Asian-American/Pacific Islander arts face unique challenges post-COVID 

Groups struggled with racism, loss of community 

TWO YEARS AGO, Wah Lum Kung Fu & Tai Chi Academy had 200 students learning martial arts in Malden and Quincy. Its performance team was hired to perform lion and dragon dances and martial arts demonstrations at festivals, weddings, and business openings. 

Then the pandemic hit. Wah Lum offered classes online. But for students used to practicing in a studio with swords, it was hard to focus at home, holding a broom and watching Zoom. Performances were postponed, then cancelled. Wah Lum offered “pay what you can” tuition online, as many parents, working in industries like restaurants and salons, lost their jobs. “It was a real loss on all fronts, a loss of current students, a loss of prospective students, a loss of activities,” said owner and teacher Mai Du. 

The school gave up its Quincy space. Du took out a Small Business Administration loan. In spring 2021, she reopened in-person in Malden and found a cheaper space in Quincy.  

Financially, the school is struggling. Many students did not return, whether because of fear of COVID, changed financial circumstances, or a loss of interest. The school now has just over 100 students. Performances are restarting, but community organizations pay less because their own budgets shrank. 

“It feels like we have to start the business all over again in many ways,” Du said. 

The Massachusetts Cultural Council this month launched a new grant program, funded by a $1 million legislative earmark, focused on Asian American and Pacific Islanders arts and culture. The program will give COVID recovery grants to cultural organizations whose programming reflects or serves Asian or Pacific Islander communities. This can involve organizing festivals, conducting performances, or teaching traditional music, dance, or martial arts.  

An Experience Chinatown arts festival in Boston in September 2021. (Photo by Lee-Daniel Tran)

Lawmakers from the House Asian Caucus created the earmark to address what they see as a community uniquely affected by COVID. Artists and policymakers say the festival culture that runs deep in Asian communities has been decimated. Social service agencies are reporting that Asian-Americans have been harmed by increased displays of racism during the pandemic. Their arts community has also long been bypassed by traditional philanthropy, and arts groups worry that Asian Americans will continue to be overlooked even at a time when society has grown increasingly concerned with inequities facing Black and Latino residents.  

“You don’t understand how little attention we get,” said state Rep. Tackey Chan, a Quincy Democrat who sponsored the earmark. 

The arts play a large role in many Asian communities, and there are many small, culturally specific groups that perform at cultural celebrations. Chan said he typically has a list of 30 or so Lunar New Year banquets in Boston’s Chinatown, which have not occurred for two years. Korean Foundation Day parties, Indian Diwali celebrations, and the Lowell Southeast Asian Water Festival, which attracts tens of thousands of people, were all cancelled during COVID.  

Japanese Taiko by O’Daiko New England at the Boston Dragon Boat Festival in 2019. (Courtesy Gail Wang)

“These AAPI cultural organizations that do these different types of events, they’re not invited to other things going on in the mainstream community,” Chan said. “How many times have you seen Filipino stick dancers that isn’t in a cultural event?” 

One visible example is the Boston Dragon Boat Festival, held annually in June on the Charles River in Boston and Cambridge. The festival attracted 77 racing teams and 30,000 visitors in 2019. It hires eight to 10 performing groups and 13 to 15 food vendors annually for a day-long cultural celebration. The event was cancelled in 2020 and went virtual in 2021. “We’re the largest Asian cultural festival in New England, so not having that, it’s a void,” said festival president Gail Wang.  

Rockey Chan, Massachusetts programs and service manager for Quincy Asian Resources, Inc., a nonprofit service agency, said Asian cultures are very community-oriented, and festivals give Asian immigrants struggling to adapt to American life a chance to connect with familiar traditions. QARI offers education, training, and social services to the Asian community, but also runs the largest AAPI festivals on the South Shore – an outdoor August Moon festival that pre-COVID attracted around 10,000 people and a Lunar New Year festival that got 8,000 people. 

In 2020, QARI moved its festivals online. It held an in-person August Moon festival in 2021 but held the Lunar New Year festival online amid the Omicron surge. 

Rockey Chan said Asians tend to be overlooked in American culture, a tendency he attributed to “that horrible model minority myth,” the stereotype that all the Asians are successful. With the rise in reporting of hate crimes against Asian-Americans during the COVID pandemic, Chan believes it is more important than ever to use the arts to enhance equity and representation of Asians in America. “Having representation in not just the community, but in social media and in our movies and entertainment is even more important now,” he said. 

It’s a sentiment echoed by Jeena Chang, director of community programs and design at the Asian Community Development Corporation in Boston’s Chinatown. Community members have told staff during wellness checks that they do not want to go outside because they have been harassed or assaulted, or they fear encountering racism. Amid gentrification, Chang said some Chinatown residents are already feeling under siege. “COVID’s pushed that message in your face stronger, saying ‘you don’t belong because we blame you for this pandemic,’” Chang said, alluding to the virus’s origin in China.  

Chang said art has “been all the more necessary for healing, for connection.” Her agency conducted interactive art projects via mail and Zoom. It joined a New York-based campaign, “Love Letters to Chinatown,” and collected letters and drawings from residents about their neighborhood, which were publicly displayed. The group installed swing benches with quotes on them from residents to encourage the use of a local park. It encouraged art projects that combat racism and lead residents to envision what a post-COVID community could look like. “Art can be used for healing, and also imagining – if the pandemic is a portal, what would be on the other side?” Chang said. 

Small AAPI arts venues have also been significantly affected by COVID, as they have been throughout the arts world.  

Pao Arts Center is run by the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, a social service agency, in partnership with Bunker Hill Community College, as an artists’ space focused on the Asian American community. The center has classrooms, an art gallery, and a theater that is rented for rehearsals and performances.  

The center’s director, Cynthia Woo, said the Chinatown community has been slow to return to in-person events, making it harder to resume regular programming. “This is a very careful and conservative community in terms of COVID protocols and precautions,” she said. 

Woo said before COVID hit, the five-year-old center was about to embark on a campaign to engage potential donors and develop strategies for making it financially sustainable. That was put on hold. The center did get a reopening grant from the City of Boston, and Woo said she hopes the new Massachusetts Cultural Council grant will reach organizations beyond its usual grantees who “are not traditionally thought of in the arts and creative sector.” 

Ben Hires, CEO of Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center, which runs Pao Arts Center, said its budget has shrunk during COVID. If there aren’t performances, no one is renting rehearsal space. He said fundraising is also harder when donors can’t see an organization’s activities.  

The Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center relies on donations, and Hires said the level of philanthropy available to the AAPI community is generally low. A report released by Asian Americans/Pacific Islanders in Philanthropy found that in 2018, of every $100 awarded by foundations nationally, just 20 cents went to the Asian American or Pacific Islander communities. Foundation funding for AAPI institutions between 2014 in 2018 in Massachusetts totaled $33.7 million. Nationally, arts and culture got the fourth-most foundation funding, after education, human rights, and community and economic development.  

Karthik Subramanian, a theater managing director and steering committee member of the Boston-based Asian Pacific Islander Arts Network, said there has never been a deep analysis of the needs of culturally specific arts groups. But he suspects a lot of them operate off contributed income, rather than ticket-based income, and do not own their own spaces, both factors that make them ineligible for many COVID recovery grants.  

Artists say far more than money has been lost, since at their core, the arts are about culture and community. 

Gund Kwok, the Asian Women’s Lion and Dragon Dance Troupe, typically performs at 20 or 25 celebrations a year – festivals, weddings, business openings, and birthdays. Gund Kwok did six performances in early 2020, then none until the summer of 2021. Founder and teacher Cheng Imm Tan said while dancers could borrow a costume lion’s head and practice individual techniques online, they could not work on synchronization or lifts. Some dancers had only their bedroom to dance in.  

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About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

About Shira Schoenberg

Shira Schoenberg is a reporter at CommonWealth magazine. Shira previously worked for more than seven years at the Springfield Republican/MassLive.com where she covered state politics and elections, covering topics as diverse as the launch of the legal marijuana industry, problems with the state's foster care system and the elections of U.S. Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Gov. Charlie Baker. Shira won the Massachusetts Bar Association's 2018 award for Excellence in Legal Journalism and has had several stories win awards from the New England Newspaper and Press Association. Shira covered the 2012 New Hampshire presidential primary for the Boston Globe. Before that, she worked for the Concord (N.H.) Monitor, where she wrote about state government, City Hall and Barack Obama's 2008 New Hampshire primary campaign. Shira holds a master's degree from Columbia University's Graduate School of Journalism.

Tan said all the dancers have other full-time jobs. But the troupe lost money, community, and morale. “While we appreciate the time to improve our techniques, we also miss challenge of creating something new and practicing something to perform,” Tan said. 

Du, of Wah Lum, the Quincy and Malden martial arts academy, said the arts at their core are about passion, and about keeping a culture alive. If a business becomes unprofitable, it’s hard to walk away. “We put our hearts into what we do,” Du said.