Young social media makers aim to subvert the perception many Greater Bostonians have of Chinatown
While Chinatown can be a place to explore for great cuisine, many outsiders have fleeting interactions with business owners and employees. In an effort to alter that perception, the volunteers behind the Chinatown Project started a digital archive during the pandemic that highlights the community’s rich culture and history. The organization’s videos can be viewed on Instagram, YouTube, and Tiktok. We spoke with two of the crew members and founders, Aubrey Tang and Billy Chen, about what they have learned through the initiative.
You’re obviously doing preservation work, creating a digital archive and contributing to some kind of coverage of Chinatown. Have you noticed anything about the way the media covers Chinatown?
Aubrey Tang: Before the pandemic, I don’t think there was that much coverage in terms of Chinatowns in general; people tend to ignore these sort of ethnic enclaves. I really don’t think people understand the struggles that the AAPI community goes through in general, and especially what it’s like to own a business and be part of a marginalized community. So I mean, although the pandemic is awful, and we did experience waves of violent attacks, I think there is also some merit in gaining that sort of media attention. It catalyzes these sorts of projects that we have.
What have business owners told you about their experiences during the pandemic?
Aubrey Tang: People were working overtime, like constantly every single day, just to break even or even to pay rent, which is insane, like the amount of extra work that these people had to put in after losing approximately 60% of their customer base. One common word that was said across all of our interviews is [perseverance]. And so actually, there was a decent amount of optimism from most of these business owners, in the sense that they just believe that if they can just continue to work hard and persevere through this, they’ll be able to make it to the other end. Other business owners were less optimistic because they just didn’t know what the future held. I think it was just very eye opening for us to see not only the variety of reactions and expressions towards the pandemic, but also the similarities as well.
There’s been a lot of representational milestones and talk of economic recovery. Do you think Chinatown has had support from the city?
Billy Chen: A lot of those business owners did get the help that they needed, but some of them didn’t know how to find that service. It was hard for them to find those resources for some, but then some had the assistance of other organizations that [helped them] through that process of getting the help that they needed.
Aubrey Tang: The city did provide resources for them, but in this digital age, especially for a lot of the older people, they don’t know that. It really proves not only how important translational services are, but also just how important these community organizations such as Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center [and the] Asian Community Development Center are in getting this information to people. They’re doing it on foot because they have personal relationships with all of them.
A lot of people come to Chinatown for the food and for the experience. What else would you want people to know about Chinatown?
Aubrey Tang: Chinatown, I think, for most people, serves as kind of a safe haven where you can see people that look like you, you can eat things from your culture. [It] was a Sunday tradition for my family to go into Boston Chinatown and spend a day there, and it was fun for me. But I didn’t know who was serving me, I didn’t know who actually runs the businesses, how much it takes to actually run a business, and I especially didn’t know what the history of Boston Chinatown was like. Essentially this community is rooted in resilience and perseverance against outside forces that are trying to drive them out.
What kind of response have you gotten from people who have seen your videos?
Billy Chen: It’s a lot of positivity. And the funny thing is that, you know, when we started this project, we weren’t expecting anything, to be honest. Like, we didn’t think it would grow as much as it did. And it was just like, it’s really, I guess, it’s inspiring, in a sense, because when we started, we’re just like, Oh, we’re just gonna have like,100 friends of our own follow, but then as the community started to grow, and now we’re at a total of 1,600 followers, we’re continuing to grow day by day.
Aubrey Tang: When I sit down, [I] think about everything that we’ve done, and think about the people that have messaged us saying that they love our work and want to continue to support us, or just feel happy that there’s a resource for them to learn more about Boston Chinatown specifically. I think that also goes to prove that people want to know more about this community, like there is a desire and a need for attention on this community that previously hasn’t really gotten that much coverage at all.
The aesthetic of your videos is very modern, it’s very trendy—the Lo-fi music, even the pacing and the editing. How do you gauge your audience? Who are you making the videos for?
Billy Chen: We have different styles in how we want to execute certain projects. If we’re doing YouTube with food or something, like long form content, we try to make it a little more playful. But then short term content, such as photos or Instagram reels or TikToks, we try to match the same energy that’s coming from those other platforms, because of course, Instagram has a different feel to it, right? When you’re watching these videos, the reels are a little bit different from TikTok, so we set these boundaries between certain platforms, and we try to understand them the best that we can.
Aubrey Tang: We are trying to go for a very modern and also sort of young vibe and aesthetic, and a lot of it is influenced by me and Billy’s style as well, we’re really into street culture. Our demographic is mostly people who are in the ages of 21 to 36.
In the process of making these videos and working with people from the community, has your own relationship to Chinatown changed in any way?
Billy Chen: Dramatically. It’s funny because … before even making all this stuff, we didn’t know anybody. We had no idea what these businesses were. We didn’t know the people behind these businesses, and I guess we just didn’t really understand what was going on either. But ever since then, like starting this project, within a whole year of producing all this stuff, we were able to go back and say hi to these business owners, and check up on them, see how they’re doing, see if they need anything.
Aubrey Tang: My personal relationship has definitely changed. Now, when I actually enter Boston Chinatown, my experience is a lot more active. I’m actively looking for new things. I’m actively looking for ways to improve the community.