Monday, January 15, 2007

Here There Be Stupid Dragons...

Chinatown Dragon, NW 4th & Davis

A few photos of that controversial dragon sculpture the PDC recently installed in Chinatown. The biggest criticism of the dragon is that the symbolism is apparently all wrong. I'm not an expert about that, but the thing certainly looks ridiculous. That much is painfully obvious. I'm by no means the first person to say this, but it looks like something straight out of Disneyland. Ok, no, something rejected by Disneyland.

Really I suspect this cartoon-Chinese look was the intention from day one. The Powers That Be don't want a real ethnic Chinese neighborhood here, because that would be strange and foreign and insufficently upscale. No, they're redecorating the area to make it more attractive to rich, lily-white empty-nester Californian condo buyers, people who think they're exploring "pan-Asian" culture by guzzling $17 wasabi-ginger appletinis. The pseudo-Chinese stuff is just there as the latest trendy, meaningless design motif, an empty postmodern reference to what used to be here before the rich twits moved in. Just like the ugly wall of rusting railroad ties in Tanner Springs Park. For some reason people think it's extremely artistic and cultured to do this, even while sneering at Hillsboro subdivisions named after the groves of trees they replaced. In the end it's really pretty much the same thing.

Some people say the dragon looks like it's collared and chained up. To me, it looks like the dragon head is being extruded somehow. And I don't care to speculate much further regarding the "somehow" part.


Here's the overturned wok detail beneath the dragon. The overturned wok is supposed to be a symbol of bad business, bankruptcy, and famine. Nice. Nobody bothered to consult nearby businesses about this, of course. And why would they? The dragon's certainly not there for their benefit. The sooner they close up shop and make way for yet another exclusive doggie day spa, the happier the PDC will be.

We're told the PDC and the artist were astonished by the public outcry. Which is a typically Portland reaction: They did this with only the noblest of intentions, so why are people upset? It's not like they're in the Klan or anything, you know, and people should be grateful for wonderful urban goodies like this super-cute new dragon.

This happens a lot here. While we have a lot more money in town than we did back in the 1950s, we still tend to be ignorant, provincial, and poorly educated, and we get deeply offended when anybody calls us on it.

I haven't seen anyone remark on this, but to me the really alarming part is the severed duck head behind and to the left of the wok. I prefer my public art without the severed heads, thanks.


A closer look at the dragon. I swear, this thing is about two steps away from being Barney the Dinosaur.


The dragon is just one of a series of decorative doodads. The dragon is the one across the street, while the closer one seems to have a sort of commerce theme. In place of the wok, we have some fish heads, an abacus, a calculator, stuff like that. Basically more random crap that's supposed to look vaguely "Oriental". I use that word advisedly: I've noticed that people in the target condo demographic, affluent 60-something white retirees, tend to still use it, with all its patronizing connotations. At least when they're among their own kind, or they've had one too many of those wasabi-ginger appletinis. A couple more of those and they start saying "chop chop" to the waiter, and it's all downhill from there.

You might assume that there's supposed to be a dragon head here too, but someone beheaded it, or it fell off, or something, but you'd be wrong. It sure looks like there ought to be one here, though, and without it it's not clear why the whole ring-holding-up-a-rock thing is here, since it's not doing anything in particular except holding up the aforementioned rock.


On the base of this particular doodad: More severed heads. Roly poly fish heads, this time. Nice.

The doodads are "gateways" to the new "festival street" on Davis between 3rd & 4th. "Festival streets" are a current urban design fad. Instead of an asphalt street with a raised concrete curb, the whole thing is done in sidewalk-like concrete, with car and pedestrian portions on the same level, separated by a row of decorative posts. This is supposed to make it possible to shut the street off and hold street fairs here, which apparently was impossible until we spent all that money. Never mind that there's been exactly one street fair here so far, a grand opening event staged by the city to show off just how festive a festival street festival can be.

Also, there are palm trees. In Portland. But I already ranted about that a few months ago, and I hate to repeat myself.


On the 3rd Ave. end of the festival street, we finally get a respite from all the severed heads. Instead, this doodad is about the internment of Japanese-American citizens during WWII. I don't even know where to begin on this one.

First, someone ought to tell the PDC that Japan != China. There was a memo, maybe they missed it or something. Ok, it's true there was a Japanese community in parts of Old Town prior to 1941, so maybe they wanted to commemorate that. That's perfectly understandable. But there's already a much larger (and more effective) historical monument about this in Waterfront Park, just 4 blocks east of here. And there's another up at the Expo Center, which was used as a way station for people being transported to the internment camps. So this has been covered pretty well already, and now we're veering into the curious phenomenon of white-liberal-guilt-as-vanity, in which we demonstrate our unimpeachable virtue (and boost our self-esteem) by endlessly wailing and gnashing our teeth over something that happened well before most of us were born.

And it's odd putting this somber item right in the middle of our wondrous new festival street, isn't it? I guess the idea is that carefree drunken revelers will stumble across it and suddenly be taken aback and it'll make them realize numerous Important Truths and whatnot. If that really is the point, and it really is crucial to have some sort of grim historical marker here, our city and state have a long history of mistreating people of Chinese origin, events that continue to go unremarked-upon and uncommemorated. The state constitution used to prohibit "Chinamen" from owning property or holding mining claims. I suppose that if we talked about this stuff too much, we'd have to mention the fact that the Chinatown we're celebrating was created by segregation, both official and unofficial. And that would put a real damper on the party. So we'll just put up yet another marker, a bland, third-rate one at that, about an event everyone knows about & condemns already.


This is on 3rd & Flanders, on the other new festival street, two blocks away (which will make for a rather awkward festival if you want to use both of 'em, but no matter, nobody's going to.) This is perhaps the scariest part of the whole installation. You see, there's more of the same on the way, and we can only imagine what sort of crap they've got in store for the city next. A sculpture of neatly folded and pressed laundry? A doodad with an "opium den / white slavery" theme? Some statues of "famous Chinese people" the condo clowns might've actually heard of, say, Charlie Chan, Fu Manchu, Ming the Merciless, maybe? Animatronic kids with straw hats and cartoon-slit eyes singing "It's a Small World"? The PDC has untold millions of dollars to play with, and no public oversight, so they can probably come up with something even worse if they really put their minds to it.

1 comment :

PY said...

Unfortunately... Chinatown is dead. Gentrification has killed the historic Chinatown.

You have quite nailed it on the head. Take a look at some of the artwork... or lack thereof.

Unfortunately, this is a symptom of a bigger problem. Chinatown is going down the tubes and the out-of-touch RACC and Chinese Benevolent Assocation is just a focal point of the gentrification issue that is looming over that old-school neighborhood.

The paradox of gentrification by conforming to middle-class tastes and the DIY attitude of the Chinese create a strange chemistry, if not silent battle. From my point of view it's the bottom dollar for both groups. The Chinese want cheap rent and it's slowly going away. The westerners want middle class opportunities to sell or lease. That's why the Chinese are moving out to 82nd and Beaverton... It's cheap rent and places are cheaper to buy.

If the strange walking patterns near the Chinese school and the terrible marble artwork is an indication -- the demise of this cultural Chinatown is very close.

Take a look at some of the so-called artwork there. An upside down dragon with woks and calculators carved into stone. Basically perpetuating stereotypes, taboos and clichés. The pedestals are all notched to prevent skateboarding. Terrible pieces held by terrible pedestals.

And they should have picked an artist that is extremely close to the culture.

Hire the guys that built the chinese classical garden. Oh wait... They're from friggin' mainland china. That would make too much sense.