May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! To celebrate, First & Central will spend the next few weeks spotlighting works by diverse, Los Angeles–based Asian-American artists who deal with themes of history, language, and identity.
To kick things off, we are pleased to present a video work by Audrey Chan, a Chinese-American artist and writer. Through playful animation and witty word play, Chinatown Abecedario (2012) sketches out what Chan calls a “folk taxonomy” of the old L.A. neighborhood, in which each letter of the alphabet inspires a miniature historical vignette:
Anna May Wong ate abalone with artists on Alameda.
The punk plucked pipa under the pagoda.
Utensils of an underclass utopia were unearthed from under Union Station.
These vignettes whimsically weave together the multifaceted elements that make up Chinatown’s history and character—early Hollywood stars, the first Asian American art gallery, the restaurant scene, the 1970s/80s punk rock scene, and the razing of the first Chinatown, located at the present-day site of Union Station. Through free association, they conjure a complex ecosystem that is sometimes at odds with itself. The words are recited in four of the most commonly spoken languages of L.A. (English, Cantonese, Spanish, and Mandarin), reflecting the many cultural influences that seep into any immigrant community.
Chinatown Abecedario was commissioned by the Chinese American Museum as part of its 2012 group exhibition, (de)Constructing Chinatown. As curator Steve Wong wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue: “Chan’s perspective is influenced by Émile Durkheim and Claude Lévi-Strauss, who propose that the process of learning draws upon the knowledge and beliefs within a local culture, thereby creating a set of ideas that are passed on within a community.”