The Portland Chinatown Museum, a new cultural center in Old Town Chinatown not far from the Chinatown Gateway at West Burnside and Fourth Avenue, has been having what the restaurant industry calls a “soft opening.” Set to open its doors officially on December 15, when the nailing and hammering and painting and installing in its main gallery spaces will be completed, it’s been putting on shows and other events in its smaller but still spacious finished galleries just beyond its entry at 127 Northwest Third Avenue.
The museum’s permanent galleries will be devoted to the historical exhibition Beyond the Gates: A Tale of Portland’s Historic Chinatowns, which originated in 2016 at the Oregon Historical Society, where it ran for three months, and is now being given new life. The smaller galleries that are already open are planned for work by contemporary artists and occasional performances, providing a vital link between the present and the past.
On a recent Thursday evening the galleries were bustling with visitors to Descendent Threads, an exhibition of work by three contemporary Asian American artists –– Roberta May Wong, Ellen George, and Lynn Yarne. The show opened on October 4 and continues through November 9. The draw on this particular evening was the announcement that George and Yarne would be on hand to mingle and talk about their work, and as it turned out, Wong was there, too, happy to chat with anyone who wanted to talk. Also milling around were artist Horatio Law, guest curator for this show, and Jacqueline Peterson-Lewis, executive director of the new museum, who created Beyond the Gate for the Oregon Historical Society along with the talented designer Carey Wong, associate curator Jennifer Fang, and the Portland Chinatown History Association.
It was a congenial evening. The crowd was steady but not overwhelming, the artists were engaging, and the art was good –– often generous, sometimes blunt. Roberta Wong is a conceptual artist and cultural activist with deep roots in the city’s Chinese and other Asian communities and its cultural scene. She was gallery director at the Interstate Firehouse Cultural Center for several years, and she’s a connector: she seems to know, and often bring together, a dizzying number of people from many walks of life. Her art tends to be carefully honed, sharp and pointed, making a statement at the same time that it raises questions about race, gender, and the ways people think about other people. All Orientals Look Alike, for instance, from 1984, is a simple but quietly crushing assembly of black and white photographs in a funerary setting, and the differences and similarities in the four faces are up to the viewer to distinguish. The larger central photo is a composite of the other four, creating both a unity and a diffusion.
Perhaps the most potent of her pieces in the show is 2003’s All-American, in which a long braid of hair dangles on a chopping block, a Chinese cleaver hacked through it in an act of implied amputation –– an emphatic denial or sacrifice of an essential part of self. It makes a compelling image of the difficult choices between identity and assimilation. Wong smiled and fingered her own long hair, which reaches beyond her shoulders and down her back. “I have enough hair now to do another one,” she said.
If Wong’s art is pointed, George’s seems more philosophically open-ended, a fine-edged crafting of objects and images that create breathing room and open intellectual and emotional spaces that rise from specific ideas but encourage the mystery of multiple possibilities. George, who was raised in Galveston, Texas, by a Chinese mother, is represented in Portland by PDX Contemporary, and is preparing for her next show there, in May 2019. Her work in Descendent Threads, she said, springs from memories of her mother, Dr. Martha Lai-Haan George, who was born in 1923 and died shortly before the exhibition opened. Those memories took her, for instance, to the pristine Abacus, an assemblage of seven balls (George calls them “oversized bead forms”) shaped from rice and arranged not in a row like the traditional calculating apparatus but in a circle, sitting on a fold of red velvet. The piece strikes you first with the simple beauty of its shapes and textures, and afterwards with whatever implications and associations it might bring.
On a nearby wall hang several exquisite small gouache paintings on birch panel from her ongoing Fan Suite, based on 17th, 18th, and 19th century Chinese fans with their evocations of plants and landscapes. And sitting on a low platform on the floor is Translation, a translucent double spiral, 4 feet wide and 8 feet long, made up of 400 tiny boat-shapes made of folded paper and suggesting, in their elegant curves, anything from microscopic biological creatures to spiral galaxies to the raked swirls of sand in a Japanese rock garden. Growing up, George said, she would watch her mother, who often felt displaced in American culture, open up and become most herself when she spoke her native language –– a language George didn’t understand, except to realize that it put her mother at ease, like returning home. To make the tiny boats in Translation she took apart a Chinese-English dictionary and folded the pages, in a pattern that her mother had taught her, so that the sculpture contains both the mystery of miscommunication and the key to understanding.
Yarne is the youngest of the three, an artist of both Chinese and Japanese descent who also teaches art at Grant High School in Northeast Portland (the school has been in residence at the old Marshall High School for the past two school years while its own campus is being refurbished and rebuilt; when it moves home in fall 2019, Yarne said, the old gymnasium space will house the school’s art programs). Both of her grandmothers were born in Portland’s Chinatown, and her project for Descendent Threads, which takes the shape of a small open hut or a particularly ornate food booth, is something of a shrine to family memory and the personal stories, many of them told on a continuously running video inside the space, of community members and ancestors. The tales come from both Chinatown and Nihonmachi, or Japantown, and are often second- or third-hand, with all the elusiveness that that implies. “They are stories of resilience and community, of darkness and joy, of mystery,” Yarne notes in her artist statement. “Old Town is a very haunted place, but I like to think of it as full of guiding spirits.” Using images collected from magazines and elsewhere, she’s created a large cocoon of closely spaced memories, crammed with both comfort and possibilities. She wants people to enter the work, which is called In Gratitude, as if it were an inviting room, she said, and spend as much time as they want. And indeed, there is much to see here and take in; you could visit many times and still find more. The shape gives it a sense of home, and the collaged images and video stories give it a sense of energy.
All of this cultural vitality is taking place as yet another plan to revive a part of town that is known for persistent homelessness and deteriorating buildings as well as Chinese restaurants and cultural centers is foundering, as Gordon R. Friedman reports in The Oregonian. A $57 million “action plan” adopted by the city in 2014 is at a near-standstill, with little guidance or political push. It’s a pattern that immigrant, minority, and lower income communities are all too familiar with. Among the plan’s many goals, for instance, is a promise to create 500 new jobs in the neighborhood. Prosper Portland (the former Portland Development Commission) says the goal will be close to met when the Multnomah County Health Department and its 350 employees move to new quarters in the neighborhood. But as Friedman points out, “those are not new jobs; they have merely been relocated from downtown. And the Health Department move has been in the works since at least 2008, well before the action plan was conceived.”
Such political and cultural realities should not be forgotten, and they should not detract from the celebration of a good thing. The creation of the Portland Chinatown Museum provides a fresh and promising link in the city’s fractured and often poorly understood history of immigrant communities, and some hopefulness in a part of town that is used to broken promises. Historically, Chinese communities were on both the north and south sides of Burnside Street near the riverfront in Old Town; in the early decades of the 20th century what we now call Old Town Chinatown was more often known as Japantown. (The Oregon Nikkei Legacy Center is close to the Chinatown Museum, at 121 Northwest Second Avenue.) And in recent years a “new” Chinatown has coalesced on Portland’s East Side, centering on 82nd Avenue. But Old Town Chinatown is where the roots are, and the Chinatown Museum joins the Chinatown Gateway, which was dedicated in 1986, and the Lan Su Chinese Garden, which opened in 2000, as modern evocations of the cultural past and declarations of its continuing vital presence. The story continues. Stay tuned.
The Portland Chinatown Museum is at 127 Northwest Third Avenue. Hours during its “soft opening” before its Dec. 15 grand opening are 3-8 p.m. Thursdays, 1-6 p.m. Fridays, and noon-5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays. Information here.
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