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Home Town Hero

Wen-ti Tsen fights gentrification with public art

Celina Colby
Celina Colby is an arts and travel reporter with a fondness for Russian novels.... VIEW BIO
Home Town Hero
Artist Wen-Ti Tsen’s installation, “Home Town,” features life-size historical portraits of Chinatown residents from the past, placed throughout the gentrifying Boston neighborhood. (Photo: Photo: Celina Colby)

Wen-ti Tsen’s public art installation “Home Town” is an emotional plea for respite from gentrification as it stands in the shadows of Boston’s latest luxury high-rise.

Twelve almost life-size cutouts depicting figures from Chinatown’s history are stationed around the epicenter of Asian culture in Massachusetts, between Essex and South Streets. Tsen explains that Chinatown brings a sense of home to Chinese immigrants all around New England. “‘Hometown’ usually means a place where you grew up,” he says. “In this case, it means a home that you take with you, wherever you go.”

The 80-year-old Tsen collaborated with the Chinese Historical Society of New England on the project, looking through their archives for old photos of Chinatown residents. He searched specifically for working class people who were engaging directly with the camera. After selecting the photos, he enlarged them to around five feet high, then painted over them with oil paints, bringing the black and white history to life. “They are not just old photographs,” he says. “Painting them shows they are — or were — real people.”

On the web

“Home Town” is on view through September 25 at various locations in Chinatown. Visit http://www.nefa.org/grantees/wen-ti-tsen

Chinatown struggled with gentrification issues for decades. Nowadays, as new luxury developments seek downtown real estate on which to build, longtime families are expelled from the area. Only a handful of square blocks represent what was once a thriving cultural hub. “The real threat of gentrification is the disruption to the community,” says Tsen. He specifically stationed some of the figures along the Greenway Park in Chinatown, where many high-rise residents walk their dogs and stop to rest on lazy afternoons. Tsen hopes the exhibit will cause people to stop and think about their own involvement in the shrinking of the neighborhood.

Despite its political undertones, the exhibit has a positive message. One of Tsen’s favorite characters is a man in an ill-fitting suit who worked at a laundry in Roxbury. His image was enlarged from a very tiny photograph, so Tsen had to create many of the detail in his face and clothing. It’s clear that the artist became attached to each person, developing individual backstories based on his knowledge of the times. He points out the humility in the man’s face, the calluses on his hands. He says, “You are face to face with their humanity.”

Moments before Tsen arrived at the exhibit for his weekly Saturday tour, a father and his two children stood looking at a portrait of two youngsters about the same age. The daughter, dressed in a bright blue tutu, stared at her 1940s counterpart and asked her father, “Who are they?” Her father explains, “They were kids in Chinatown, 40 or 50 years ago.”

Past and present stared into each other as the girl realized how much had come before her. The girl in the painting, Katherine Wong, now is 80 years old and, to our knowledge, still lives in Boston.