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Departures Chinatown: A Deep Look at the Social and Cultural History

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In Memory of Irvin Lai.

When you look back at the first 100 years of Chinese migration to Los Angeles, you see the evolution of multiple "Chinatowns." Each has distinct meanings, myths and uses - not just for greater Los Angeles, but for the Chinese community itself. With every subsequent migratory wave to Los Angeles - and with the changing structure of U.S. immigration law, the meanings, myths and uses that defined "Chinatown" as a cultural, economic, and symbolic center have shifted and changed.

After an initial wave of Cantonese arrivals created the cultural and historical template that is most often associated with the Chinese American experience, later migrants from South East Asia and Taiwan (among other places) brought new cultural values that re-defined this experience. These new migrants created multiple contexts from which to view and understand what it meant to be Chinese American, and also created new geographic centers in the San Gabriel Valley that have rendered Los Angeles' historical Chinatown almost obsolete. After more than a century of Chinese migration to America these new geographies and multiple ways of being Chinese in America raise important questions: What is the role of Chinatown in 21st Century Los Angeles? What does it represent? And to whom?

With the help of the Chinese American Museum, the KCET Departures team ventured into Chinatown to record its deep social and cultural history. We spoke to hundreds of people: community activists Munson Kwok and Irvin Lai, Congresswoman Judy Chu, historians Suellen Cheng and William Estrada, gallery owner Steve Hansen, writer Lisa See, journalists Ann Summa & Jeff Spurrier who covered the Chinatown Punk Scene in the 1980's, all of these voices creating a multi-layered portrait of Chinatown as it is today.

Chinatown Mural - KCET Departures

Part oral history project, part interactive documentary, part community engagement tool, and part digital literacy project, Departures: Chinatown also engaged youth in the community through its Youth Voices program, partnering with the Chinatown Service Center Youth Council and training young people as student producers.

Departures is a media ecology whose overall arc could be likened to the slow food movement: locally grown, produced and consumed. There's logic behind the madness we've created, an intricate structure behind the whimsy of scrollable murals and pins on a map. This is how it all comes together:

Neighborhoods have boundaries defined by history, culture, commerce and economy. These defining lines lend Departures its "chapters," which are presented as a series of virtual murals that reflect a set of issues in an area. Each mural in turn is composed of a series of portraits of people, places and things. These portraits are presented to you through a series of video clips that allow you to explore and learn about a particular neighborhood. Additionally, each one of this people, places or things has a particular geographic location that you can find on our map. The map has a series of colored pins that define different neighborhoods and source of content. For example, we chose a sandy orange to define Venice, a deep red to denote Chinatown and so on. Similarly, the pins you find on the map are broken into sub-categories. Our goal with this map is to create a participatory narrative cartography of the city.

Departures is a non-linear media experience that needs your input, curiosity and wit to be completed. Although carefully structured to create a context for your journey, Departures functions like an atomized documentary or jigsaw puzzle, where the individual pieces invite you to make sense of them.

Come visit our Chinatown installment and tell us what you think!

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