Last Thursday’s (December 10. SF Examiner) archeological discovery of old sewing machines in Chinatown and the current exhibit in Stanford (“The Chinese and the Transcontinental Railroad”) remind us of an often overlooked fact about how much Chinese labor contributed to building America and American prosperity. But for many, the idea of both the Chinese and Chinatown are locked into racist prejudice. The Chinese Culture Foundation’s current project, “Sunshine,” takes the idea of Chinatown as a source of cheap labor and junky souvenirs and brings that antiquated stereotype into the light of the 21st century. The Chinese, both in the Chinese diaspora and in the United States, are a vibrant and innovative part of contemporary life, especially the life of San Francisco.
“Sunrise” is a project which takes the mundane pedestrian bridge from the Chinatown Hilton to Portsmouth Square and elevates it to a vision for Chinatown’s future. The bridge was built as a compromise for the 27-story hotel tower blocking sunlight to the square known by many as Chinatown’s living room. This square is called the Heart of Chinatown because Chinatown started along one side of the square and now extends around and beyond it. Portsmouth Square is rich with history as marked by statues, markers, and plaques sprinkled throughout the square. Named for the U.S.S. Portsmouth, commanded by Captain John B. Montgomery, after whom Montgomery Street was named. It was here on the plaza that Captain Montgomery first raised the American flag near the Mexican adobe custom house on July 9, 1846. Portsmouth Square plaza is the center of many Chinatown activities and is the only open space in the most densely packed area in San Francisco.
That utilitarian purpose will be a thing of the past if the Foundation’s plans for a mini park and art installation go through. The plans have been in process for over a year, from the initial idea generated by the staff at a retreat to the current and more ambitions vision of a Chinatown full of art for all to enjoy. According to executive director Mabel Teng, this project is only one of many designed to bring Chinatown to the center of San Francisco’s life – in ideas, if not in geographical reality. The current Central Subway Project, due to be completed in 2019, will also make Chinatown more accessible to the rest of San Francisco as well as make San Francisco more accessible to the Chinese who tend to be locked into the densely packed part of the city because of the lack of public transportation.
Designed by competitively-selected artist Mik Gaspay, the layout features a mosaic of a sunrise around the flight of stairs to the center, as well as native California plants and benches intended to make the bridge a more inviting open space. Mik Gaspay is a San Francisco based interdisciplinary artist who works primarily with found objects, painting, and sculpture. His interest in translating the meanings of commonplace products and structures is a perfect fit for the pedestrian foot bridge.
The public viewing and presentation provided the first glimpse into the planned design and invites the public for feedback. Since the beginning of 2015, the hub has been in the planning stages, with numerous rounds of judging from a panel composed of community, business, and art leaders on various proposed design components of the pedestrian bridge.
The project has already gone through San Francisco city hall’s complex – and not always friendly – building process. It took amazing patience and perseverance for the Center to get the permits through the various bureaucratic roadblocks but they succeeded and look forward to the bridge becoming a reality in 2017. Hilton staff will manage the revamped bridge and shut the gate between it and Portsmouth Square at 7 p.m. daily.
The project doesn’t yet have a total cost estimate, but will be funded 20 percent by the Chinese Culture Center, 30 percent by the Hilton hotel, and 50 percent through city funds. It is expected to be completed in May 2017 and remain a fixture on the bridge for at least five years.
Teng said, “We hope that this is a model project that can be a lesson for other communities and we definitely hope to inspire The City to make that kind of commitment to all the neighborhoods – especially the low-income neighborhoods.”
“Time Tunnel” is currently on view inside the museum. A time line of the last 50 years of the Center, the exhibit celebrates both the educational and visual accomplishments of this small space – small in size but large in vision and achievements.
The Chinese Culture Center is located inside the Hilton San Francisco Financial District. 750 Kearney St, 3rd Floor, San Francisco. Hours: Tuesday-Friday 9:30 a.m.- 6 p.m. Saturday 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. Visual Art Center& Shop: Tuesday-Saturday 10 a.m.- 4 p.m. The Center will be closed on Christmas Day and New Year’s Day.