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Experience Chinatown: The On-Going Festival Celebrating Boston’s Chinatown

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This fall, the Pao Arts Center is celebrating the vibrant life of Boston’s Chinatown with its first full-capacity arts festival since the pandemic. Murals fill shop windows, live performances take to the streets, and this week, the interactive Ghost Roots exhibit opens at the Pao Center galleries on Albany Street. The Crimson visited the festival for its first live concerts on Thursday, Sept. 8 and talked to Pao Arts Center’s Communications and Development Manager, Sophia Chen, about the project.

The multilingual musical performances on Thursday night showcased the excellence and rich cultural diversity of Boston’s Chinatown. Chen, who only began working for Pao five months ago, described how the organization has done so since its humble beginnings.

“When I first moved to Boston, they made me feel at home,” said Chen.

The Experience Chinatown festival, which started in 2017 as a one-day event, has blossomed into a three month celebration of the Boston Chinatown community. During the pandemic, when anti-Asian racism compounded the already harmful effects of COVID-19 on Chinatown, the Pao Arts Center had to be creative to hold the festival through quarantine restrictions. The stakes of cultural celebration could not have been higher.

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Starting in 2020, the arts center approached Chinatown restaurants to propose a series of murals that could bring people into Chinatown for an art exhibition experienced from the safety of outdoor spaces.

This year, a record nine murals cover the storefronts of Chinatown establishments, exploring the theme of what makes a community special.

“Chinatown is more than just food,” said Chen, “it’s a living, dynamic community of people.”

Recognizing and cultivating this community, as well as empowering its artists, is what the Pao Arts Center does best. And according to Chen, this is rare.

“Finding an Asian American arts space is really really precious, especially on the east coast,” said Chen.

The three-month festival put on by the arts center has spread awareness of its mission and welcomed everyone to engage with Asian American arts.

Murals for the Experience Chinatown were installed in August and will stay up through October. The festival also celebrates the talents of local musicians, dancers, and all types of performing arts through shows throughout September.

J-pop group shiori_kubrik began these live performances with a personal set at Auntie Kay and Uncle Frank Chin Park. Concertgoers and locals enjoyed take-out meals from local Chinatown restaurants at picnic tables and danced in the streets to shiori_kubrik’s indie-electric sound.

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Lyrically, the band did not hold back, singing about loss, sense of belonging, and finding hope in a modern world. Their pop sound kept the crowd energetic and set a celebratory tone for the opening concert series of the festival.

Orca Bones, a 2021 formed progressive rock duo, switched the tone of the opening night with their fresh, experimental sound.

Lead singer Jujube K. Wong distorted his guitar and vocals for a unique effect that made the band seem to double in size. Electrically manufactured harmonies and vocal reverb created the sense of phantom singers and guitar players missing from the stage. Following each song, Wong’s spoken interludes echoed and harmonized with the still-running effects.

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The opening of the Ghost Roots interactive exhibition at the Pao Arts Center on Thursday, Sept. 22, featured the wide extent of culture the festival offers. Artist Soyoung L. Kim put together a multifaceted, interactive artistic experience that explores the stories of two Asian-American women. The opening event included a reception, screening, and talk to follow.

There has never been a better time to visit Chinatown. Whether you go for the murals, the shows, or the upcoming exhibition, the Experience Chinatown festival has only enhanced the already lively activities the neighborhood has to offer.

—Staff writer Jacob R. Jimenez can be reached at jacob.jimenez@thecrimson.com.

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