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Giles Li: I think a lot of people think of Chinatown as a place to eat or shop and they forget that there’s a lot of people who live there and we really want to make sure that it is all of those things to all of those people and more.
Anita Walker: Hello. I’m Anita Walker at the Massachusetts Cultural Council and welcome to Creative Minds Out Loud. Our guest today is Giles Li, Executive Director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center. Welcome to our program.
Giles Li: Thank you for having me.
Anita Walker: You are developing an arts center.
Giles Li: Yes.
Anita Walker: What prompted this?
Giles Li: Well, BCNC– my organization, BCNC, we’ve– we’re a social-services organization and we’ve been in Chinatown for close to 50 years now and so we– there’s a lot of people in the community that have used our services, childcare, parent supports, adult education, etcetera, throughout the generations but there’s a lot of people who don’t need childcare or don’t need youth services and they’re still members of our community too. And what we really want to do is be inclusive, not exclusive; we really want to make sure that this entire community feels like BCNC is the organization for them that makes them and their family feel like they belong. One of the things that we want to do is to use arts as a tool for kind of community development in that Chinatown community so we’re really proud to be the host of the One Chinatown Arts Center just to make it a space for families to come, members of the community to come to really actively feel like they’re welcomed in the community, to make it actively feel like there’s a place where they truly belong. And then there can be all kinds of diverse neighbors, all of their friends, people that they might not usually meet in their day-to-day life. It’s just another tool for the community to really get together and be one.
Anita Walker: One of the things that we’ve seen in similar examples is how it can be multigenerational, how grandparents can connect with kids but also that it can be really participatory; it’s not just a place to go and look at art but to be an art maker. Is that part of what you’re doing too?
Giles Li: Yeah. I mean it’s– we hope to kind span the whole gamut. I mean it’s really for– we want it to be a platform for the existing artists in Chinatown to share, to collaborate, maybe to teach but also for the young folks of that neighborhood to be able to see people who look like them or look like their parents have their work up on the walls or have a place where they can perform ‘cause they may not see that very often and then also for people who are maybe not of the Chinese community or don’t know that much about Chinatown to get to get a real sense of what life is like there, get a sense of that it’s just a neighborhood just like any other neighborhood with people with all the same kinds of challenges that all the rest of Boston faces in a slightly different context and really see the commonalities and the similarities between all the different people of the city because Boston is so diverse but there’s also that kind of singular identity of being from Boston. And it’s just as strong in Chinatown as it is throughout the city but I think a lot of people think of Chinatown as a place to eat or shop and they forget that there’s a lot of people who live there and we really want to make sure that it is all of those things to all of those people and more.
Anita Walker: One of the things that we do at Mass Cultural Council is we have a traditional arts program and part of our mission is really the preservation of traditional art forms. So often when people come to America the first thing they want to do is become as American as possible and we lose those rich traditions. Is that something you’re concerned about in Chinatown?
Giles Li: Yeah. It’s so interesting ‘cause I still have family in China and my cousin’s kids in China can quote thousand-year-old poems in Chinese but when you come to this country– I mean I can’t even quote hundred-year-old poems in English and so I think that something about our community– and this happens in a lot of area communities– when they come here in order to kind of make sure that they have the best chance of success they forget a lot of these things that are really essential to kind of the character of who they are and where they come from. And it can create a little bit of a disconnect and that disconnect can build and grow I think from generation to generation and people will discover it and rediscover it in their own ways but yeah, we definitely want to use this space as a place to kind of honor the traditional arts or the folk arts but not only that. We also want it to be a place where new art can be created or modern art or contemporary art that is influenced by traditional art or not, just community-based art, and we really want as many people who are part of the Chinatown community to feel like they can explore as many different facets of themselves as possible.
Anita Walker: What do you see as some of the really pressing challenges that you cope with every day at the neighborhood center?
Giles Li: Well, Boston is– it’s considered one of the most gentrified cities in the country. I saw a report about six months ago saying that it was the number-one—
Anita Walker: Number one, yeah.
Giles Li: Yeah, so it’s always up there but it’s also one of the most diverse cities in the country and is also one of the most walkable cities in the country, and so Chinatown is all of those things. It’s very diverse, it’s very walkable of course and then it’s very gentrified, and so the community is kind of changing around us. As I said before, we were founded in 1969 so we’ve kind of lived through many generations; well, not me personally but the organization has seen many generations of people kind of come and go. Right now we’re kind of at a point in history where Chinatown is– maybe its identity is stretching a little. The people that you have thought of as the typical Chinatown resident, maybe the low-income recent immigrant families or the seniors that just can’t afford to live there where they could ten years ago, and so they’ve moving to other places, Randolph, Quincy, Malden, and there’s– at the same time there’s these kind of luxury or market-rate condos or rentals that are going up and the high-rises around the neighborhood and so the typical Chinatown resident is different now than it was when I was a kid. And change is inevitable, you can’t stop that nor maybe should you, but to me Chinatown has always been a place where when I didn’t maybe feel like I belonged in other parts of the society or when I felt like I was trying to search for who I was as a person Chinatown played a big role in helping me figure out who I was, and I want that to continue. I still want it to be a place for kids like when I was a teenager that this is where I went; this is– my social circle was centered around Chinatown. My parents’ social circles were centered around Chinatown. I still want it to be able to be that even as demographics change and I think that the way that we do that is multifaceted but one of the things that we got to be able to do is to express that through arts and culture. So it’s something that brings people together regardless of whether or not they are Chinese, regardless of whether or not they have history in Chinatown. I think it’s something that really makes people feel connected to each other; that’s the important thing for me.
Anita Walker: You mentioned the word “gentrification,” which is certainly something that is a concern everywhere in Boston quite frankly and the idea that the cost of housing and real estate is driving people into other neighborhoods and that you might just lose that core population where real authenticity in terms of the cultural traditions and art, the people who hold those so dearly. I can tell you’re struggling with that one, change versus the conservation of cultural treasures. Talk a little bit more about that, some of the things you’re thinking about doing.
Giles Li: Yeah. Well, in the center we are developing an artist in residence program so it will be an artist who– we’ll do our first one pretty soon, but it’s going to be a kind of a competitive process where members of the community as well as members of the cultural sector will serve as a jury to kind of select an artist who can work with all the different members of the Chinatown community to really think about what are some of the challenges of being a resident of Chinatown or being a member of the Chinatown community and what are some artistic or creative interventions that we can imagine; what are some things that we can do. And some of that is just to start a conversation, some of that is to really get people thinking about solutions, and a lot of that is really about bridge building just between neighbors, between people who work in the neighborhood but don’t live there or people who live there but don’t work there or people who pass through shopping or what have you. We really want people who spend time in the Chinatown neighborhood to feel like it is a neighborhood that they can be invested in, and I think that this artist in residence program is going to be one of those ways that we really– we are actively outreaching to other parts of the community and beyond to kind of have that conversation.
Anita Walker: It is interesting how powerful the arts can be to sort of make people feel comfortable having conversations that they may not want to engage in otherwise and once your creativity gets mobilized you might find some surprising solutions have never presented themselves before.
Giles Li: Yeah. Well, one of our close partners in this space– or our lead partner in this space is Bunker Hill Community College. Now they’re not a Chinatown institution but they are really important to the city and really to the state, their amazing campus and one of the– they’re the most affordable college education that we have here in Massachusetts. And I think that they’re willing to be invested in this project in Chinatown because they know they have people coming to their campus from this community and they need a strong community to come from in order to be able to be a part of a strong community on campus. So they’ll be– they’re holding classes in our space, they are going to be renting programs in our space, and we are just figuring out how else we can partner to use the center as well as use their campus and use all of the other kind of facilities and resources in the city to uplift everybody. It’s funny you’re talking about the way that people can have conversations through art that they cannot have otherwise ‘cause one of our other partners is South Cove Community Health Center; it’s a local community health center for Chinatown. And their head of behavioral health, Dr. Vuky, I was talking to her about arts and how can we partner and she was saying that she’s gone through these experiences where they put Asian art, Chinese and Vietnamese art, around their office because it can sometimes lead to conversations that people would not otherwise have. She was telling me a story of a mother and daughter who had some family-functioning issues and some mental-health challenges and that when they came in they saw this kind of special Vietnamese stitching that she had on the wall, it was very unique to Vietnam, and then the mother suddenly says, “This stitching reminds me of where I come from and this is how people did it.” And it was the first time that her daughter got to see her actually express emotion maybe ever and so it was– it helped with a kind of a breakthrough and allowed people to really see each other in a way that maybe they would not have been able to, and it was just a simple piece of art that was hanging on the wall. So imagine that kind of multiplied by whatever magnitude for the benefit of the entire community.
Anita Walker: We sometimes think here about art as kind of a sleeping giant that when unleashed in certain nontraditional settings whether it’s a neighborhood center or a health clinic or a nursing home it can just have incredible transformational effects. Giles Li, Executive Director of the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, with a brand-new arts center for the community, one of our creative minds out loud.
Giles Li: Thank you so much for having me here.
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