A Gift of Color for Chinatown’s Dark Times

Long before the pandemic shut down the rest of New York, Manhattan’s Chinatown was struggling. Baseless fears spread quickly about people of Chinese ancestry as carriers of the coronavirus, and by mid-January, Chinatown’s streets were almost deserted. 

Business was down by 40% to 80%, with restaurants consistently reporting losses at the higher end, according to The Associated Press.  By May, only 15% of Chinatown eateries remained open, according to The Wall Street Journal

Longtime Chinatown activist Karlin Chan had a vision to draw visitors back: a series of brightly colored murals that would celebrate the neighborhood and serve as Instagram-ready sites depicting living signs of the neighborhood’s  resilience. 

In August, Chan enlisted muralist Peach Tao as a volunteer, and together they created the Chinatown Mural Project.  After self-funding two murals, Chan raised $3,700 through GoFundMe for supplies. By the fall, the first murals began popping up, one by one. 

The artworks depict an effervescent world. Tigers and rabbits serve food, pigeons play mahjong.  Roosters, horses, dogs or sheep, sit down to enjoy dim sum together.  History blends with the current moment. Children and grandparents are shown among dragons and lions celebrating the New Year.

“The murals so far have been very whimsical,” said Chan. “It will evolve a little bit into more serious subject matters to a point, but we still want to keep that Chinese culture in it.”

As the year has progressed in Chinatown, business seems to be improving. People are returning for take-out meals and outdoor meals, according to The New York Times

But this business may not be enough. Manhattan’s Chinatown relies on tourists more than Chinese neighborhoods in Flushing and Sunset Park, which have larger Chinese populations, according to City Limits. Many businesses are also unable to capitalize on outdoor dining due to Chinatown’s narrow streets, according to The City.  And some of Manhattan Chinatown’s most well known restaurants have already closed, including Golden Mandarin Court, Amazing 66 and Hop Shing.

Chan and Tao plan to continue the popular Chinatown Mural Project in an effort to bring joy and light to what has been one of Chinatown’s darkest times.

“I want to create fun spots, not something too serious,” said Chan. “We wanted something children and adults can relate to. So her art is totally in line with my vision. This is like a perfect collaboration between activists and artists.”

About the author(s)

Seiji Yamashita is a Japanese American multimedia journalist originally from the San Francisco Bay Area. Prior to attending Columbia Journalism School, he studied international relations at the University of Rochester and jazz piano performance at the Eastman School of Music. He was previously an AmeriCorps Vista corps member in Rochester, NY. Twitter: seiyamashita3