Visual and Public Art Department enlists artist Binh Danh to explore Chinatown

Binh Dahn (right) in Chinatown

Binh Danh (right) in Chinatown

October 1, 2022

By Marielle Argueza

Enclosed by East Rossi Street and Market Way, the Chinatown neighborhood of Salinas is an important historical fixture. For decades, the region’s migrant laborers—starting with Chinese railroad workers—established the neighborhood as a home away from home. Though the faces of who resided in the small pocket of Salinas has changed with the times, Chinatown remains an important part of Salinas’ identity.

In recent years there has been engagement from local organizations like the Asian Cultural Experience, Urban Arts Collective, the city of Salinas, and CSU Monterey Bay. The Visual and Public Art Department has been engaged in Chinatown for more than a decade. 

In 2018, VPA graduate Nada Abdelshahid was commissioned by nonprofit housing developer MidPen to create the sculptural Sun Gate at Moon Gate Plaza. The gate paid homage to Filipino laborers, as Abdelshahid drew elements from the country’s flag and other national symbols.

Today, another project is finally coming to completion. In 2019, VPA chair Angelica Muro was awarded $45,000 to create I Am Chinatown/Yo Soy Chinatown, a collaboration with artist and historian Binh Danh. The project was made possible in part by a grant from The Creative Work Fund, a program of the Walter and Elise Haas Fund that also is supported by The William and Flora Hewlett Foundation.

“This exhibition features new work by artist Binh Danh that leverages the power of communities, histories, and stories to generate socially engaged art through the creation of Salinas’ Chinatown portraits using the 19th Century daguerreotype process,” said Muro. 

Danh is no stranger to weaving histories of people and places, and translating them through compelling visual media. He’s teamed up with community gardeners in San Francisco to create rich and engaging public art installations, and explored the efforts of cultural preservation through the eyes ofVietnamese refugees in Lincoln, Nebraska, in a photographic installation called Viet-Nam, Nebraska.  

Muro and Danh sought to imprint a sense of community into the project, which will be viewed as a series of daguerreotype portraits. The undertaking of putting together the exhibition included the complex 19th-century portrait process, community workshops, one-on-one interviews with community members closely associated with Chinatown, and assigning VPA students to design the digital public work elements. 

As the principal investigator for the project, Muro has been on site with Binh facilitating introductions and connecting with members of Chinatown organizations, businesses, and community residents both housed and unhoused. 

The hope is the project shows that CSUMB students, faculty and partners recognize the importance of regional history, but also that a successful outcome from the exhibition will bring in more funding from the Creative Work Fund to continue VPA’s examination of Chinatown. 

“Binh Danh excels in his ability to convey legacies and community,” Muro said. “Our Chinatown project is Danh's first public art project in the Salinas Valley, and engages an authentic working partnership between Danh, VPA, and Chinatown stakeholders.”

The project was slated for 2020, but was put on hold during the pandemic. After three years wait, I Am Chinatown/Yo Soy Chinatown will run in the VPA Gallery noon - 4 p.m., Monday – Friday, from Oct. 3 - Nov. 10, 2022; the opening reception and artist panel will be held on Oct. 6, from 6-8 p.m.

The VPA Gallery is located at the College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences building 504, 3050 Divarty St., Seaside.