In collaboration with the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center (BCNC)’s 2019 Residence Lab, Sasaki landscape architect Ponnapa Prakkamakul and Chinatown residents Henry Ko and Warren Wong have designed a series of interactive art pieces to be displayed in an empty lot near the Chinatown Gate.
The BCNC Residence Lab brings together artists from the community and Chinatown residents to develop public installations in the historic Boston neighborhood. The question driving this year’s project was: “How might residents take ownership of Chinatown’s physical space in a way that preserves and fosters neighborhood identity?” Prakkamakul and her collaborators designed rocking benches and oversized Chinese Chess pieces to activate the once-empty space and highlight the narratives of residents.
The red, half-moon shaped benches invite the viewer to reflect, rest, and feel grounded. The project draws inspiration from the idea of an oasis, which is not a destination, but rather a place to gain energy before moving on. Much like an oasis, many immigrants have come to Chinatown as a place to build community before moving on to their next destination. Rocking back and forth on the benches calls back to the experience of rocking inside the womb, in a parent’s arms, or sitting in a rocking chair later in life. This piece offers visitors a moment to escape so that they can connect with the benches’ soothing motion.
The quotations etched into the benches come from conversations the team conducted with community members who were sitting in the open space near the Chinatown Gate. The team asked older residents to share stories of living in Chinatown, the challenges of immigrating to the U.S., and the effects that gentrification has had on their neighborhoods. The quotations have been translated into English, Cantonese, Mandarin, and Braille. The Braille was printed upside down so that visitors can read the quotations while rocking on the benches. Not only do these quotations reflect Chinatown’s history, they also remind visitors that if they’re struggling to feel heard, they are not alone.
Along with the benches, Prakkamul and her team created over-sized Chinese Chess pieces that invite visitors young and old to partake in Chinese tradition. Participatory design workshops with children at Chin Park, BCNC Red Oak Middle School, and Josiah Quincy School inspired the creation of a new “queen” game piece, something that did not exist in the traditional version of the game.
Sasaki’s Fabrication Studio played a big role in the production of the installation. Jay Nothoff, Fabrication Studio manager, provided input on the practicality of the piece and helped Prakkamakul test a variety of designs. They even developed a new technique for safely etching onto painted material. “The Fabrication Studio gave us the chance to pursue all of our ideas,” Prakkamakul said.
The installation is titled “Sampan,” and was on display and in use for public events hosted in Chinatown, from August 23 to September 28, 2019. In Thai, sampan means a connection or relationship. In Mandarin, it describes a flat-bottomed Chinese boat widely-used throughout Asia for transportation, fishing, and shelter.
Prakkamakul would like to extend her gratitude to Michael Grove, Brad Prestbo, Jay Nothoff, Jonathan Greer, Ezekiel Flores, Xu Han, Hana Estice, Emma Flowers, Sam Pease, Felipe Francisco, Ziyang Zeng, Astrid Wong, Thom Brown, Lanmuzi Yang, Sam Lee, Osazemen Ehigiator, Hossein Goudarzi, Anthony Fettes, Aubrey Fan, Muhan Cui, Justin Kollar, Jason Ng, Binbin Ma, Mengting Ge, Ann Tai, Sarah Bush, Shi Ling, Didier Lucceus, Hanisha Bhaktula, Kai Ying Lau, and Gwendolyn Sands for their help in the making of this project.