Artists and museum staff tell the story of several Chinatown murals
Providing a portal between past and present, Chinatown’s murals capture the history of the neighborhood and its people.
Many artists have drawn on their personal experience and heritage to paint these works all over Chinatown, helping to preserve their cultural heritage for future generations.
The triptych, painted in 1968 by an unknown creator, consists of the works “Picture of Viewing Waterfalls in Summer Mountains”, “Palace in Heaven” and “Four Beauties Catching Swimming Fish” from left to right.
The middle panel depicts a battle scene from “Journey to the West,” said Eugene Moy, board member of the Friends of the Chinese American Museum. He said the main character, a monkey, is a superhero for Chinese children.
The rightmost panel follows classical styles, he added, reflecting the transition period between ruling eras in China.
“The Feast at Lan-Ting” by Zhang Shiyan, painted in 1991, depicts calligrapher Wang Xizhi documenting the feast around him on a parchment. This event became an important part of Chinese art history, as this documentation later became the preface to a famous set of poems, said LJ Isorena, a fourth-year Asian American Studies student and intern at the museum.
The mural was created in collaboration with the Social and Public Art Resource Center, which encourages young people to learn painting techniques, Moy added. As such, he said, murals like these were not just painted by one person, but often by multiple people.
The mural originally had gemstones embedded in the artwork, he added, but the room has been vandalized over time and many have been ripped off.
David Alfaro Siqueiros, whose “América Tropical” is located on a wall in the Italian American Museum, believed that art served to empower people, said museum guide Michelle Garcia-Ortiz. She said the mural, painted in 1932, depicts two proletarian revolutionaries in the upper right aiming at an eagle perched atop a crucified Indigenous man.
The common interpretation, she said, is that capitalist North America sacrificed Indigenous peoples for its own gain, leaving their civilizations in ruins.
The now faded mural only survives thanks to a coat of whitewash from a previous attempt to censor the piece, Garcia-Ortiz said. Siqueiros secretly added the depiction of the crucified man the day before the mural was unveiled, she said, in hopes of shedding light on the struggles of ordinary people during the Great Depression that had been overshadowed by the Olympic Games.
“It’s his legacy,” she said. “He just wanted to help make life better.”
Leo Politi’s “Blessing of the Animals,” painted in 1974, depicts a ceremony observed in many Latino countries on the Saturday before Easter when members of the community bring their pets to be blessed by the archbishop, said Garcia- Ortiz.
Politi has used his art to celebrate neighborhoods populated primarily by people of color, Garcia-Ortiz said, including El Pueblo and Olvera Street, where the mural is located.
“He knew he was in a time very similar to ours where historic neighborhoods were…transformed dramatically,” she added. “And he used the only weapon he had – he used art to capture and show the beauty and the love of these neighborhoods.”
An untitled mural painted in 1976 by Politi sits inside Castelar Elementary School, Chinatown’s only public school, Moy said. A sign outside displays information in Spanish and Chinese, the two bilingual programs offered by the school, he said.
In the 1970s, students from UCLA, USC and Occidental College tutored here, Moy added. This service provided support to children transitioning and adjusting to life in the United States after living in Vietnam, Hong Kong or Cambodia.
Tyrus Wong’s “Chinese Heavenly Dragon,” painted in 1941, reflects the artist’s classical training, the skills he brought to the Walt Disney Company and movies like “Bambi,” Moy said. The mural is adjacent to a central plaza and sits on buildings that once belonged to You Chung Hong, the first Chinese-American lawyer in Los Angeles, he said.
He added that the current mural, which has been restored, is brighter than the original, which looked more like Wong’s favorite watercolors.
“There are changes going on in Chinatown,” Moy said. “It’s a continuing story.”
“With Our Thoughts We Create the World” by Herakut, painted in 2012, utilizes the German duo’s experimental and photorealistic styles with the use of spray paint and drips, Isorena said. The mural depicts a nude woman with a bird crowning her forehead.
The mural is located near Chung King Road, which is part of New Chinatown, Moy said. He said the area was created as a business project to support displaced merchants from Old Chinatown. In the 1980s and 1990s, many families were forced to move to the suburbs due to racial restrictions, he added.
Now, Moy said, many galleries and art studios have become workspaces and offices, a reflection of demographic shifts in Chinatown.
“Shades of Chinatown” was developed in 2003 by Steven Wong, former curator of the Chinese American Museum, in collaboration with the Youth Leadership Council of Chinatown and Lincoln Heights and the UCLA Asian American Studies Center. The mural reflects the diversity of the Chinatown community by including well-known personalities, Moy said.
As the population dwindled, developers began pushing to build skyscrapers and increase population density, he said, adding that may not necessarily be what the community needed. need.
These changes, Moy said, may not fit into the existing business network and established life of people already in Chinatown.
The Chinese American Museum’s latest exhibit, ‘Collective Resilience,’ brought together seven artists to share the positive stories and experiences of Chinese Americans in light of the heightened discrimination the community has faced in recent years. said Michael Truong, the museum’s executive director.
The curators included a mural depicting actress Anna May Wong because of Wong’s struggle to follow her passion despite the racism she faced, which humanizes the struggles faced by many Chinese Americans, said Truong.
Featured artist kaNO said the wide array of symbols in his “Urban Rendition” mural reflects his own experience and upbringing in New York City. He added that the piece also emphasizes larger themes of strength and determination, which the mural allowed him to portray on a large scale.
“Because of this community, there’s power, there’s resilience there,” he said. “You can overcome obstacles.”