Artist and designer Jeffrey Yoo Warren uses architectural modeling programs to recreate PVD Chinatown in his project “Seeing Providence Chinatown,” which debuted at AS220 in September 2022 and has been building ever since.
As someone who studied both history and art in college, I find it admirable and impressive when an artist arises that is able to combine both disciplines in a way that truly and deeply resonates with any given group of people. Artist Jeffrey Yoo Warren has managed to do just that with his most recent project, “Seeing Providence Chinatown,” which is a virtual reconstruction of Chinatown — a bustling area of PVD that existed from the 1880s until the late 1960s. The history of PVD’s Chinatown is widely unknown – there has been a lack of education about its existence and few memorials marking its previous stature. In fact, Warren noted in his interview with The Public’s Radio that he was actually inspired to begin this project when he found a temporary historic plaque in 2018 that mentioned Chinatown, only in passing.
Warren began his work on this project about a year and a half ago, when he began to stash away some photographs of PVD’s historic Chinatown into a folder on his computer. The frequency of his work with this project picked up in December of 2021 when he received an RI Council for the Humanities grant, and his project became a relatively full-time effort this past fall, when he received a Library of Congress residency for his work.
Warren’s project jumps off from the work of Angela Yuanyuan Feng, Julieanne Fontana, and John Eng-Wong in their project titled “Providence’s Chinatown,” which was an exhibit and walking tour done in the spring of 2018. In their exhibition, the artists focused on the two centers of PVD’s Chinatown (Empire Street & Summer Street) and created site-specific exhibits based in window fronts throughout downtown PVD, where Chinatown once stood. Their goal in “Providence’s Chinatown” (richinesehistory.com) was to “rediscover these locations and to connect this history to Rhode Island’s modern Chinese diaspora.” In our interview, Warren told me that he has reached out to Feng, Fontana, and Eng-Wong to help him along in his process. He spent a lot of his time in the early stages of his project gathering ideas, and when he felt he had something tangible to share, he reached out to them. He said that they’ve been great, and have helped him to become connected with a number of people in the PVD community that have helped contribute to his project.
As we’ve all dealt with technology in this day and age, we know that it is not always our friend. Warren has experienced difficulties himself while creating this virtual world, but he described the process as an overall enjoyable experience. Having studied architecture in his undergraduate career, most of the process consisted of relearning systems he’s used before (and their modern updates), rather than learning from scratch. He used a lot of modeling tools that were familiar enough for him to use, and built his virtual world from there. He described the process as taking photos, cutting out facades, and stretching the facades to fit blocks in the virtual environment, much like scrapbooking.
To obtain the photos and information used in his project, Warren visited local archives that were close by and accessible. He explained that using these archives and digging for what he needed was a long process, and knowing what to look and ask for could come as a challenge most of the time. He described two distinct experiences that he faced while looking through the archives: One was painful, in which he was coming across a lot of news stories or period pieces that were racist and harmful; Another was warm, in which he would find a picture or story that was heartfelt and kind. Largely, he looks back on this archival process as meditative, or a way of doing work and showing respect for the history at hand. The meditative nature of the archival digging is worth the time, and the warm things one finds is fulfilling.
Warren’s choice to honor PVD’s Chinatown in a virtual space was based on the immersion that three-dimensional virtual environments provide, and the feelings that these immersive environments evoke. Going into this project, Warren noted that he didn’t have any particular fondness for technology – most of his projects are instead involved in woodworking, ceramics, and drawing. However, Warren was moved by how people can interact with a 3D digital space. He explained, “One of the most meaningful things that has happened in this work is to work with Asian American folks who want to know what it was like, and to give them the ability, not just to sort of follow along or to look at a picture, but to choose to duck their head into an alley, or choose to wander away a little bit in this neighborhood, and to experience it with agency.”
This sense of agency that members of the Asian American communities can experience in exploring virtual Chinatown is rooted largely in the personal connection and resonance, Warren explains.
He’s glad that so many people are interested in his project, but he’s especially focused on the Asian American community in PVD. He went into his project thinking about relationships, memory, and identity, giving members of PVD’s Asian American community the opportunity to learn about their history in an interactive way. He wishes for the descendants of families from this period to be able to “see this place beyond the fragmentary photos that remain. Also, family photos often have individual pictures, but they don’t have a sense of place as much.” Warren’s project undoubtedly gives these folks the sense of place that they are looking for.
In addition to his work with PVD’s own Chinatown, Warren also expressed interest in developing a similar project in other cities. He has connections and conversations being fostered with folks in Portland (OR), Los Angeles, and New Orleans. He details this as a slow, ongoing process – he cherishes the importance of direct relationships with the given space, and it takes time to build these strong relationships and do research in order to properly complete the project. Warren doesn’t yet have any specific dates in which he’ll be showcasing “Seeing Providence Chinatown” in 2023, but he is expecting public interactive events beginning in the spring and summer.
To read more about “Seeing Providence Chinatown” and to keep up with any important updates, visit unterbahn.com/chinatown.