Asian American Arts Centre moving to Lower East Side
33 years perseverance promoting local Asian American artworks

SingTao Daily
October 14, 2009

Following global China heat wave, Chinese contemporary art is also hot in the U.S. When Americans speak of Asian Art, what comes to mind are works from Asia. But, Asian American Arts Centre that began during the 70s civil rights movement, determined to promote the arts of Asian Americans that reflect their immigration struggles, life searches, an art that has continued and persists. The contents of these art works are quite different from works from China, they are imbued with personal and historical narratives of real people, Asian people. However, with rents in Chinatown staying high, and after avoiding several past moves, Asian American Arts Centre has finally decided to move to the Lower East Side in November.

On the eve of this departure, Executive Director Robert Lee yesterday (Oct 13) described many historical photos from these 30+ years, preparing for the nostalgia of a farewell party with friends and the public Oct 25. Robert Lee said, 33 years ago, the anti Vietnam War era was quite different from today. Streets of every American city was vibrant with energy opposing the war. The fight for civil rights in the minority communities was also spreading throughout the country. Minority people were reconsidering their cultural status. Amongst them was a Columbia University architectural student Danny Yung who gathered other Hong Kong students, as well as native born second generation Chinese, and in 1969 in a basement on Elizabeth Street established Basement Workshop. There began the search of America’s Chinese and Asian cultural art, and a consensus for their identity. However, due to cultural differences between the foreign born and local born, and because there were also different opinions on receiving government funding, and since some people wanted to change Basement Workshop into a political organization, many Basement members wanted to go different ways, generating tensions within Basement Workshop. Finally, many people left and went their own way. However, undeniably, the organization was the germinating seed of many Asian American art and cultural organizations, and gave rise to Asian American Arts Centre, Asian CineVision and Bridge Magazine.

Many Asian organizations over the past 33 years has grown and become strong. But prosperity has eluded Asian American Arts Centre, even in the face of the popularity of contemporary Chinese art. Robert Lee said, “We don’t want to manage AAAC in a commercial way. We only want to reveal and preserve the life stories of America’s Asian people through artists and their artworks.” The beginning of the civil rights movement of the 70s moved into the universities. But when the leaders of these movements earned their degrees, and their related organizations began to mature, many left their communities. The leaders became more concerned with their career, and forgot the essence of civil rights. Robert Lee said, “we call that generation the ‘Me Generation’. Our generation is willing to sacrifice and contribute towards a foundation for the next generation of Chinese/Asian Americans. We want everyone and the general public to understand, when life is good, things are warm and there’s plenty to eat, why chase more wealth, more food, when we can realize and focus on what makes us happy and the meaning of a truly rich life.

From the many years of programming activities, this reporter pressed out from Mr Lee two of his deepest impressions. The first is of course the dancing of his wife of decades Yung Sueh. He said,” My wife is from a prominent Shanghai family. Her dancing was and is mesmerizing for me still.” The other unforgettable impression is when Ng Sheung Chi, an old immigrant, received recognition from the senior President Bush in 1991, and performed Toisan Muk-yu songs in the White House. AAAC was privileged to place this unknown Chinatown jewel in front of mainstream society. He said, “Ng Bok’s performance was an utter surprise, it was exceptionally well received by hundreds of Washington DC beaurucrats, giving him a thunderous applause. It taught me that people of different cultures can be united by the art of an inspired performer.”

Asian American Arts Centre even before the financial crisis was facing grave financial difficulties. Coupled by these as well as the financial crisis, AAAC finally decided to move out of its home at 26 Bowery into AAFE’s 111 Norfolk Street building.

Chinese parents rarely encourage the next generation to pursue art. Robert Lee laughingly said, “Immigrant communities always go through a process. When we were growing up, young people wanted to be engineers, then lawyers, and doctors. Today we can see there are many more Chinese willing to enter the art field,” Whether art can bring wealth depends on each individual. But what is certain is art can transform dirt into gold. Where ever one goes, where there is art, the real estate will always rise.

SingTao Daily October 14, 2009 Asian American Arts Centre moving...
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