New app guides visitors through New York’s Chinatown with hidden stories: NPR

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A new sound walk app reintroduces visitors to Manhattan’s Chinatown by exploring the oral histories of those whose families have come to the area.



MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Visit one of Chinatown’s American neighborhoods and you might focus on the vibrant street culture. But there are details you might miss. NPR’s Jennifer Vanasco reports on an app that takes visitors to Manhattan’s Chinatown in a new way through voices and oral histories.

(SOUND EXTRACTION FROM THE EDITING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yes, my mother is from Taiwan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think they were at a time when most people just thought going to America would immediately mean prosperity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: This is a very sad story because…

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: This is from Family Association, a new app that helps visitors experience Chinatown in a different way. Using geolocation, listeners can follow the included map and walk around. And as they move, the soundscape changes. Composer George Tsz-Kwan Lam created the app and he took me around the neighborhood to show me how it works.

GEORGE TSZ-KWAN LAM: I think if I put those stories into the music and also into a place, you start to connect with, oh, well, I’ve walked past this building so many times, and now I can associate myself with this voice which tells how this person came here or who his grandfather was.

VANASCO: For the oral histories, Lam interviewed five Chinese Americans who grew up across the country, and he set their stories to music.

LAM: One of the challenges of oral history is that sometimes they just get locked away in the archives. I think that’s partly because it’s hard to identify with some of these stories, isn’t it? They can be very personal.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: His distant aunt worked in a garment factory, but he didn’t know which one. So he went knocking on every–knock on every garment factory door he could.

VANASCO: In the center of the map are five Chinese family associations. These are civic associations that since the 1800s have connected new immigrants with those already here. The audio soundscape centers around them, just as the associations are a hub for immigrants and their children to connect with each other. If you’re near the Wong Family Association, you’ll hear it.

(SOUND EXCERPT FROM AN ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Just a really good access point, I think, for Chinese immigrants who come from an older generation and kind of young Chinese Americans who are trying to understand and maybe to take up some of these traditions and pass them on.

VANASCO: Lam says he wanted to use the room itself as a kind of family association to bring together the memories and experiences of people from Chinatown in one place. Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York.

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