It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that it sprang out of the desert on one spring night. The barren red pavilion stands proud and alone amidst the endless creosote bushes. What does it mean? Where did it come from? The answer lies with a people long gone from the site.
For each of us, it meant something different. A tribute to the strength of people united, a desire for an anomaly in the uniform landscape, an expression of heritage — whatever it was that drew us together, in the end we all had the same pride when we looked at the fruit of our labors. We’d been dreaming of Chinatown for nearly a month, but when the time came to build it, the anxiety quickly settled in. Rome wasn’t built in a day, but could Chinatown be? The answer remains in the desert.
Chinatown is also planned as a permanent video installation, but it first functioned as a performance context for a single night. The new landmark plays with the idea of civilization in a remote setting. The concept of a “Chinatown” in the desert plays with the cultural meaning of these iconic places throughout the world, which typically feature an antique style gate, dragons, lanterns, and a lot of red. This installation functions as a “miniature” version of a Chinatown; there are no real shops, no restaurants, no visitors, but by using projection, a “virtual reality” of sorts is created. For the night, a projection of real street views of Chinatowns was shown the structure, with the festival Chinese music and street sounds playing in the background. There was also a screening of Siyi Ye’s emoji project which examines related questions of racial representation and related semiotics: racially representative emojis entered into this examination of race, culture, and history of the California landscape, tying the typology of a Chinatown to contemporary networked representations of the same issues.
Though the physicality of Chinatown was not there, the spirit was. Whether the projection included Chinatown streets or emoji artwork, the idea of a gathering of people, bound by cultural significance to a small area of the world, was what fueled the performance. This concept is inspired by similar desert performances such as eteam’s International Airport Montello or Bob Dornberger and Jim Piatt’s Full Moon Ramen at Secret Restaurant, that play on the isolation and absurdness of its location while relying on viewer presence and participation to create “place” in the desert.
Chinatown also serves as a tribute of sorts to the Chinese Americans who have managed to make their way in adverse environments, whether they worked among an unforgiving landscape or a wary neighborhood of xenophobes. Often the two were not exclusive. There is a long history of discrimination against Chinese Americans, yet they were able to create opportunities only in such harsh physical and social climates. Despite such obstacles, Chinese people endured, expanded, and built homes away from home—Chinatown. It wasn’t the first time that a Chinatown arose out of nowhere, and it likely won’t be the last.