Writing in Community with the Chinatown Writer’s Workshop

Mei leads me to the basement of The W.O.W Project’s space on Mott Street. “Be careful with the steps.” I slowly walk down the stairs of the Wing on Wo & Co.’s store, the oldest business in Chinatown dating back to the mid 1890’s. I find myself in their multipurpose basement for first time, surrounded by posters, projects and visions for the year hung around the large wooden table. This was my first session of the Chinatown Writers’ Workshop.

On my third day back in the U.S., I suddenly find myself in the company of a new group of people before I had met up with old friends. Author Henry Chang, the host of the workshop, is speaking with three other writers at the table. We spend that workshop talking about each of the stories we are trying to develop. P, an independent filmmaker writing his own screenplay, E an educator writing her personal memoir, J, an educator writing the stories of the first jobs of immigrant women from Chinatown in the 1980’s, and I, the narrative stories of Chinese Cubans I met in Havana not too long ago. I am amazed to hear their back stories as people who all have childhood and family connections to New York’s Chinatown, are aware of and invested in the ways Chinatown is changing, and whom I had never seen or met before in my life. I also had never heard of or read Henry’s books, and made a personal note to read more Asian American writers, although Henry did say that his mystery novels set in Chinatown were sold to the mystery novel and thriller audience rather than as Asian American literature, to our surprise.

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Asking a question to  author Lisa Ko about her writing process during her guest visit. Photo by Loretta Chin.

In my travels outside of the country, I had been following the W.O.W Project’s work on social media. I knew that Mei was using her family’s intergenerational space, deeply rooted in Chinatown’s history, as a center for critical dialogue on social issues in Chinatown and as space for the creative arts and artists the community. In the second half of our workshop, author and forager Ava Chin came to speak to us about her work.

Ava is the first fourth generation Toisanese American writer from Chinatown I had ever met in my life. These words of identity strung together in themselves are enough to leave me in awe. Ava talked to us about the process of becoming a published author and writing her book Eating Wildly: Foraging for Life, Love and the Perfect Meal. Like many authors, she never imagined her stories would become a full-fledged book one day, but her journalism work covering foraging in New York City at the Village Voice became the foreground for her later book. Quoting author Iris Chang, she told us one of the motivations for her continuing her craft is, “There are not enough Chinese American stories being told.” Given the centuries that our people have been in this country, the number of books by Asian American writers still totals less than 1% of all books published each year. As someone rooted in Chinatown and the Asian American community, this statistic was a wake up call for me about the larger importance of continuing my own writing.

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(From left to right) Ava, Henry Chang, Mei, Jenn, Me, Emily after our workshop in the basement of W.O.W.

Often when people cite statistics such as the one I mentioned, I think about the groups of people of color who also hold these same statistics, if not a sparser one. Yet, perhaps instead of acting from a place of scarcity of “who is it who needs the stories told more,” I should remember that we all do. Although one thing I do think about is why my ethnicity is fortunate enough to even have a Chinatown, while other groups within Asian America do not always have these same spaces. That then leads me to a reminding of the history of Chinatowns not as a thriving neighborhood with residents and tourists alike, but of poor and working-class residents creating a neighborhood no one else wanted to live in  because of the rampant and ingrained racism of this country. Still, I do wonder why it is this community exists at all. Nonetheless, the importance of continuing to believe enough in our own stories to write them resonated with the group.

In future sessions we would hear from Lisa Ko, author of The Leavers, whose book would be the first novel I pick up and become engrossed in after years of not be able to read, nor become absorbed in books. It is also the first book I ever read that centers a Chinese American story set in New York City. We also hear from an editor at Soho Press about the publishing process and the dire need for critical diversity within the publishing industry. After the session with Ava, we go get bubble tea across the street, as Chinese Americans who love Chinatown do. Henry surprises us by treating us to tea, and when we look to him, says, “Welcome to the hood.” The Chinatown he grew up in and remembers is different from my own. But coming from a true Chinatown O.G., I welcomed his welcome back.

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With Lisa Ko and the Chinatown Writers’ Workshop outside of Wing on Wo & Co.

Thank you Henry, Mei, and the W.O.W Project for hosting the workshop. To learn more about the W.O.W Project, visit their website here & check out this moving short documentary about them.

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