Highland Park-based artist Brenda Chi was brushing up on her painting skills when she decided to take part in art group Warrior Painters Plein Airpril challenge. The monthlong social media art event encouraged people to paint what they see in life or, in COVID times, through photos, so she turned to the archive of images she snapped in Chinatown for inspiration.
“I wanted to do something to celebrate Chinatown and bring awareness to that community,” she says on a recent video call. Chi, the daughter of parents of who are ethnic Chinese from Vietnam, grew up in the San Gabriel Valley and often headed to Chinatown with her mother during her childhood. She worked in the neighborhood at one point as well and continues to enjoy spending time there. “I wanted to bring this nostalgia to it as well,” she adds.
At the start of the challenge, Chi had also been thinking about the recent wave of hate crimes targeting Asian seniors across the United States and the late-March shootings in Atlanta that resulted in eight deaths, including those of six Asian women. Chi describes the process of making this series of paintings, most of which were done digitally, as a form of self-healing. “Doing those pieces was a way for me to kind of push through that month,” she says.
In posting her paintings, nearly all of which depict scenes in Chinatown, on Instagram over the course of April, Chi takes viewers on a virtual tour of the neighborhood that goes beyond the usual day-tripper sites and influencer photo locations. She began the journey on Hill Street, with the eye-catching, hot pink sign that reads Ling’s and stands tall above of the gold roof and dark blue facade of a medical building. “I was always fascinated with that building and how interesting it looked because it was so brightly colored,” she says.
From there, she ventured into Far East Plaza, capturing the scene at Kim Chuy, and took followers down Broadway for glimpses of the chicken statue that stands on the roof of Superior Poultry and the neon lit “United Foods” sign. She depicted some recognizable sights, like the building that was formerly Hop Louie, but also peeped inside the window of a photo lab and listened in on an imagined conversation between two elders sitting on the edge of a Central Plaza parking lot.
By putting the spotlight on older buildings, hidden neighborhood corners and mom-and-pop businesses, Chi emphasizes the community within Chinatown. “I’m reminded of following my mom to these small businesses where she’s buying stuff and she’s having a good talk with people, small talk, and that’s where she felt most comfortable,” says Chi. “So, I understand when I walk around these places now, those are still places for immigrants like her, as a sense of security, as a sense of friendship.”
Chi’s paintings also point to her own concern about how locals might be coping during the COVID-19 pandemic. “Every time I walked around Chinatown, during the pandemic, I was just wondering, is everyone doing okay?” she says. “Are we going to see more businesses close down?”
In the midst of the month, Chi journeyed back to the 1990s, thanks to retro Hop Woo photos passed her way via the daughter of the restaurant’s owners. The two paintings that came from those photos were her way of giving a shout out to the long-running restaurant. “Of course, people in Chinatown still go to Hop Woo, but, people visiting Chinatown, I wish they would know you go to Hop Woo when it’s late at night or when you need a good lunch special,” says Chi. “I wanted to bring attention to that.”
Her paintings also pay close attention to the details, like the stack of sun hats positioned behind a few turtle tanks at a local shop, that you might only recognize if you spend a lot of time in the neighborhood. “This is my upbringing. As a whole, this is home to me,” she says. “I don’t know if people will see those details, but, to me, I am positive that other people have to get this too.”
Prior to the pandemic, this historic, heavily senior neighborhood had already been in the throes of gentrification. Add to that the economic hardships and anti-Asian racism that came in the wake of COVID-19 and Chi’s series is particularly poignant. She says that she wasn’t sure what she could do other than support Chinatown businesses and tell her friends to do the same. “That’s where the art came in,” she says. It’s a means of encouraging people not just to stop by the neighborhood, but to explore it.
“Of course, come and get your Howlin’ Ray’s if need be,” she says, “but also, before you leave, take a moment and look at what’s been here for a very long time and appreciate it.”
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