Even before the pandemic, before the violence and economic devastation that defined the past two years for San Francisco’s Chinatown, Mabel Teng and other longtime community leaders saw the neighborhood was in dire straits. . Businesses had been suffering for years before the myriad difficulties of COVID made matters worse.
“We started organizing because we think Chinatown needed something to spark its recovery,” said Teng, the former executive director of the Chinese Culture Center and the first Asian American woman to be elected to the seat. city board of supervisors, to The Chronicle. “Chinatown is dying.”
In 2018, Teng and others assembled a kind of superteam of organizations – Chinese for Affirmative Action, Chinatown Community Development Center, the Chinese Culture Center, the Chinese Historical Society, Angel Island Immigration Foundation, and the Center for Asian American Media – to create Chinatown Media & Arts Collaborative. The nonprofit, Teng noted, intends to unify the strengths of these groups into one strong voice not just for the neighborhood, but for all Asian American Pacific Islanders in the region and to other marginalized groups across the country.
“We felt that rather than waiting for someone with a good heart to save Chinatown, we had to do something drastic,” Teng said. “Young people don’t come because the community looks old, so we had this dream of creating something new.”
From this effort was born Neon Was Never Brighter, Chinatown’s first one-day contemporary arts festival, which will serve as the collaboration’s inaugural event on Saturday, April 30.
Taking place across the neighborhood, the gathering showcases 11 installations and works by 25 local AAPI artists. An opening procession and performance will be followed by a series of experiences and exhibits ranging from augmented reality and a fashion show to sculpture installations and video projections.
The theme for the day is “Chinatown personified”, with installations grouped into six experiences: seeing me, hearing me, feeling me, knowing me, remembering me, joining me.
“The sensory reality of Chinatown, its brightness and its strength, its personality, its multiplicity and its stories, that’s what I feel and remember growing up,” said festival curator Candace Huey, who has spent his childhood in and around the neighborhood.
Part of the festival, which will serve as the official kickoff to Asia-Pacific American Heritage Month, will take place in front of the building that will eventually house Edge on the Square, an arts and education space that CMAC plans to build – with the help of a $26.5 million grant from the state – and unveiled in 2025.
For organizers, Neon Was Never Brighter is the first glimpse of a confluence of efforts to envision a stronger long-term future for the community, especially in the shadow of the anti-Asian violence that has cast a veil over the neighborhood.
“It’s very real, and it’s not exaggerated,” said Huey, who knows locals who have been randomly attacked on the streets. Most restaurants and shops, she notes, close early these days: “They’re afraid to go out at night.”
That’s part of the reason the festival needs to run until 10 p.m., Huey added, “to kind of bring it back to life, so that (people) hopefully realize this is a place sure where to be again or to usher in some kind of brightness in this time of darkness”.
The festival is also seen as an opportunity to participate in something concrete and tangible at a time when violence seems inexplicable and answers or solutions are difficult to find.
“We can have daily, weekly, monthly gatherings, webinars and conversations – all of that is very important. It’s important to speak up, it’s important to have a dialogue,” said Claudine Cheng, president of the APA Heritage Foundation. “But I think the other element is also making sure that the various communities have the opportunity to really get to know a bit more of each other’s history and traditions.”
The event was chosen to usher in APA Heritage Month as a sort of “call to action,” Cheng stressed, and to build solidarity. Organizers hope the festival will bring people to Chinatown from across the Bay Area, paving the way for more unity in dark times like these and beyond. But above all, the festival is a defiant symbol of hope – that, with the right organizational power, Chinatown will persist.
“We look to the future with optimism,” Teng said. “We believe that when Chinatown rises, all other communities and neighborhoods will rise too. Because we are rising together. That’s the excitement we have. We’re not alone in this; we’re in the same boat.
Neon has never been so bright: 3-10 p.m. Saturday April 30. Free. 800 Grant Ave., SF www.neonwasneverbrighter.org