entitled “The Vision of Paradise,” literally translated as the Golden Mountains, the Fu Shang cosmic tree,, and Longevity in a Fairy Land,” depicts as large tree inhabited by beautiful red birds. In the foreground are mountains of gold. Gold Mountain, name of the project, Gim San, references the gold mountain that early Chinese immigrants came to seek. For Yeh, mountain indicates “height, glory, and majesty” and gold prosperity, good fortune and wealth. The gold mountains symbolized the “dream of the community.” Although the buyers for the property’s apartments had asked for traditional Chinese themes, Yeh eschewed what she felt were “visual clichés of dragon, fen huang (phoenix), pine trees, sweet-looking birds and flowers.” She chose instead the motif of Fu Shang shu, the Chinese cosmic tree which roots deeply into the earth and rises up to the sky, symbolizing the deep rootedness in history of the Chinese community that dared to dream of achievement.” The tree could just have easily represented the community’s insistence on planting roots in this particular soil. Yeh remarked, the mural is “very Oriental in intention and feeling, but contemporary in its technical innovations and in its playful juxtaposition of colors and objects.” The mural was placed on the building’s façade on the SE corner of 9th and Race streets to “establish,” according to PCDC, a strong presence for the eastern boundary of Chinatown.” Establishing this boundary was important for PCDC developers, particularly then-executive director Cecilia Moy Yep, who had witnessed the devastation of this block in the 1970s to make way for a commuter rail tunnel. Yep lived on this block, and was the last to sell her house, dubbed the “Chinatown Alamo.” For her, reclaiming the land for Chinatown was a personal as well as community achievement.
This mural was completed in December 1999 by artist Joshua Sarantitis. Located on the western edge of Chinatown, this mural uses the images of a dragon, scroll and face of a woman to portray the continuity of Chinatown’s past, present and future. According to Sarantitis, “The mural itself is about life in Chinatown and showing the strength of the people that live there, and the cultural heritage of thousands of years of Chinese life.” 
The woman pictured is Gayle Isa, the executive director of Asian Arts Initiative (AAI), which moved its offices to 1219 Vine in 2008 after being forced to relocate due to expansion of the Philadelphia Convention Center. According to Isa, this location helps the organization collaborate more actively with the Chinatown community. The site of the mural is also significant, since 11th and Vine was the site proposed by then Mayor John Street in early 2000 for a new Phillies stadium. Had those plans gone through, blocks of what is now Chinatown North would have been eliminated for the stadium and related parking. Drawing on a legacy of resistance and activism, the Chinatown community successfully organized to fight the stadium through letter campaigns, testimony at City Council hearings, and protests and demonstrations, including a general strike in June 2000 that shut down traffic on Vine Street. Now the 1100 and 1200 blocks of Vine are solidly within Chinatown, home to AAI and the new Chinese Christian Church annex building, heralding the projected growth of Chinatown North into these blocks in the coming decades.
 Memo from Lily Yeh to the Fine Arts Committee of the Redevelopment of Authority of the City of Philadelphia, May 3, 1987, Gim San folder, PCDC archives; PCDC News, April 1987; The Temple News, 29 October 2004
Thanks to a colleague Alex Cummings, via facebook, I found this interesting article, Why I, An Asian Man, Fight Anti-Black Racism, written by Scott Nakagawa, an activist in NYC. Nakagawa makes the important point that “anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy,” a fulcrum being “the support about which a lever turns” or, alternatively, “one that supplies capability for action.”
I’ve found this to be true over and over again, brought home in teaching immigration and ethnicity in US history, a class that inevitably ends up being all about race. Last time I taught the course, students read toward the end of the semester a work by Philip Kasinitz that examined racial identities of new immigrants and their children. Having already read David Roediger and looked at countless images of immigrants portrayed as racially other, we were primed to read this with an understanding of the various constructions of whiteness and blackness.
Kasinitz describes a context in which immigrants identify as white or non-white. But being non-white does not mean being black, since they also differentiate between black and non-black, firmly claiming the latter. As their children assimilate into “American” culture, they often adopt the urban culture, tastes, and mannerisms of African Americans, much to the horror of their parents, who wish and work for upward mobility. This segmented assimilation is seen as potentially maladaptive or at least less successful for immigrant youth, since African Americans are systematically discriminated against, so why would you act like that?
It was interesting discussing this reading with the students, many of whom were African American. Their minds were kind of blown by the recognition of these ways of thinking in their own lives, to see it spelled out so clearly. Also depressing, since all semester we kept coming back to the point that in any American racial hierarchy, blacks are always at the bottom. today, immigrants of color who cannot “become white” as so many previous generations of immigrants have done, still find ways to *not be black*, and in doing so, also perpetuate anti-black racism and white supremacy.
That’s why this article was so important, in that an Asian American man chooses to identify and work for African Americans, understanding that his own oppression is linked to theirs. It is reminiscent of the ways in which various movements by people of color, identifying with the black power movement, sought to link the struggles of Black, Asian, and Latino people and pursue the “same struggle, same fight,” to quote an Asian American activists, Yellow Seeds, who emerged in the fight to “Save Chinatown” in Philadelphia in the 1970s. More on that another time.