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Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong Creates Sites for Rest and Play in Boston’s Chinatown

Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong during installation of YEAR OF THE TIGER at Mary Soo Hoo Park. Image courtesy of Sheila Novak/Rose Kennedy Greenway.

When Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong was approached by the Rose Kennedy Greenway Conservancy and Pao Arts Center to create a piece to celebrate the Year of the Tiger, the New York-based artist looked to Boston’s Chinatown for inspiration. She found it at Mary Soo Hoo Park, situated on the same corner as the iconic Chinatown Gate, where residents gather to play games and spend time with friends and fellow community members.

Wong met with the daughters of the park’s namesake to learn more about their mother’s legacy. They told her stories of what it was like growing up in Chinatown and how their mother worked hard to advocate for more public spaces throughout the area. Mary Soo Hoo passed away in 2005 and the park was opened in 2011.

“Part of her mission was advocating for space, dedicated spaces,” Wong said. “She was fierce in her advocacy for carving out these spaces.”

Community dialogue and social engagement is crucial to Wong’s practice—often informing how public projects take shape. While spending time in the park, Wong noticed that while one side of was frequently populated, the other side was largely unused. “The other part of the park doesn’t have much seating; it’s a big empty space, but there’s nowhere for you to stop,” she said. “I’m interested in activating these spaces and this will hopefully become a new community hub while the work is installed.”

Wong works at the intersection of art and architecture, or what she calls “art-chitecture.” In her practice, the relationship between the two disciplines often emphasizes activating public spaces through architectural intervention. Wong builds into often under-utilized spaces to encourage connection, interaction, and reflection.

“Anyone can put a sculpture or an artwork out there in a passive way,” said Wong. “I’m interested in creating work that’s active and used by the community in different ways.” Public programming often accompanies her work, such as movement workshops, discussions, or performances.

The installation at Mary Soo Hoo Park will include a series of graduated colorful benches in a zigzag pattern, a large-scale floor mural to emphasize the spirit of the tiger, and a centralized pavilion. The layout seems reminiscent of Ziggy, a pair of brightly painted angular benches Wong installed in Calgary Chinatown in Alberta, Canada. According to the artist’s website, the goal of that project was to “create moments for informal encounters, people-watching, snacking, and sipping bubble tea.”

Plans for the YEAR OF THE TIGER installation include zig-zag benches at varying heights with a floor mural beneath the activated spaces. Rendering courtesy of Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong.

Cheryl Wing-Zi Wong, MERIDIAN, 2021. Commissioned by the Golden Triangle BID. Installed at Pennsylvania Ave West Pocket Park, Washington DC.

She said she hopes that the latest installation will spark similar community connections where people can “sit together, dialogue in new ways, meet people, and host public performances.”

The official opening will be held on May 14 and feature live music, poetry readings, and a performance by Wah Lum Kung Fu, an all-women lion dancing troupe.

The Pao Arts Center will continue to organize public programming throughout the year that the installation will spend at the park. Afterward, the benches will be dismantled, given a fresh coat of paint, and donated to various Chinatown organizations.

Though Wong does not have a prior connection to Boston, she has worked closely with other Chinatown communities. In late fall of 2019, Wong was invited to take part in the Calgary Chinatown Artist Residency. One of her projects from this residency, Musings From Chinatown, included a bilingual digital publication featuring contributions from community members on their stories and experiences throughout the pandemic. She also produced Reflective Urbanisms: Mapping Calgary Chinatown, an interactive web project that charts the neighborhood through its architectural changes throughout the decades.

Drawing on what she created with Calgary, Wong is currently working on Reflective Urbanisms: Mapping New York Chinatown in her home city, collecting stories and memories from residents.

“Those are really specific projects that came out through the pandemic in this mission to reinforce and remember our resilience as an Asian community,” she said.

Since working with Boston’s Chinatown, Wong has continued to notice these connections between both the residents and the spirit of these neighborhoods. She’s been working closely with both Kennedy Greenway and Pao Arts Center and says the process has been an “open dialogue.”

Mary Soo Hoo’s daughters remain active in their community; Jadine Soo Hoo runs Jook Sing Cafe on Harrison Avenue, Cynthia Soo Hoo Tse serves as principal of Josiah Quincy Elementary School, and Angela Soo Hoo continues to be a long-term resident.

“They grew up being very aware of their mother’s activism and that shaped their desire to come back, participate in, and contribute to the community,” Wong said. “Learning about her cemented the reasons for having the benches be donated back to the community, so they take on a life of their own.”

“Boston’s Chinatown has a very similar history to other Chinatowns. Communities of color have often borne the brunt of sacrificing for these development projects,” she said. “It’s important for us to collect the stories for all our Asian communities.”

YEAR OF THE TIGER will be on view at Mary Soo Hoo Park located on the Rose Kennedy Greenway from May 14, 2022 through January, 2023. An opening event and performance will be held on May 14.

Lian Parsons-Thomason is a Boston-based writer and journalist. Her bylines can be found at iPondr, the Harvard Gazette, and Experience Magazine.