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Wen-ti Tsen in his Cambridge studio. As a student at SMFA at Tufts in the 1950s, Tsen did not feel connected to Chinatown. But he later became a student of the neighborhood’s history. Video: Alonso Nichols

A Sculptor Celebrates Chinatown’s Workers

The bronze statues will honor workers past and present and their aspirations in Boston

Artist Wen-ti Tsen has never lived in Boston’s Chinatown. In many ways Tsen—who was educated in Europe and at SMFA at Tufts, and lives in Cambridge—still feels like an outsider when he visits a Chinatown shop or restaurant. Yet over the years and through the public art he has created there, he has become a student of the neighborhood’s history, a chronicler of its stories, and an advocate for its residents.

Now Tsen, 87, is realizing a dream he had more than 20 years ago. Through a $1 million grant from the city of Boston, he will create four bronze statues that honor the history of this immigrant community.

The statues, models of which Tsen has sculpted in clay in his home studio, depict a laundryman, a cook, a seamstress at a sewing machine, and a grandmother watching over a child. They represent the very limited economic opportunities that Chinese immigrants had when they settled in Boston starting in the 1870s.

When Tsen moved to Boston in the 1950s, many of the Chinese people he met were children or grandchildren of laundry or restaurant workers. Even if these descendants earn college degrees or doctorates, Tsen said, “they often feel ashamed of themselves. They still have this background of not being regarded.” Through the statues, Tsen plans to honor the efforts of Chinatown’s workers, both past and current, and imbue them with dignity.

“It’s very important for the community to recognize the hard work they have done—and their aspirations,” he said.

Tsen’s respect for that blue-collar heritage is strong, even if his own immigration followed a different path. He was born in Shanghai in 1936. His father was a poet, and his mother was a classically trained artist. When Tsen was 3, a failed assassination attempt on political leader Wang Jingwei, a close family friend, left his father dead and his mother injured.

Despite the loss of his father, Tsen lived a comfortable life even after war forced his family to leave China. They lived in Paris and London, although Tsen’s mother was often absent, traveling for her art. When Tsen caught tuberculosis at age 20, he had to spend weeks in the hospital. His mother—partly out of guilt for all the time she spent away, he expects—then took him to Florence for two months to recuperate. Every morning, they went to the Uffizi Gallery, where Tsen would do charcoal drawings of classical statues. After lunch, they would visit another museum.

“That was the beginning—I learned to look, to seriously get down to the hard work of working as an artist,” Tsen recalled. His mother looked at him with new respect. “That’s when she accepted that I could be an artist.”

When Tsen moved to Boston and began studying at SMFA at Tufts, he lived on Beacon Hill and did not feel a connection to Chinatown. At that time, most Chinatown residents had immigrated from the Taishan region of Guangdong province and spoke a dialect Tsen did not know. They also seemed put off by his long hair and leather jacket.

After earning a studio diploma in 1961, getting married, and starting a family, Tsen made ends meet by working as a billboard painter and as a movie projectionist at local cinemas. In the ’70s and ’80s, he became known for the anti-war posters and booklets he designed for activist groups. Around that time, activists in Chinatown began protesting the urban development and gentrification that was pricing residents out of the neighborhood, and Tsen was inspired to take part, painting two prominent murals in the 1980s.

Since then, Tsen has directed public art projects across the country, including several in Chinatown. In 2015, he put together a temporary public art project called “Flagging Chinatown” that involved colorful flags with words such as “We want,” “Housing,” “Reclaim,” and “Chinatown” in English and Chinese. For “Home Town” in 2016, he took photo portraits of people in Chinatown along with 12 life-size cutouts he had painted of past residents, based on historical photos from the community’s archives.

“Work is never the full person. There are always the different worlds and all these people that are combined into the person’s body. Their work is part of their life but does not define them.”

Artist Wen-ti Tsen

Earlier this year, he received a $10,000 grant from the New England Foundation for the Arts that allowed him to take the first steps toward the Chinatown workers project he pictured. Boston Mayor Michelle Wu’s office was so impressed with Tsen’s proposal that it allocated an additional $1 million as part of the city’s five-year capital plan.

Karin Goodfellow, Boston’s director of public art, said the new sculptures will help correct the “dearth of artworks representing the Asian American experience” in the city’s collection. They are particularly powerful, she said, because they will not be on plinths, but at eye level. “When we see people and we make eye contact, I think we are more aware of our shared humanity and shared experiences,” she said. “His proposal really does a beautiful job at connecting us to workers of today and the past.”

The clay maquettes, or preliminary models, Tsen has sculpted are close to final. He still has plenty to oversee, however, as his models are cast into plaster resin, digitally scanned at a foundry, remolded to life-size, cast into bronze, and then, he hopes, installed at street level in four prominent spaces in Chinatown. He expects the whole process to take a few years.  

Although the statues do not depict actual people, they have real-life inspirations. The laundryman is a remembrance of Tunney Lee, who was raised in Chinatown and whose father worked as a laundryman. Lee went on to become a professor of urban planning at MIT.

The grandmother is based partly on a woman Tsen has known since they were children in China; she taught kindergarten at Chinatown’s Quincy School for many years. The child she is caring for comes from a photograph Tsen took as part of his 2016 “Home Town” project. The girl, age 7 or 8, was with her mother and siblings.

“She just stood out in front of all three of them with this posture: ‘I'm going somewhere,’” Tsen recalled. The girl’s mother held her back in line for the second photo, but Tsen could read her thoughts: “As soon as you release me, I'm going to run ahead.”

In fact, all the statues are looking into the distance, not at the work in front of them. For a moment, they could be contemplating their past or their future, their history or their aspirations.  

“Work is never the full person,” Tsen said. “There are always the different worlds and all these people that are combined into the person’s body. Their work is part of their life but does not define them.”

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