Open City: Blogging Urban Change
Chinatown Soundscape Series
By Peggy Lee


(From my personal journal, 8/26/09)

When I think of Chinatown, I think of proximity.
bodies close or clashing
dinner breath of another whispers into your nostrils
next to your feet,
a rivulet of the sea and blood drained
from fish, eyes, cloudy marbles

walking through Chinatown is a dizzying kaleidoscope of scents, faces, tongues, lights, color, and sound.

Chinatown Soundscape series is about sound, specifically song and music by nightlife karaoke.  Karaoke spaces, whether private room run or public for all to hear, line the Chinatowns of Manhattan, Flushing, and are emerging in Sunset Park.  What is a more visceral, proximate phenomenon than communing with music?

Some of us may think karaoke, especially with your preferred alcoholic drink in hand, is a narcissistic, even obnoxious activity, and well, I can’t deny that. But being that person with a Jameson in my hand, at karaoke on average once a week, singing oldies or 90’s alternative with nostalgic twinkles in my eyes, I am inclined to say, it’s much more. When I asked a Manhattan Chinatown karaoke jockey at one of my favorite spots why he loves karaoke, he shared how he likes to teach Elvis, Beatles, or Deep Purple to Chinese customers who want to sing an English song for the first time. With a smirk, he disclosed how he lowered the mic volumes when too rowdy, too drunk NYU kids started blaring Journey. And this all happens in the same room, each waiting their turn.

In the introduction to Audiotopia: Music, Race, and America, Josh Kun asks us to think of music “in terms of space and in terms of its spaces—the spaces that the music itself contains, the spaces that music fills up, the spaces that music helps us to imagine as listeners occupying our own real and imaginary spaces” (21).  Music is a place we can step into, and exists in its own “auditory somewhere.”  Karaoke, a popular nightlife business in these areas, offers another ephemeral layer of change and crossings to the conversation on gentrification in Chinatown. If karaoke is framed as a “spatial practice,” what is being built or bulldozed through song, the intermingling of Cantopop and Lady Gaga, among the customers?

In this blog series, I’ll be talking to karaoke jockeys, regulars, and owners at my favorite spots and some stranger-places in the three Chinatowns. Sing on!

One Response to Chinatown Soundscape Series

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About Open City
Open City: Blogging Urban Change is an interdisciplinary neighborhood blog and community project coordinated by the Asian American Writers’ Workshop. Five commissioned writers, called Organizing Fellows, are working with community organizations and neighborhood folks in Manhattan’s Chinatown/Lower East Side (LES), Flushing, Queens, and Sunset Park, Brooklyn to collect oral histories and interviews, offer commentary about gentrification, neighborhood change, and produce new creative work around these themes. Read more.
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CAAAV Organizing Asian Communities was formed in 1986 (formerly known as the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence) as a response to an increase in anti-Asian hate crimes both in New York City and around the country (which included violence by police officers against Asians).
They have two offices – one in Manhattan’s Chinatown (which houses the Chinatown Tenants Union, and the new Asian Youth in Action organizing project) and the Youth Leadership Project office in the Bronx – and have members from all over the city. Over the years, CAAAV’s main campaigns have focused on community-based organizing work rooted in Asian immigrant and refugee communities. Although their advocacy and organizing work is focused mainly in Manhattan’s Chinatown and the northwest Bronx, CAAAV’s work also touches upon larger issues (such as affordable housing, war, and immigration) shaping communities all over the world: “Our work is primarily centered around issues facing New Yorkers, but always with a global analysis.”
CAAAV’s mission is to organize and build the power of working-class Asian immigrants, refugees, and youth to change concrete conditions and participate in a broader social justice movement. In the past, CAAAV’s work included organizing South Asian taxi drivers, Korean women workers, and Filipina domestic workers. Several of these organizing projects have gone on to become their own organizations, such as the New York Taxi Workers Alliance and Domestic Workers United. CAAAV’s current work focus on three different program areas: Read more.

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Community Announcements
Manhattan CB3 Land Use, Zoning, Public & Private Housing Committee
Monday, May 2 at 6:30 pm -- Rutgers Community Center, Gymnasium - 200 Madison Street (btwn Rutgers & Pike Sts)

Brooklyn CB7, Land Use/Landmarks Committee Regular meeting
Continued discussion on potential 8th Avenue rezoning

Manhattan CB3 Economic Development Committee Tuesday, May 3 at 6:30pm -- Community Board 3 Office - 59 East 4th Street (btwn 2nd Ave & Bowery)

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