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Preserving Chinese Art, Culture, and Street Signs

Interviews with Chinese vendors translated by SVP’s Women & BIPOC Business Empowerment Organizer Rui Li

Kun Wu has been selling his calligraphy art in Times Square for about 25 years. His table is decorated with his past work, and while some name plates he’s created have more generic New York touristy scenes, others with Superman and Disney’s Frozen backgrounds are clearly more targeted towards children. Mr. Wu says that many of his customers are younger kids, pointing out how he drew two dolphins to make up the S and one butterfly for the E in “JESSICA.” “Little kids enjoy having their names transformed into a sequence of fun shapes and animals and colorful squiggles.”

Back in China, Mr. Wu did drawing as a hobby, but his main focus in school was performing traditional Chinese opera, which he continues to teach in Chinatown once a week. He states that everything he does stems from his love for folk Chinese art and culture, whether it’s drawing, performing, or photography. His work as a street vendor is just one of the many ways Mr. Wu has made traditional forms of art more accessible for people in the Chinese diasporaboth tourists and New Yorkers alikewho may feel disconnected with the culture.

“I use traditional Chinese techniques and styles to write out names in English. This is my way of making a living, of course. I’m a vendor, it’s my job. But the other reason I do this is that, for Chinese Americans and the diaspora—and the younger generation too—this is a way to continue Chinese art and tradition.”

Ken Wu quote

Mr. Wu’s work becomes even more important in the context of the New York Times article “Manhattan’s Chinese Street Signs Are Disappearing” from March of this year. As a brief history lesson, Manhattan’s Chinatown emerged out of the Chinese community’s need to sustain themselves and survive the violent processes of segregation and systemic exclusion. In the 19th century, existing xenophobic and racist sentiments in the West were heightened by the economic recession, with white Americans placing blame on the Chinese for the unemployment crisis. Due to the spike in anti-Asian violence in California, many Chinese immigrants migrated to the East Coast. Chinatowns “grew both involuntarily and voluntarily” in the East, with Chinese immigrants developing enclaves in places white Americans found undesirable (1).

As written in the NYT article, Chinese street names were written on shop windows and in personal correspondences to make the neighborhood more accessible for immigrants who knew little English. And later in 1969, local organizations fought for the New York City traffic commissioner to officially install bilingual street signs. While some racist groups responded to the signs with violence and vandalism, the community resisted by painting and repainting the Chinese translations–––refusing to be erased. The signs were also very special because they were handwritten by local calligrapher Tan Bingzhong (譚炳忠), and his handiwork can still be spotted in the small variations between characters.

According to the article, “there are about 100 bilingual street signs across two dozen streets in Chinatown today, of the at least 155 bilingual signs ordered in 1985.” In addition to depriving the Chinatown community of a symbol of their historic resistance, the erasure of the Chinese translations signifies the city’s disregard for the beautiful traditional art of calligraphy. But vendors like Mr. Wu are, in a way, preserving what these signs represent through their work as Chinese artists. Mr. Wu is resisting, just as Tan Bingzhong (譚炳忠) did, by continuing to practice this form of art everyday, making cultural and traditional forms of art more accessible, and getting paid for his artistic labor.

And of course, these disappearing signs are also an example of how the city disregards community members who can’t understand English, which is reflected in how non-English speaking vendors are treated. Many vendors I spoke to noted that, as immigrants who just came to the country with very little English, they had to turn to vending because they didn’t have many options for jobs. And a common problem they all spoke about was how confusing and unpredictable the rules for vendors were, especially with a language barrier.

As one vendor, who chose to stay anonymous, said:

“The main problem is that because there are different restricted streets, different rules, different times we can vend–––it’s first of all, very difficult for any English speaker to remember the rules because it’s very detailed and kind of arbitrary. It’s already really difficult. And for us, who don’t really speak English that much, that’s even more of a barrier, right. That’s even harder."

Vendors also explained that there is no standardization when it comes to police and DCWP enforcement. Some officers are looser and others are stricter, and sometimes vendors are told one thing from one officer and the opposite from another. It’s very difficult for vendors to know what’s actually right and it’s even more stressful and anxiety-inducing when they aren’t being spoken to in a language they feel comfortable with.

Mr. Wu also added that something that the city could do to better support vendors would be to actually open restricted streets:

“For example, over there on 7th Ave, technically it’s restricted until around 11pm. But there’s not as many people out at 11pm, right, so it makes no sense. So, for me, the biggest thing the city could do is change restrictions.

Make it so there’s more hours for us to be here legally. Because us First Amendment vendors, we don’t need any other additional licenses or permits or anything. We just want to be able to have more space, have more time.”

The term “First Amendment vendors” Mr. Wu mentions includes people wanting to sell merchandise such as newspapers, magazines, CDs, books and art. These vendors are protected under the right to free speech, and so, as Mr. Wu brings up, they don’t need a license or permit.

Another First Amendment vendor we met in Times Square was Bin Zheng, who has been a caricature and portrait vendor for the past 20 years. His table acts as his art portfolio, surrounded by pencil sketchings of celebrities and cartoonist bobble-head portraits. Bin Zheng shares a similar story as the other non-English vendors in the area.

“As someone with limited English, I could have either worked in something like a restaurant or do something like this, where I had more control and flexibility over my schedule.

And I have a background in art from back in China. I studied art, I went to art school. What I did as a job after was kind of like staging and drawing for department stores. So I had this background and now, being on the street and drawing things everyday, I have a chance to practice after basically not doing it for a while.”

Bin Zheng recounts how his secondary school teacher picked up his talent for sketching and recommended he go into that field. And his natural talent and years of schooling is very evident in his art, with some sketches looking closer to photographs. There is an amazing amount of detail and skill put into every single piece.

There is something very special about being able to see individual strokes of Mr. Zheng’s pencil when looking very closely at a piece. The bobble-head caricatures are also a very New York attraction that Times Square wouldn’t be the same without, and Bin Zheng echoes this.

“I just want to add that I am a part of the cultural fabric of the city—not only as a vendor, but as a caricature and portrait artist. In New York, I think, it’s known and iconic that you have vendors and artists out on the street. I am still this very skill-based laborer, I am providing this public good, I am a resource to this city. I’m adding to the cultural and commercial vibrancy of Times Square.

Maybe I’m providing only a small bit of happiness to kids or tourists, but I think vendors are an integral part of New York. And with technology, traditional forms of art are declining. I want to be able to preserve that, and do so by continuing to be out here.”

Our city would not be the same w

Bin Zheng quote

ithout the immigrant artists who sell their work on the streets. Like Mr. Wu, Mr. Zheng’s work as a vendor plays a crucial role in the preservation of art and culture, just in a different way. Vendors make this city, whether their labor is being used to preserve their culture and the history of their community’s resistance or preserve the classic New York vibe that brings tourists.

Vendors shouldn’t be feeling constantly nervous and surveillanced while working. And they especially shouldn’t be unfairly ticketed or reprimanded if they’re not given a translation of the rules. Vendors like Mr. Wu and Mr. Zheng are the heart of New York, and the city should start treating them like it.

(1) “From Farm to Canal Street: Chinatown’s Alternative Food Network in the Global Marketplace” by Valerie Imbruce, pg 37


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