Made in Chinatown looks like something out of an illustrated children’s book — it’s thoughtful and drawn with a distinctly nostalgic quality. An exhibit at 41 Ross (an art gallery located in Chinatown’s historic Ross Alley), Made in Chinatown was created by artists Vida Kuang, Olivia Ting, and Kelly Ma, and organized with the Chinatown Community Development Center. It’s hard articulating exactly why Made in Chinatown feels so deeply nostalgic, even if you’re a visitor who has never lived in Chinatown before. Maybe it’s because illustrators Kuang and Ma used clearly penned outlines and bold pastel hues.
Or maybe it’s the stories that they’re paired with. Made in Chinatown is a collection of personal experiences from former or present Chinatown residents with Chinatown businesses. Next to thoughtful illustrations of Chinese sausages hung up with string, women making food for their loved ones, or people picking out ingredients at local dried goods stores, are written memories. Told by Ma, Irene Dea Collier, and Amy Dai, these stories explain each person’s connections with products made or bought in Chinatown.
“Back home in the village / we’d pull out a large bamboo basket / for every one to make sweet fried dumplings together,” reads Dea Collier’s statement. It flows like — or as — poetry. “I miss it. my mom and dad would do the frying and / we’d have an assembly line to knead, fold, and add fillings.”
Dea Collier immigrated to America from a village in Hoi Ping, China in 1953. In her exhibit biography, Made in Chinatown talks about how Dea Collier moved into a Chinatown SRO, and how she would carry grocery bags for her mother, who cooked daily.
“SRO tenants would frequent dried goods stores because there’s no refrigerator and it’s easier to store and cook at your convenience,” Dea Collier writes in the exhibit. It’s an important point that Kuang, whose family also lived in an SRO, brings up in an interview with SF Weekly.
“A lot of times you have shared kitchens, and sometimes you might only have a mini-fridge,” Kuang says. “I think dried food is a very accessible way to store things.”
It’s also a way of environmentally conscious eating. A lot of these dried foods are bought in bulk, and if you bring a bag to store your dried bean curd, or dried mushrooms, etc., you’ll be minimizing plastic waste.
“A lot of times, people only think the only place to be zero waste is in Whole Foods or Rainbow,” Kuang says. But they weren’t necessarily the pioneers when it comes to zero waste. “A lot of immigrant communities of color have been doing this for decades.”
Made in Chinatown is both a celebration of that culture, and a way to promote Chinatown businesses who are integral to its local ecosystem.
“It’s not just to celebrate food culture in Chinatown, but it’s also to uplift small businesses,” Kuang says. “It’s kind of hard being in this economy in San Francisco to be a business owner.”
An animated map of Chinatown is projected onto the back wall of the gallery. Created by Ting, the map outlines various shops in Chinatown where you can buy locally made goods — like Ling Ling Chinese Dress or the Golden Gate Fortune Cookie Factory, which actually sits right across the street from 41 Ross.
Though the exhibit is technically Made in Chinatown, it also spotlights stores that sell products — like popular snacks — that you can buy elsewhere. Strawberry-flavored Pocky or dried squid might not be made in San Francisco’s Chinatown, but they are an important part of Ma’s own story. A senior at Galileo High School and a leader in Chinatown Community Development Center’s youth programs, Ma buys the snacks to energize other youth volunteers.
“Most of the people come here as tourists, but they only go to famous spots,” Ma says. “But actually, Chinatown is home for many people. People come here for groceries and youth like us like to buy snacks in Chinatown. There are so many unseen perspectives.”
Made in Chinatown, Through March 22. 41 Ross, 41 Ross Alley. 415-986-1822
Grace Li covers arts, culture, and food for SF Weekly. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org.