Think!Chinatown Uses Public Art to Help Local Restaurants

Posted by Yin Kong, Jul 13, 2021 0 comments

We recently interviewed Yin Kong, Director/Co-Founder of Think!Chinatown, a non-profit based in Manhattan’s Chinatown that is here to listen, to respond, and to build Chinatown’s capacities as a strong and vibrant immigrant neighborhood of NYC. She discussed the new initiative, ASSEMBLY for CHINATOWN, and T!C’s mission to foster inter-generational community through neighborhood engagement, storytelling, and the arts.


A painted dining barrier with colorful abstract patterns and the text “Assembly for Chinatown”
Assembly for Chinatown for Royal Seafood, art by Jennifer Palomaa, photo by A+A+A Studio.

ASSEMBLY for CHINATOWN was launched in collaboration with A+A+A Studio to build outdoor dining spaces at no cost to Chinatown businesses. We design, source materials from Chinatown vendors, and construct Department of Transportation (DOT) compliant dining barriers for restaurants. Artists beautify and personalize the space for the restaurants with the help of volunteers who come (socially distanced) together in a help-a-thon to sand and paint the wood barriers. 

How did this project come to life? 

At the beginning of pandemic, the city came out with a new program called Open Restaurants to help restaurants by converting parking space to outdoor dining. We noticed that other neighborhoods were taking advantage of the program but that my neighborhood had less outdoor dining. There is already a design obstacle in Chinatown, where the streets and sidewalks are narrower. On top of that, regulations were confusing and changed frequently. Restaurant owners are faced with learning about new outdoor dining practices, designing new a dining space, sourcing materials, and managing construction while trying to navigate shifting health standards and DOT regulation. City officers have been handing out $1,000 fines for violations, compelling restaurants to rebuild their outdoor dining. Expectedly, vulnerable businesses were wary of making the investment. In this time, we believe more than ever in advocating for equal access to resources and opportunities. We wanted to ensure businesses in our neighborhoods had the same access to city-wide programs. We wanted to support businesses that make up the characteristics of Chinatown and nourish our community members. 

At the same time, A+A+A Studio was thinking about how they could contribute their skills and created a guide on how to build outdoor dining structures affordably. I had worked on a previous project with one of the A’s [editor’s note: the studio is led by Andrea Chiney, Arianna Deane, and Ashely Kuo] and we realized they were also thinking about this issue. 

A dining counter in front of a Chinatown restaurant, painted bright orange with floral and food motifs.
Counter at 388 Cafe & Deli on Eldridge Street, art by Sarula Bao, photo by A+A+A Studio.

How did you approach business owners? 

Soliciting the businesses was a dance—in Chinatown, outdoor dining has not historically been part of the business model. There was hesitation since it was a new thing, and there was a lot of hesitation to invest into this new business model while already at a cash deficit. We removed the financial risk for these restaurants by covering the construction costs. We selected restaurants where we believed the impact could most be felt. For the most part, the project has helped bring attention to businesses and provide more space. 

We are still connected with the restaurants who participate—we do not drop these and leave. We live in the neighborhood and are here to adjust. For some murals, it has been almost a year [since they were created], so we are repainting. We want them to continue to be colorful, delightful work.

People in masks stand behind a brightly painted dining barrier in front of a restaurant in Chinatown.
Assembly for Chinatown Team at Sweethouse (67 Bayard), art by Kat Lam, photo by A+A+A Studio.

How did the arts get involved?

The mural project came into play with our first artist, Kat Lam. We had been soliciting donations and asking for volunteer help—Kat Lam reached out to ask if we wanted her to paint one of the barriers. Her style matched with the business owners, so we moved forward. She contributed her vision as a muralist and we decided to do that for all the barricades to enliven the space and the neighborhood. Kat sketched out her design and volunteers came together to bring it to life. We’ve since worked with artists Rose Wong, Jennifer Palomaa, Sarula Bao, Jia Sung, Vanessa Nguyen, and Chanel Miller, whose mural project was featured in TIME.

And now it is competitive to be a volunteer! People want to be part of this community project. Painting is such a gratifying way to work together. Whenever the volunteers walk by, they feel ownership and want to patronize the business. 

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