The Pao Arts Center: Holding Each Other Close

I wrote this letter in 2019 in support of the new Pao Art Center founded in 2017.

I designed a homage to my immigrant heritage in Yu Wen Wu’s Pao artist-in-residence Bundlings project : Leavings/ Belongings

Asian American artists: musicians writers dancers choreographers filmmakers gather under Yu Wen Wu’s “Lantern Stories,” a project supported by the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy . We met after viewing a film screening of Lenora Lee’s choreography project and panel discussion organized by the Boston Asian American Film Festival. We all linked through the Pao Arts Center in one form or another.

Pao Arts Center

Cynthia Yee

I was born and grew up on Hudson Street in Boston’s Chinatown, into a Taishanese community, reeling from the effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Act barred Chinese laborers from immigrating, becoming citizens, and intermarrying. Repealed in 1943, its effects lingered. A community excluded becomes a community in hiding, and Chinatowns formed across the country, including Boston. The War Brides Act of 1945 paved the way for wives of WW2 veterans to immigrate. Children were born and Chinese family life grew and expanded with the passage of the Immigration Act of 1965, the Hart-Celler Act. Hudson Street became the new home for the newly arriving immigrants from rural Taishan and urban Hong Kong.

            As this community emerged from hidden lives, economic considerations assumed primary importance, but that did not mean artists and love of the arts did not exist.  The Taishanese people emigrated from southern farming villages with a great reverence for education and the arts.  Music, calligraphy, culinary arts, painting, and opera were part of daily living.  Schools, being of primary importance, were built with the best materials available, often paid with laundry and restaurant earnings from long hours of labor in America.  Taishan boasted a high literacy rate among its men.  In the immigrant community, traditional Cantonese and Taishanese music and opera companies continued to exist and play in homes, and different public spaces including,  the Chinese Merchants Association auditorium on Hudson Street (half destroyed by the expansion of the SE Expressway, and the Tyler Street parking lot next to the China Pearl became  open air space for opera performances.

            The greatest physical and emotional trauma to the newly formed Chinese community was the destruction of housing on Hudson Street by the expansion of the SE Expressway, forcing Syrian and Taishanese residents to scatter for limited affordable housing.  Yet the Arts continued to survive in basements, in clan associations, in homes, wherever a space could be found.  I remember my dad and my uncles jamming in our Hudson Street apartment on their one day off a week from their restaurant jobs, each playing a Chinese instrument, and the care they took in building cabinets to house their recordings of traditional operas and instrumental music.  I remember the mothers singing Cantonese and Taishanese operas as they sewed piece work at home and in the factories.

            My American born peers and I came of age at a  time of radical social change, the 60’s and 70’s.  Educated, speaking an unaccented fluent English, and armed with knowledge of two cultures, we became practitioners of several sorts of social protest.  We joined in solidarity with other communities of color to work for social change and justice, grass roots organizing, and advocating for bilingual education, bilingual/bicultural health care, English and job training programs, and after school programs.  Our efforts succeeded,  creating the Chinatown social service organizations of today, like the South Cove Community Health Center, the Chinatown Progressive Association, the Asian American Resource Workshop, and the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which originated with a group of teachers meeting in the school cafeteria to discuss the possibility of providing after school care  and family services to immigrant new arrivals. 

            BCNC, a huge success in providing and expanding childcare and educational services for all ages, moved onto the creation of the Pao Arts Center.  Chinatown had no existing infrastructure for sharing the arts.  A magical stroke of karma, the Pao Arts Center straddles Albany and Hudson Street, its front entrance overlooking the SE Expressway, which was responsible for the wounding of the Taishan-American community in the 50’s and 60’s in its infancy, its rear and side entrance overlooking the  remains of the row-houses of Hudson Street.  A neighborhood, once considered a blight, and therefore in need of urban renewal’s heavy hand, is now looked upon as in need of protection, as in the Row-house Preservation Committee.  The Pao Arts Center is in a perfect position, symbolically and physically, to look onto the past and into the future, to heal past trauma caused by immigration, marginalization, and eminent domain’s reach, and it is doing exactly that, in the most magnificent way.  With the support of leaders and donors of BCNC , and the enlightened vision of the Director, Cynthia Woo, the Pao schedules exciting innovative programming.  It celebrates and showcases contemporary, as well as traditional Asian American artists in a beautiful, modern, open space.   Our artists hide no more. 

            The Pao creates opportunities for conversation, sharing and collaboration.  It does so through the creation of the API Art Network and also personally connects me with individual artists in one on one conversations.  I am a teacher and writer and I have appreciated Cynthia Woo connecting me with the talented Artists in Residence, violinist/composer/activist Shaw Pong Liu, giving me the opportunity to participate in her Sing Home project, which uses song to uncork memory, creating a song  and migration story library, a unique resource for historians, and artist/scientist Yu Wen Wu and her Bundling Workshop project, using fabric to facilitate migration story conversations, so helpful in recapturing and mending family history narratives, torn and fractured by migration.  I have been inspired listening and meeting the No-No Boy Project, an innovative Asian American History singer and songwriting duo, Doctoral students from Brown University in Music and Asian American history, Erin Ayoma and Julian Saporiti.  I have expanded as a writer by attending the  three hours Theatre Workshop of Sara Porkalob, the multi-talented, Seattle based, Filipina American playwright and actress.  The workshop brought more artists into the API Art Network for artistic exploration through Theatre.

            The Pao uses its exhibit space to highlight the work of many Asian American visual artists.  This has never existed in Chinatown ever before.  Painters, trained in Guangzhou in traditional Chinese painting, has shared with me that they would never have had the opportunity to exhibit without the Pao and how pleased they are in this new country to have such an opportunity.  I have met and enjoyed the paintings of a Filipino visual artist from San Mateo.  Government leaders arrive for tea and art connecting them to their Asian American constituents. We all laugh together, the human beings we all are, uniting through art, breaking barriers, and building community together . 

            The Pao selections are ahead of the times.  They connected me with visiting artist, Lenora Lee, a dancer and choreographer from San Francisco, who tells the stories of the repercussions  of the Chinese Exclusion Act  through dance as I do, through words.  I experienced a stimulating exchange of ideas with her over lunch, introducing her to the meeting place of Boston 60’s activists, the Golden Gate Restaurant and Boston Chinatown roast beef.   We looked at the potential swimming pools for importing her underwater choreography to Boston, and we compared our respective Chinatowns during our walking tour, and I so enjoyed her beautiful dance performance, with its underwater background projection.  Lenora Lee went on to be named  a US Arts Fellow.  Shaw Pong Liu is a Kennedy Center Arts Fellow and a teacher with YoYo Ma bringing music excellence and friendship to youth in Guangzhou. 

The Pao Arts Center, through its ingenious programming and efforts to connect Asian American artists to each other, has brought pride to our humble immigrant community. To me as an artist and teacher, the Pao has been a source of support, education, and pure joy . Our full selves are no longer hidden, or voiceless, or divided, but feel kinship, love, and friendship with other Asian American artists all over the city, the USA, and indeed, the world. This is no small feat for a small community arts space, in a small immigrant community, and the Pao has achieved all of that in just one year. Something so needed, so overdue, and so magnificent has arrived in the City of Boston.

“Our full selves are no longer hidden, or voiceless, or divided, but feel kinship, love, and friendship with other Asian American artists all over the city, the USA , and indeed, all over the world.”

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