Gentrification, Artwashing and Community Power in LA Chinatown with CCED’s Annie Shaw and Sophat Phea
Interview by Promise Li. Posted August 24, 2018.
This interview highlights some of the histories and strategies in which organizers from Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED), a grassroots, multi-generational, all-volunteer community organization, fought against effects of gentrification, from artwashing to displacement, in Los Angeles Chinatown. Annie Shaw, a tenant organizer and current Campaign Co-Chair, and Sophat Phea, the current Communications Co-Chair, reflect on their experiences organizing in CCED.
Promise: How did you get involved organizing in Chinatown?
Sophat: I’ve lived in Chinatown almost my whole life. My parents were from Cambodia and I was born in Minnesota, but I moved to LA when I was two. Before she started her current business, my mom worked in a garment factory. Sometimes she would bring home work and I would help out too. Shortly later, she would sell stuff in temples and to people’s homes. Eventually she opened a video and gift shop in the Asian Tower right across from the Chinatown library. Growing up, I feel like I wasn’t very aware of what’s going on in the community. In school, you don’t learn anything about gentrification. I didn’t know what that word meant until I joined Southeast Asian Community Alliance (SEACA). I joined SEACA in college, when the group was meant for high school students, but I guess I looked younger and I have cousins in high school who brought me to an event. It was a celebration of some sort, and there I got to know what SEACA is. It sounded interesting and I started going to their youth project meetings. They talked about what’s going on in the community, what gentrification meant, and other social issues that I haven’t thought much about before that time. SEACA really made me realize there’s a lot going on in my community, not just what’s going on in the news.
I got involved with Chinatown Community for Equitable Development (CCED) when Walmart was trying to move into Chinatown in 2012. There was a meeting that was happening in SEACA’s space. I didn’t know much about Walmart growing up living in Chinatown, so I learned a lot about their problems in those early meetings. I always felt like I grew up in a box. Since then, I came to more meetings, and I knew Sophia Cheng, one of the lead people in CCED at the time, was also involved in SEACA. When Sophia asked me to design the logo for CCED, that’s when I really became more involved. I started working with more people in CCED circles, including Scott Chan from APIFM (API Forward Movement) (previously API Obesity Prevention Alliance [APIOPA]). Once we finished and finalized the logo, I was already invested in CCED organizing, and after beginning doing outreach with CCED, I was happy to feel more connected to the community we got to educate and eventually organize together with tenants.
Annie: I first came into Chinatown around 2000. I was fresh out of art school. A friend invited me to see her painting in a shoe store she rented for a few weeks in Chinatown. I didn’t know you could do that, and the idea that you could organize your own show was empowering to me. She gave me the contact of Eleanor Soohoo, who had deep roots in Los Angeles’s Chinatown community, but it took me sometime to understand that. Eleanor was so supportive of me. She told me she wanted to rent to a young Chinese woman. She gave me access to a barbershop that closed when the owner retired after 60 years. My rent was $250, which was a lot to me then. What I didn’t know is that our tenantleaders still pay similar rent for their SROs in Chinatown in 2018.
At the time, I didn’t have any analysis on gentrification. I did have an instinct that something about the white box did not feel right. A lot of White artists and gallerists were gutting former small business storefronts, yet keeping the names of former business names and community spaces for their art spaces and galleries. So I reacted by keeping the original layout of the barbershop and painting it “crystal tear” green, as close as I could get to the original color. The three-month project ended up lasting for five years. Looking back, I made a lot of mistakes. I was not fully politically conscious then. Even though art school drilled into us the idea that artists have important responsibility towards our society, I didn’t have enough experience to understand what it really meant to organize with our community.
After six years running the space, I closed down the shop to go to grad school, and gave my lease to an artist, who left it mostly vacant for two more years. Eleanor was concerned because the vacancy was impacting the other businesses. One day she called me because a family newly immigrated to the US wanted to start a hair salon. I supported her decision to rent the space to them instead. The hair salon still gives $12 haircuts today.
Moving back to LA five years ago, I was stunned by what had happened to Chinatown. It was getting so gentrified. I was much more politicized by then, having experienced Occupy in New York. I didn’t know much about CCED then, but it was one of the few APIled organizations that spoke out against NYPD officer Peter Liang in the Akai Gurley case, and organized protest against police brutality in Chinatown. Then one day, CCED organizer Craig Wong brought me to the tenants at 1907 Johnson St in Lincoln Heights, which became my first tenant organizing site fight.
Promise: Relatedly, how has CCED helped highlight and organize against the issue of ‘artwashing’ and what can other API and Chinatown organizers learn from our experiences with art galleries here in Los Angeles Chinatown today?
Sophat: Artwashing meant opening up more galleries, more unfriendly spaces to which the community does not get invited. A lot of private events. That’s my impression from these galleries. Growing up, I didn’t know they existed. I don’t walk around those areas, and if I do, I realize that I used to walk right past them. When I joined SEACA since SEACA’s space is in Mandarin Plaza, which has a lot of art galleries the organization talked about what these are, who they’re for, and who they’re not for. That’s when I thought that it made sense that I never heard about these. I was never invited; I never knew they would hold events at night and that the only way in is to be invited. I also learned more about how these galleries make money and sustain such a space.
Annie: Can you specify what do you think these galleries were for, and what were they not for?
Sophat: Well, to make profit, and also to showcase [artists’] work, They were definitely for invited people who have money to afford these artwork, and they wouldn’t invite lowincome folks like us, who probably won’t be able to afford any piece there.
Annie: I think artwashing in Los Angeles very much started in Chinatown. China Art Objects and the galleries in Chung King Road paved the way for art world capital to move eastward. It’s harder to imagine now, but those spaces were very hip at the time. How Boyle Heights is talked about in 2016 mirrors how Chinatown was talked about in the 2000s a lot of boosterism around “the alternative art scene” when it was really artists, including myself, taking advantage of the divestment from POC neighborhoods. While many galleries moved or changed hands, Chinatown’s art scene became a model for places like Boyle Heights.
In Boyle Heights, there are only about 12 galleries, all are enormous backed by a lot of capital. But they are new, and the community pushed back fiercely against their arrival. In Chinatown, there have been around 40 small to mediumsized spaces for over a decade with a certain level of acceptance. These spaces do not cater to the community, as Sophat said, and remain hidden in the daily fabric of people living in the community. You can clearly see the impact of artwashing. Chinatown feels vacant these days. Many folks are facing displacement and/or live in very poor living conditions, having a hard time finding jobs or accessible resources within the community. This is not to mention that we are also facing over 43 marketrate developments. The same players who invest in museums and galleries in downtown, are the same ones investing in gentrifying eateries or art spaces, from Major Domo to Beyond the Streets. Those players they don’t divide these categories. They follow what accrues the most speculative value.
At this point, new generations will not be able to come to Chinatown for working class jobs and homes unless drastic actions are taken. Seeing how the Boyle Heights community fought back gave me, and many others, a sense of what is necessary to reverse gentrification.
Recently, CCED organizers like Jenny Lin and Kenny Chan have supported a number of actions calling out local galleries and stood in solidarity with Boyle Heights organizers in anti-artwashing actions. Another organizer, Charlotte Nguyen recently spoke out against artwashing at Into.Action, while Katie Wang and other members have been working on a statement that details our organization’s platform on artwashing. And, we are planning to fight all 43 developments together by calling a moratorium on nonaffordable development with other community partners.
Promise: Yes, the galleries and new developments have drastically altered the landscape of Chinatown, especially in the recent years. Sophat, growing up in Chinatown, what are some of the ways that you and your family reacted to the changes in Chinatown in the past years?
Sophat: It’s a lot of changes now. Many places in Chinatown have closed down or moved. One of our CCED tenant leaders and longtime Chinatown community organizer Amy Mar used to have a newspaper stand. I remember seeing that growing up. I didn’t realize when it was gone until later, and there were other places, like the minishops and arcade right around Alpine Park and Ord St., or that small burger joint on Broadway, that also quietly disappeared. Growing up, I was very invested in Chinatown because my whole life revolves around it. I haven’t been to the mall until when I was 18 or 19; all the shopping I do used to be in Chinatown, from necessities to toys. Now it’s different I also go to Target, CVS, and the mall, for things.
Promise Can you two elaborate on what the changes have been like in the more recent years? For instance, I know the nearby Ai Hoa supermarket, which many community members have been using for years, might be closing down soon.
Sophat: Ai Hoa is still there, but it sounds like it’ll be replaced soon. The property has recently been sold to Tom Gilmore, one of the biggest gentrifying developers in Los Angeles, and just closed escrow. Gilmore turned a lot of buildings in downtown L.A. into fancy lofts, mixed use units and hotels, so Ai Hoa may turn into a hotel or something, but we’re not sure yet. The market has been there longer than I can remember. It has been our goto market for a lot of Chinatown residents. My mom still shops there since her shop is right next to it. A couple years ago, we had to vacate our location at Asian Tower and we relocated to our current space, which is subleased to us by Ai Hoa. Since Tom Gilmore doesn’t allow subleasing in his properties, we are definitely concerned about what’s happening to Ai Hoa.
Also, there has been a lot of changes in Far East Plaza recently, where George Yu’s Business Improvement District (BID) operates. The BID courts a lot of developers and have been accelerating gentrification in the community in the last decade. New hip restaurants are in the plaza now, and with the exception of Kim Chuy noodles and a barber shop, everything else that used to be there, like Wing Hop Fung, and as of last month, J&K Hong Kong Cuisine, are pretty much gone.
Annie: What feels drastic now started around the early 2000’s. I remember George Yu starting the BID in either the early or mid 2000’s, and that the community has not been receptive to him at the start. I remember seeing George Yu’s drawing plans for what is now the newlyconstructed mixeduse Blossom Plaza. I was not politically sound enough yet to understand the impact of BID and other dynamics. Not only the BID in Chinatown, but other BIDs have a long history with increasing policing in people of color communities, especially in Downtown LA and Highland Park. What I could tell was that there was tension between old business owners and this new force coming in creating this different infrastructure of power. When I moved back to LA, I remember being in community meetings where folks were debating whether gentrification was a good or bad thing. Five years later, people are collectively seeing that gentrification is a form of displacement for people of color communities.
I just want to name this because what feels sudden in Far East Plaza had a beginning not too long ago: The Akai Gurley case brought me into CCED, but it was CCED members like Cathy Chu, Katie Wang, Frances Huynh who brought me into organizing for the community around questions of displacement. Our conversations around gentrification eventually brought us to doing an action three years ago at Chinatown Summer Nights, a BIDorganized monthly event with DJs and food trucks that caters to young, hip, White folks who usually don’t live in Chinatown. A few CCED organizers, including Kenny Chan, Andy Su, Patrick Chen, Katie, and I made a little flyer that we passed out at the event about the effects of gentrification and we wore shirts saying ‘Development not Displacement,’ which was a very gentle stance really. We were harassed continuously. We also witnessed the serious harassment of Mr Song, a longtime community member who makes his living playing the erhu on the streets; at that event, he was surrounded by BID private security and three police officers, just because he was playing music on the street outside of the festival. We tried to deescalate, but experiences like that further brought me into organizing in Chinatown.
Promise: Annie, you’ve been a key leader in organizing the tenants of 1907 Johnston and 651 Broadway. Can you tell us more about how our site fights and CCED’s Resident Concern Group fit in with CCED’s larger vision?
Annie: There is no doubt we are in the midst of a housing crisis. I was kind of thrown into tenant organizing. I learned because there was a need an urgent need especially for 1907 Johnson folks to be able to stay in their homes that they lived in for so long. It was not some kind of political strategy or ideological stance, but the resilience of these few elderly tenants, Mr and Ms Zhou, Ms Yeung, that led them to fight and ultimately win rent decreases. When we asked them what they wanted, they said “we cannot and will not move out of the building.” Some of them were almost 90 years old and everything they were used to was within walking distance. For them to move out and find a new place with the completely unaffordable rent in the area would be extremely difficult, and tenants literally told me that this would shorten their lifespan. It was a stressful time, because I didn’t really know how to do this fight, but we had community support, including advice from Union de Vecinos, and everyone in CCED put a lot of effort in supporting the tenants, especially Sofia Chang, Amee Chew, Taiji Miyagawa and many others. Everyone in CCED supported the tenants the best we could.
From that point, we soon moved into organizing tenants in the SRO building at 651 Broadway. It was a much bigger building and we learned to be more strategic in our process on deciding how to take up this site fight. This building’s situation last year, with illegal rent increases for many lowincome seniors, was also urgent, but the community was more divided. The building had to share very little resources among themselves; with more than fifty tenants, there was only one functioning stove, and only six toilets and showers in total in the whole building. Some of the toilets were left broken or improperly bolted to the ground for years. Both 651 and 1907 were under rent stabilization, so there was some protection, but it created examples of how our community needs to fight, and can fight together.
Eventually, the CCED members and tenants organized an action and successfully prevented the rent increases. Phyllis, Frances and Promise started a Resident Concern Group (RCG) where we started bringing folks together to talk about larger issues that we face as a community. We organized together in that space to address the issue of losing our only hospital in Chinatown, Allied Pacific, and fought to provide some sort of urgent care services back for our seniors. Next, we will be looking to discuss how to fight against the 43 new developments altogether.
The RCG meetings also creates a softer space for the community to build and support each other. I remember something Promise had shared before that stuck with me is that it is easier for us to help each other fight for something, but it is harder to fight for something for ourselves. I see RCG as a space where we can practice both. Not every struggle is a victory, but we can celebrate and process both our wins and losses together in different ways. I think the RCG is generative in that way: when we lose we have a space to heal our wounds together.
Thank you to all of the members of CCED, young and old who continue to serve the people and provide an example to others about what TRUE grassroots organizing is about!