A new app guides visitors through NYC's Chinatown with hidden stories
Composer George Tsz-Kwan Lam has always liked writing music inspired by places.
"There are all these places in Chinatown that are both hidden and meaningful," he says, stepping out of the way of passersby while leading a tour of the neighborhood. "To uncover some of those hidden things in a city walk that you might not ordinarily notice — I wondered, is there a piece in that?"
It turns out there's not just a piece, but a whole app.
Lam interviewed five Chinese Americans from around the country, asking them about their experiences in Chinatown, plus questions about their ancestors, their families, their memories. He then set the answers to music, the instruments drawing attention to each person's distinct pattern of speech.
"I was thinking, if I embed these stories within music and also within a place, then you as a listener get to hear them in a different way — you start connecting with, oh well, I've walked by this building so many times, going to work, going to a restaurant, and now I can associate [those places] with this voice that's talking how about this person came here or who their grandfather was," Lam says.
He calls the piece — and the free app — Family Association, after the important civic groups that line the streets of the neighborhood. Chinese family associations have been a bridge between new immigrants and more established ones since the late 1800s. In Chinatowns across the country, they're a place to find resources or an apartment, talk business or politics, maybe get a COVID shot. But they're also a place to socialize with people who share similar experiences — most of the associations are built either around a single family name, like the Wong Family Benevolent Association, or places in China, like the Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association.
Lam stops in front of a tall, white building, nestled among squat brown tenements. It's the Lee Family Association — its name is in green Chinese characters on the front — and like many family associations, it has street level retail, with the association on the floors above.
"You can see [the family association buildings] have different facades, with different elements that recall China, different architectural details, and then with Chinese characters naming them," Lam says. "I don't think it's something that you'd recognize in the midst of all the shops and restaurants vying for your attention as you walk down the street."
Five of the neighborhood's associations are anchors for the app. Visitors use the embedded map to see locations of the associations; because the app uses geolocation, as they walk closer to one of the family association buildings, much of the music and competing voices fall away, and the focus is on one of the five oral history participants, telling their story.
These stories aren't about the family associations; instead they're about the Chinese American experience and how they've felt supported by Chinatown, whether their particular Chinatown was in San Francisco, Boston, New York or elsewhere. But Lam says he thinks of the app itself as a kind of virtual family association, connecting these Chinese American voices with each other, even if they've never met.
And he hopes to connect with visitors, too — at the end of the soundwalk, users are given a chance to record their own memories.
"The idea is that later on I can incorporate some of these memories either into the piece or into another part of the piece," he says.
You can download the app onto an Apple device; users who are not in Manhattan's Chinatown can hear some of the oral histories by moving the map to lower Manhattan, and pressing on the blue and white flags.
LEILA FADEL, HOST:
Walking around America's many Chinatowns, you're probably focused on the vibrant street culture, the sight of fresh fish stacked on piles of ice, the delicious smells coming from the restaurants. But there are probably a lot of sights and sounds you're missing. NPR's Jennifer Vanasco reports on a new app that aims to take visitors around Manhattan's Chinatown through voices and oral histories.
(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, my mom is from Taiwan.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think they were in an era where most people just thought that going to America would immediately mean prosperity.
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's a very kind of sad story because...
JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: That's from Family Association, a new app that helps visitors experience Chinatown in a different way. Using geolocation, listeners can follow the included map and wander around. And as they move, the soundscape changes. Composer George Tsz-Kwan Lam created the app, and he walked me around the neighborhood to show me how it works.
GEORGE TSZ-KWAN LAM: I am thinking that if I embed these stories within music and also within a place, you start connecting with, oh, well, I've walked by this building so many times, going to work, going to a restaurant, and now I can associate with this voice that's talking about how this person came here or who their grandfather was.
VANASCO: For the oral histories, Lam interviewed five Chinese Americans who grew up around the country, and he set their stories to music.
LAM: I think one of the challenges of oral history is that, sometimes, they just get locked up in the archive. I think partly it's because it's hard to relate to some of these stories, right? They can be very personal.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: His distant aunt worked in a garment factory, but he didn't know which ones. So he went knocking to each - knocking on the door for every garment factory that he could.
VANASCO: Central to the map are five Chinese family associations. They're civic associations that since the 1800s have connected new immigrants with those already here. The audio soundscape centers around them, just like the associations are a center for immigrants and their children to connect with each other. If you're near the Wong family association, you'll hear this.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Just a really good access point, I think, for Chinese immigrants who come from a more old generation and kind of younger generational Chinese Americans trying to understand it and maybe pick up a little bit of these traditions and pass it on to the generations after.
VANASCO: Lam says he wanted to use the piece itself as a kind of family association to bring people's memories and experiences of Chinatown together in one place. Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.