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Composer George Tsz-Kwan Lam has always enjoyed writing music inspired by places.
“There are all these places in Chinatown that are both hidden and meaningful,” he says, stepping out of the way of passers-by while leading a tour of the neighborhood. “To discover some of those things hidden in a city walk that you might not usually notice – I was wondering if there was an element to that?”
It turns out that there is not just a piece, but an entire application.
Lam interviewed five Chinese Americans from across the country, asking them about their experiences in Chinatown, as well as questions about their ancestry, families, memories. He then set the responses to music, with the instruments drawing attention to each person’s distinct speech pattern.
“I was thinking, if I put those stories into the music and also into a place, then you as a listener can hear them in a different way – you start to connect with, well, I’ve passed in front of this building so many times, going to work, going to a restaurant, and now I can associate [those places] with this voice telling why this person came here or who their grandfather was,” Lam says.
He calls the piece — and the free app — Family Association, after the prominent civic groups that line the neighborhood’s streets. Chinese family associations have been a bridge between new immigrants and more established ones since the late 1800s. In Chinatowns across the country, they are a place to find resources or an apartment, talk business or politics, can -to be vaccinated against COVID. But it’s also a place to socialize with people who share similar experiences – most associations are built either around a single family name, like the Wong Family Benevolent Association, or around places in China, like the Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association.
Lam stops in front of a large white building, nestled among squat brown buildings. This is the Lee Family Association – its name is in green Chinese characters on the front – and like many family associations it has retail outlets at street level, with the association on the upper floors.
“You can see [the family association buildings] have different facades, with different elements reminiscent of China, different architectural details, and then with Chinese characters naming them,” Lam says. “I don’t think it’s something you would recognize in the midst of all the shops and restaurants vying for your attention as you walk down the street.”
Five neighborhood associations are the anchor points of the application. Visitors use the built-in map to see association locations; because the app uses geolocation, as they get closer to one of the family association buildings, a lot of the music and competing voices disappear, and the focus is on one of the five oral history participants, telling their stories.
These stories are not about family associations; instead, they talk about the Chinese-American experience and how they felt supported by Chinatown, whether their particular Chinatown was in San Francisco, Boston, New York, or elsewhere. But Lam says he sees the app itself as a sort of virtual family association, connecting these Chinese-American voices to each other, even though they’ve never met.
And he also hopes to connect with visitors – at the end of the sound walk, users have the opportunity to record their own memories.
“The idea is that later I can incorporate some of those memories either into the piece or into another part of the piece,” he says.
You can download app on an Apple device; users not in Manhattan’s Chinatown can hear some of the oral histories by moving the map down Manhattan and pressing the blue and white flags.