HomeAsian Americans"Welcome to America's Chinatowns" hub preserves Chinatown's past, present, and future

“Welcome to America’s Chinatowns” hub preserves Chinatown’s past, present, and future

by Julia Tong

Chinatowns across the United States have become vulnerable. A new storytelling project is seeking to preserve their history.

The “Welcome to America’s Chinatowns” hub was created by the National Trust for Historic Preservation, in partnership with Google Arts & Culture and fourteen other community organizations. Overall, the interactive site captures over 70 stories– told through history, art, photography, interviews with community members, and more– from Chinatowns across the nation.

The hub’s goal, however, is not only preserving Chinatown’s historical significance, says Di Gao, the Senior Director of Research and Development at the National Trust. She hopes the project will also protect Chinatowns at a time when many nationwide face steep challenges to their existence. 

“It’s really important that we keep Chinatowns in the national dialogue. They are such an important part of the American story,” says Gao. “It’s important to not only focus on the threats that these neighborhoods are facing, but also celebrate the rich history in them, why they’re so significant, why they’re important.”

“We, as a society, would lose a lot if Chinatowns did not exist.”

“We were showing Chinatowns as a living, breathing community, not as historic places that are static and only in the past”

Prior to 2022, the National Trust, and many preservationists, had overlooked Chinatowns despite their historic and current significance. But Gao says that the COVID-19 pandemic spurred them to take action.

The pandemic magnified many of the existing challenges Chinatowns faced, such as gentrification, displacement, xenophobia and anti-Asian hate. At the same time, numerous community organizations stepped up to protect and maintain the Chinatowns they belonged to– which Gao found especially inspiring. 

“There was so much amazing community building and community preservation work taking place in Chinatowns across the country,” she said. “I felt that the national preservation movement… that should be focused on places like Chinatown wasn’t doing enough, and could be doing more.”

In response, Gao and her team started the America’s Chinatowns initiative in 2022, which aims to preserve Chinatowns through advocacy, grantmaking, mapping, and more. Key to this mission is the project’s central ethos: Preservation is not only about preserving buildings or physical spaces, but also the people who make up the communities in those locations.

“I think of [preservation] as a form of storytelling, as a form of preserving living communities,” says Gao. “It’s much more than the physical buildings themselves. It’s also about the ways of life that animate those buildings and make them relevant to people today.”

This ethos laid the groundwork for the Chinatown Storytelling Hub. Through oral history, creative projects, and archival history, the project seeks to educate the public on Chinatown’s ongoing cultural legacy, says Priya Chhaya, Associate Director of Content at the National Trust. 

A public historian, Chhaya observes the many ways ordinary people connect with the past– whether through museums, nonprofit spaces, or personal identities– is through the arts. As such, art is a central part of the hub: The team invited numerous artists and creatives from Chinatown communities in order to call attention to places that are often perceived as mundane, or even overlooked. 

“I really wanted to make sure that we talked about the ways people remember and think about Chinatown and so, because the hub allows space for video, audio and text, I really thought about who I could bring into that conversation,” Chhaya says.

On the Storytelling Hub, archival images and oral histories from Chinatowns nationwide live alongside a diverse number of creative works, including artist Sammy Yuen’s black-and-white illustrations of ten landmark locations from Chinatowns nationwide; playwright Lauren Yee’s on-stage envisioning of San Francisco Chinatown; and Jeffrey Yoo Warren’s digital restorations of destroyed Chinatowns. 

The Chinatown Storytelling Hub team also partnered with numerous community organizations across the country– such as the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation or the Hawaii Foundation– to develop the many interviews with long-time Chinatown advocates, residents, and small business owners which are now featured on the hub.

Featuring these voices, Chhaya says, was critical so that the Storytelling Hub avoided memorializing Chinatown as a relic of the past.

“One of the things we knew that we could do was make sure that we were showing Chinatowns as a living, breathing community, not as historic places that are static and only in the past” she says.

“It’s about supporting and sustaining and growing [these communities].”

Ultimately, plans are underway to continue expanding the Chinatown Storytelling Hub. The National Trust plans to add new stories and other content, as well as exploring panels and forums to keep Chinatown in the national dialogue, funding partners, and other preservation tools. 

Furthermore, both Gao and Chhaya are buoyed by the positive response the hub has already received. Many people have reached out expressing enthusiasm and support for the project. This includes some who have seen their own experiences reflected in the hub’s stories– which Gao especially relates to herself.

“I’m amazed that I’m now working at the National Trust and this organization that is showcasing these stories about where I can see my own immigrant history and my own family history. I never thought that that would be possible on the national level at an institution like [that],” says Gao. 

As such, Gao is especially passionate to grow the hub– and see it reach a broader audience, who may not be aware of the rich cultural legacies in Chinatowns across the nation. 

“Traditionally, the National Trust has its own audiences. People do not currently recognize us as like a place to go to explore Asian American heritage,” says Gao. “But I hope that that can change, and I hope that we can continue to engage more audiences.”

AsAmNews is published by the non-profit, Asian American Media Inc. Follow us on FacebookX, InstagramTikTok and YouTube. Please consider making a tax-deductible donation to support our efforts to produce diverse content about the AAPI communities. We are supported in part by funding provided by the State of California, administered by the California State Library in partnership with the California Department of Social Services and the California Commission on Asian and Pacific Islander American Affairs as part of the Stop the Hate program. To report a hate incident or hate crime and get support, go to CA vs Hate.


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