Much to the dismay of the Chinese government, Ai Weiwei has become one of the most well-known artists and political activists in the world. Despite his confiscated passport and constant censorship, Ai has still managed to achieve a global presence and voice his sentiments on social injustices he's witnessed and experienced. His works, many of which express frustration with his home country, are currently showing in Germany's Martin-Gropius-Bau and the Brooklyn Museum. Ai's prominence is a remarkable accomplishment for both Chinese activists and even the Asian community in the United States. However, decades of struggle have preceded these groups of people, long before Ai started making art.
For those who aren't aware, Asian Americans have come a long way since settling in the States back in the late 1800s. Remnants of the community's fight for their rights can still be found in places like the Chinatown in Manhattan. Last Sunday, about a dozen Ai Weiwei fans joined writer and curator Ryan Lee Wong on a walking tour of Chinatown, an event in conjunction with Brooklyn Museum's "Ai Weiwei: According to What?" show.
The tour began near Columbus Park, where you'll find many Chinatown locals congregating today. It turns out, however, that the now bustling park was a rather violent place decades ago. It was filled with tenement houses, where working class immigrants lived.
As you can imagine, immigrants who moved from China to New York didn't always have the rights they do today. They struggled against the odds of language and social-economic barriers to obtain basic health care, education, housing, legal education, and so forth. Police brutality was also common, Wong explained on multiple stops throughout the tour. Eventually, however, Chinese immigrants were able to unite and bring about change through street protests. The '70s and '80s were important years for this community. In fact, Wong argued that even Ai Weiwei, who lived in New York from 1983 to 1993, would not be the artist he is today without this piece of history.
Wong also touched upon a number of other topics such as the birth of the Asian American identity, activism through the arts, and important institutions like the Asian American Arts Centre. A non-profit founded in 1974, the Asian American Arts Centre put on shows like "From 'Star Star' to Avant Garde: 10 Artists from China," giving platform to famous artists such as Fan Zhongming, Huang Yongping, Ling Ling, Wenda Gu, Xu Bing, and Zhang Hongtu.
For those who missed out on this event, there are more coming up. Brooklyn Museum will be hosting a talk on Ai's use of video, a conversation on Asian American activism, and an evening of performances celebrating Ai's works.