Composer George Tsz-Kwan Lam has always enjoyed writing music inspired by places.
“There are all these places in Chinatown that are hidden and meaningful,” he says, stepping out of the way of passers-by as he leads a tour of the neighborhood. "To discover some of these hidden things on a walk around town that you wouldn't normally notice, I was wondering, is there an element to that?"
It turns out that there is not just one piece, but a whole application.
Lam interviewed five Chinese Americans from across the country, asking them about their experiences in Chinatown, as well as their ancestry, families and memories. He then defined responses to music, with instruments drawing attention to each person's distinctive speech pattern.
"I thought if I incorporated 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 walked through this building so many times, going to work, going to restaurants, and now I can associate [these places] with this voice saying how this person got here or who their grandfather was,” Lam says.
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He calls the coin and the free app, Family Association, in honor of 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 19th century. In Chinatowns across the country, they are a place to find resources or an apartment, discuss business or politics, maybe get a COVID shot. But it's also a place to socialize with people who share similar experiences: most associations are built around a single family name, like the Wong Family Benevolent Association, or places in China, like the Hoy Sun Ning Yung Benevolent Association.
Lam stops in front of a large white building nestled between squat brown dwellings. This is the Lee Family Association, its name is in green Chinese characters on the front, and like many family associations, there are retail stores across the street, 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 between all the shops and restaurants jostling 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 you approach one of the family association buildings, much of the music and competing voices fade out and the focus shifts to one of the five oral history participants, who tell their story.
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 anywhere else. But Lam says he sees the app itself as a kind of virtual family partnership, connecting these Chinese-American voices to each other, even though they've never met.
And he also hopes to create a link 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 the 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.