Aug 17

Colors of Light and a Shifting Chinatown

by: Laura Kochman

Speaking to the neighborhood’s past, present, and future from the perspective of 1999, the Colors of Light mural in Chinatown has stood for nearly 20 years. Those years have seen the area change and grow, and though the Asian American community still struggles for representation and equity, the community now has a much stronger presence in the neighborhood and throughout Philadelphia. Tomorrow, as a result of new development, we’ll say goodbye to Colors of Light with Asian Arts Initiative, our original partner on this mural project.

Artist Josh Sarantitis was commissioned to paint this mural on the Vine Street-facing side of Choi Funeral Home. At the time, Asian Arts Initiative was a young organization located nearby. AAI’s executive director Gayle Isa personally chose the wall, approached the building owner, and advocated for the mural because there wasn’t much public art representing the Asian American community, even within Chinatown. She remembers this mural as one of a very small handful of images reflecting the community, and one that sparked intense debate about imagery, particularly around the inclusion of the dragon. Some thought the dragon was too stereotypical, while others felt that it was an essential and necessary cultural symbol. As an artist coming from outside of the Asian American community, Josh Sarantitis based his work on informal oral histories that he collected, as well as photographs taken around the neighborhood. The poem that appears on the right-hand side was written by local poet and educator Jeffrey Loo, and in the end the community decided to keep the dragon that runs along the top edge of the mural, extending beyond the edge of the framing space. Josh recalls the friendship that he developed with the owners of the funeral home, learning about traditional burial ceremonies and trading painting tips as the mural progressed. He ended up using Gayle as a model for the woman in profile. “I always think about how ironic it is that a fourth-generation Japanese American woman (me) could represent the ‘Future’ of Chinatown,” says Gayle—but part of the way Chinatown has evolved over the years is as a cultural center for a broader Asian American community.

In 2008, Asian Arts Initiative moved into a new building, this time on the opposite side of Vine Street. It was an exciting move for many reasons, but for Gayle, the symbolism of having Colors of Light in view was an indication that AAI had moved into the future they had once envisioned. Nearly 10 years later, Gayle is spearheading projects that continue to move the organization into an inclusive future. Behind the new building, Pearl Street leads to both luxury lofts and the Sunday Breakfast Rescue Mission, and has inspired the ongoing Pearl Street Project, a multi-year effort to make this neglected alley into a community asset. People:Power:Place is a neighborhood cultural plan-in-progress, an effort to acknowledge the history of Chinatown North, who is part of it, and who can contribute to shaping its future. We’re sad to say goodbye to Colors of Light, but we’re glad for the opportunity to look back on its history, and to say hello to a new, bright future.

Last updated: Aug 17, 2017

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.

Share Your Thoughts

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.