By Sophie Zhang
Red and yellow pigment splashes above glittering glass mosaic on two Chinatown murals, connects dozens of photos featuring residents to the body of a huge dragon sculpture.
Under the Metra railroad bridge on Archer Avenue, these murals commemorate the 100th year of Chinatown. To integrate the ancient and the modern, artists applied Chinese traditional painting techniques with the use of glass and 3D sculpture.
About 100 people attended a dedication ceremony Jan. 23. More than 40 photos about the community and its people – not all Chinese – are imbedded onto the wall that also functions as a timeline of Chinatown’s history.
The $125,000 art pieces are designed to enhance Chinatown’s streetscape, adding value to unused public space, said Debbie Liu, spokeswoman for the Coalition for Better Chinese American Community.
“We want people to linger, to have conversations, to use the murals to talk about the history and the community,” Liu said.
The wall on the north side emphasizes on the community’s past. Besides the big Chinese characters “The Golden Years,” an image of a Chinese woman carrying her baby appears on the top. Wearing traditional Chinese clothes, the figure represents one of the first Chinese immigrants in Chicago, according to C.W. Chan, chairman of the Centennial Planning Committee.
The theme of the south mural is “The Beautiful Future.” Photos are chosen to remind onlookers of residents’ engagement in community life and their endeavor in fighting for minority rights.
“It’s an outdoor artwork that is accessible to everyone,” Chan said. “We want it to be a strong expression of what Chinatown stands for.”
Before the murals, a new entrance to the CTA L stop at 22nd St. was built in 2010, and the Chinatown Public Library opened in August, both done under the efforts of the Centennial Planning Committee.
Chan said the murals explored the neighborhood’s spirit and help people realize Chinatown is more than a developed commercial area to attract tourists. It’s home to people with a deep history and commitment to Chicago, he said.
Bernard Williams, one of the artists helped create the murals, said he aimed to give a dynamic explanation of Chinese identity and their importance to the city.
“Out in the public, [the murals] celebrate who they are, what they’re proud of, that they are moving forward, and they plan to hold onto that community, to support the people who are live here,” Williams said.
Chinatown, on Near South Side, is now home to nearly 27,000 Chinese Americans, according to the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce. The neighborhood now covers parts of Bridgeport, McKinley Park, Armour Square and South Loop. The population increased more than 11 percent between 2000 and 2010 with young immigrants from China contributing greatly to the growth, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Citywide, Chinese is now the largest Asian group, counting for 1.6 percent of Chicago’s population.
Chinese students working with After School Matters, a non-profit organization for teens’ development, helped paint the murals and served as an opportunity to understand their community, Liu said.
“We also want to present the concept that Chinatown is not 100 percent Chinese because it has been developing into a very comprehensive ethnic community,” Chan said.
Andy Bellomo, who created the glass decorations, wasn’t familiar with Chinese art and wider culture when she started but spent nearly a year going to museums, talking to residents and making friends in Chinatown to tell an authentic story.
“People can merge together through art,” Bellomo said. “Art ends up being the thing, the tool that you use to find commonality, to find a common ground, to speak to each other.”