"Dog-man" makes few friends in Chinatown

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Bitter battle over public art piece postpones its installation


  • “He Thought This was Going to be a Year of Good Fortune,” a 900-pound 'dog-man' by the Australians Gillie and Marc Schattner, has provoked strong feelings in Chinatown. Photo: Community Board 3

Months from now, we may still be talking about the legend of the Dog-man: a cross-legged, tux-wearing creature with a man's body and a golden retriever's head, and holding an oversized red apple in one palm. We may marvel at the ease by which Dog-man brought more mayhem upon Chinatown than did many land development projects. The irony, though, is that hardly anyone even saw him.

To celebrate Lunar New Year — and the dog, this year's zodiac animal — the Chinatown Partnership and Chinatown Business Improvement District (BID) commissioned the bronze sculpture from Australian artists Gillie and Marc Schattner.

Mere days after it emerged that the artwork would be erected in Kimlau Square, a hallowed ground memorializing Chinese-American World War II veterans, local residents and activists mounted a fierce crusade against the sculpture and its proponents. A petition to halt its installation garnered more than 300 signatories within the first 24 hours — with scores of signatures pouring in from Queens, Brooklyn and even San Francisco. The protestors' chief grievances are that Dog-man — titled “He Thought This was Going to be a Year of Good Fortune” — perpetuates the Western stereotype that the Chinese are avid consumers of dog flesh, and that its placement directly under the Kimlau Memorial Arch is an affront to revered community icons. The BID has indefinitely postponed the project.

Over what should have been the most jovial week of the year in Chinatown, the anthropomorphic canine became a symbol of the neighborhood's bitter existential battles: between economic revival and artistic truth, legacy and gentrification, and clashing factions of activists.

The controversy began when false information was included on the petition, according to Wellington Chen, the executive director of Chinatown Partnership. For starters, the organization never planned to place the sculpture under the arch. It wasn't even supposed to be in the square, he said.

The BID initially applied for permits near the Chinatown Information Kiosk, on Canal Street near Baxter; Mahayana Buddhist Temple, on Canal just north of the Manhattan Bridge offramp; and Confucius Plaza, but was rejected each time, Chen said. With the Lunar New Year installation rapidly approaching and no other viable locations, BID staff decided to place the sculpture under the flag at Kimlau Square to remind visitors and residents alike of sacrifices made by the commemorated figures.

Chen said he, too, would have been offended if he heard that a dog-man would be sitting underneath the arch, but no dissenters asked him for clarification — or anything at all — before circulating the petition.

That members of his own community would traffic in “fake news” and racist tropes saddens Chen. “Why would you twist it around to say we're dog eaters? Do you even hear white people say that anymore?” he asked.

Karlin Chan, the lone Chinese member of the Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs, & Waterfront Committee of Community Board 3, said that the sculpture is reflective of “a well-intentioned but wrong approach.” Given that it is specifically commissioned to celebrate the Year of the Dog, he thought the artwork should have had contained more Chinese touches. The design, he continued, makes it looks like the mascot of a sporting goods store.

More troubling than the stylistic mismatch is the composite figure of a dog-man itself, which Chan, a well-respected activist, said represents a malicious canine spirit. Anthropomorphic characters have a storied history in Chinese mythology, primarily as fierce warriors or vessels of doom. The most popular among the group is Sun WuKong, an immortal shape-shifting monkey man. A more appropriate, propitious design for Chan would have been a poodle cradling a pot of gold.

Chen, on the other hand, has more flexible standards for cultural art, which he said can be “an abstract representation of a symbol of tradition” that the viewer does not necessarily have to agree with.

Growing economic concerns also meant that the BID often has to consider an artwork's commercial value over its symbolic nuances. Public art, a reliable generator of foot traffic, pumps revenue to the 2,000 struggling merchants that Chen's organization represents. “As one of the largest BIDs in the city, we don't have a single piece of artwork in 240 sidewalks,” he said. “Why is it that our community is being so hard on ourselves?”

An internationally-acclaimed duo like Gillie and Marc, whose works stretch from New York to Indonesia, could attract more diverse cohorts to Chinatown, Chen said.

Amy Chin, a veteran arts and cultural activist who helped community members set up the petition, rejects the notion that the neighborhood is starved of homegrown talents with global reputations. Trailblazing contemporary artist and dissident Ai Weiwei once lived in Chinatown, she said. Award-winning muralist Tomie Arai was recently commissioned to paint the new San Francisco Chinatown subway station. (Arai shared the petition on Facebook and, on behalf of Chinatown Arts Brigade, a grassroots coalition of artists and activists, applauded Chin and others for working to establish a more transparent public art selection process.) The eery, enigmatic glass mosaics and aerial gardens of Ming Fay, a longtime resident, can be found in landmark buildings from Philadelphia to Puerto Rico.

More than to preserve Chinese culture, the petition backs art that reflects and increases public awareness, Chin said, adding that “those qualities are not mutually exclusive.” Manhattan has countless examples of commercially appealing public art that pays homage to a group's history.

That other BIDs have created open selection processes for public art shows the possibility and importance of community engagement, Chin said. While Chen said his organization is too understaffed and underfunded to implement a similar system, Chin believes the Chinatown Partnership could still do more to support local artists. A realistic — and logical — step forward is to enlist their help in public art ventures not only based in their community but which also reaffirm their identity.

But Chen, of the Chinatown Partnership, said that the BID's decision to commission an art group from overseas for a cultural project is not to shun local creatives but to accommodate unusual circumstances.

In the past, Lunar New Year installations — the horse and rooster, for example — have been created by local artists. Chinatown Partnership did not plan on commissioning artwork this year because staffers had to complete other projects, Chen said.

The initiative only came to be because the Village Alliance, which runs the East Village BID, contacted several other BIDs to transfer its lease on a Gillie and Marc sculpture. After Chinatown lost out on the piece, Chen said, it was the Australian pair who reached out and negotiated the collaboration.

To Chen, the most frustrating aspect of this controversy may be that it entirely missed the sculpture's message: peace, which is symbolized by the apple, not the monkey. The first character of the Chinese word for “apple” is also the first character of “peace,” Chen said. And its color, a radiant crimson, embodies both good fortune in Chinese culture and the cosmopolitanism of New York, the “Big Apple” that embraces diversity and shields undocumented immigrants from deportation.

The Chinese diaspora is no stranger to systemic discrimination; some of its graying members can recite family tales about the Chinese Exclusion Act. By so publicly and vehemently rejecting the Dog-man's implicit values, Chen said, “We look like fools — and hypocrites.”

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