Florentine - Isometric Workshops on
building a 21st Century Asian American Cultural Center in NYC Chinatown
 

 

**Translation of a Sing Tao Daily article on our first workshop on 8/22!** 

Planning new site at Florentine School -- 
Positioning for the Future of Chinatown Community

by Rong Xiaoqing - Sing Tao Daily, New York Bureau

Click to read this article in the original Chinese

Click to read this article in the original Chinese

More than 20 people interested in Chinatown's development gathered at 219 Park Row on the 22nd to discuss the past and future of Chinatown. They talked about changes in the local scene, Chinatown’s delicate situation in the face of rapid global changes, the meaning of Chinatown community to each individual, and the task of using the arts to bring new life to the community. These topics were raised as a result of Florentine School’s recent transition to the new location.

The Florentine School, established 34 years ago by Elma Seto Moy, with its mainstay in children’s music education, previously operated two sites, at Chinatown’s Henry Street and Tribeca. Now Florentine has moved its Tribeca site to 219 Park Row, currently the school’s main site of operation. It’s director, Olympia Moy, second daughter in the Moy family, has yet a grander plan to forge the new site into a community center where culture and arts can bring the old and new immigrants together. “For our current generation of Chinese Americans, unlike the older generation, the challenge is not just to survive, but to really embrace the concept of ‘social enterprise’ — hoping to run a business while simultaneously giving back to the community.” 

Olympia Moy has invited Brooklyn-based design firm, Isometric, to help plan how to use the new teaching space, so that beyond classroom activities it extends to become a community center that regenerates and preserves the cultural elements of the community. But what kind of space does the community need? How to balance the diverse goals of a safe, secure environment for teaching and an open door to the community? In the end, the key point: what is the essence of the Chinatown community? This was the focus of the forum hosted by Moy and Isometric’s designers Andy Chen and Waqas Jawaid, who invited community-minded people to come share ideas. 

A diverse group gathered at the conference — from teachers to architects to small business owners (including some Chinatown-raised and now returning to the community), some casual restaurant visitors and shoppers, mostly second generation youngsters. A few were “old timers,” like founder of Pearl River Department Store (Ching Yeh Chen) who pointed out that while there appears little change on the surface, Chinatown has quietly undergone tremendous transformations. Mrs. Chen said in the 1970’s, when they established Pearl River, Kam Man was the biggest supermarket. Toisanese was the main spoken tongue. East Broadway was mainly garment factories. Today, people easily shop for Asian products outside Chinatown. No more garment factories. Chinatown is now an empty shell. 

Someone mentioned, as the world changes, so would Chinatown. “When people in China want to be more western, do you think tourists from China want to see traditional stuff in Chinatown? They want a modern version of ‘tradition’!” At the scene, the second generation’s focus was how to attract younger people back to Chinatown. Philip Poon, the son of an established Chinatown architect, expressed his disappointment in trying to find anything in Chinatown that would make him proud. “I feel that Chinatown merchants just try hard to please the tourists — be it a counterfeit handbag or a $20 cocktail. All these are for the non-Chinese. You can’t be proud of your business when it is not a representation of your own self.” 

Kenneth Ma, whose father founded Mott Street Optical (flag ship store for Mott Optical Group) and two other optical stores, states that most people consider Chinatown a market for the cheap. He thinks Chinatown should have an artistic makeover for a new image. Michelle Chen, who works in the field of higher education, thinks Chinatown has always been an immigrant community, and it should maintain a new Chinese American identity that even the second and third generation can feel at home.

Moy says there will be more upcoming forums on these issues, after which will be concrete plans and proposals.