Statue in NY Chinatown triggers tension

By Rong Xiaoqing Source:Global Times Published: 2018/3/1 20:55:56

Illustration: Liu Rui/GT

On the Eve of the Spring Festival when most Chinese were getting into the holiday mood, tensions rose in New York's Chinatown. A ceremony to unveil a sculpture at a public plaza to celebrate the Year of the Dog was canceled. The community organization that brought the sculpture was at the receiving end of the ire of hundreds of residents of the neighborhood. The fight was a result more of misunderstanding than hostility. But this tempest in a teapot should trigger a debate among the Chinese in China and abroad.

The protagonist of this episode is a bronze sculpture of a dog-headed man clad in a suit, sitting on the ground and holding a red apple. Chinatown Partnership, a community organization that focuses on promoting Chinatown to tourists, bought it from Gillie and Marc Schattner, an Australian artist couple, and shipped it over to New York for the New Year celebrations.

But many Chinatown locals were not happy with the news and more than 300 signed a petition against the purchase of the statue.

They were angry for various reasons, including the selection of the sculpture for public art without community advice, and the fact that it was made by artists who they said had no connection with Chinatown.

Many others were upset because of what the sculpture depicted - a man with dog's head. They considered it disrespectful, and said if it were installed in a place like Chinatown, the insult would rub off on the entire community.

The Chinese have an ambivalent attitude toward dogs. While dogs can be perceived as good friends of people to the extent that some Chinese would even call their pet dog their child, they are also considered inferior beasts on the lower rung of the pyramid of creatures and are supposed to serve people. To call someone a dog is a tried and trusted way to start a feud.

But there are more reasons for Chinese immigrants living in Chinatown to frown on the work of art. As some of them told me, images of men with animal heads is a typical European art style that has some racist connotations, including the degradation of people of color. A person who runs an art organization in Chinatown told me that the first time he saw the image of the sculpture he thought the artists might be trying to play some kind of early April Fool's joke with people in Chinatown.

They were not.

According to the artists' website, this object is part of the "Travel Everywhere With Love" project which consists of sculptures of men with dog or rabbit heads. It claims to be the world's biggest global sculpture project, aiming to promote the idea that "it's more important than ever that we put our differences aside and protect each other through love and togetherness." Sculptures belonging to the project have been displayed in many cities in the world, including Beijing and Shanghai, as well as some locations in New York.

Concerns over degradation of a race, which were mainly expressed by Chinese of the older generation, are beyond comprehension of many in the younger generation, including myself. At the time the controversy was brewing, I had not seen any European art piece depict men with animal heads and didn't understand why the combination could be seen as derogatory rather than simply post-modern.

Things soon changed when, a few days later, I landed in the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles where I strolled into a gallery hosting a temporary exhibition called "Outcast: Prejudice & Persecution in the Medieval World." Displayed were more than a dozen medieval manuscripts whose texts or illustrations were designed to show how prejudiced blacks, Muslims, Jews, or others are compared to white Christians.

And right there was "The Wonders of the World," a 13th Century encyclopedia, in which people living in remote lands not accessible to Europeans were called "monstrous races" and depicted as human beings with animal heads. It turned out that the Chinatown residents who were uncomfortable seeing the sculpture are not just some grumpy Grinches.

In the Epilogue to the exhibition, the curator quoted American Spanish philosopher George Santayana: "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it." A weighty quote that people should always keep in mind.

But here is a tougher question: just for how long a person, a community or a nation should carry the weight of bad memories if they want to avoid repeating the old mistakes, and at the same time, avoid being over-sensitive and hurt the feelings of innocent people with no ill intention?

I don't know. Dear readers, I rely on your wisdom to find the answer.

The author is a New York-based journalist.

Posted in: VIEWPOINT

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