Sculpture to Celebrate Year of the Dog Stirs Controversy in Chinatown

The controversial sculpture by Gillie and Marc. (Photo via Sing Tao Daily)

The unveiling of a sculpture intended to celebrate the Year of the Dog in Chatham Square in Chinatown, scheduled for Feb. 15, a day before the Lunar New Year, didn’t take place. Hundreds of Chinatown residents, questioning its selection as public art and saying the work lacked an understanding of the culture and history of Chinese Americans, signed a petition calling for the installation to be put off.

The criticism forced the Chinatown Partnership Local Development Corporation to back down. Wellington Chen, the head of the LDC, said it is sad that the sculpture, meant to bring good fortune to Chinatown, was mistaken as dog shit by the opponents. “They attack like the dog who bites his rescuer,” said Chen, citing a Chinese folk tale.

The bronze sculpture of a dog-headed man clad in a suit, sitting on the ground and holding a red apple, is part of the “Travel Everywhere With Love” project of Australian artists Gillie and Marc Schattner. Consisting of sculptures of men with dog or rabbit heads, the project aims to promote the idea that “it’s more important than ever we put our differences aside, and protect each other through love and togetherness,” according to the website of the artists. 

Chen said sculptures in the series have been exhibited in many cities in the world including New York where they have been displayed in public places like Rockefeller Center, Astor Place, and in the East Village Business Improvement District (BID). The Village Alliance, which runs the East Village BID, sent out an email to a few dozen BIDs in the city after it wrapped up the exhibition of a sculpture to solicit the next exhibitor. Several organizations raised their hands including the Chinatown Partnership, the operator of the Chinatown BID, which didn’t get it. 

Disappointed, the Partnership contacted the artists who happened to have another sculpture at hand which they were willing to offer to Chinatown. The Partnership paid to ship the sculpture from Australia to New York and was ready to present a pleasant surprise to Chinatown residents and tourists on the Lunar New Year. 

But when they learned the news, many Chinatown locals were not happy. More than 300 people signed the petition within 24 hours after it was launched earlier this week to oppose the idea. Amy Chin, a veteran art consultant in Chinatown who helped set up the petition, said that to place a sculpture of a man with a dog’s head in Chinatown is not appropriate, as if to say that Chinese people are dogs. 

She said Chinatown needs more public art, but its selection should be professionally run as an open competition or open call with community input and some preference for local Asian-American artists. “I have no idea why the Chinatown Partnership chose this work or these artists,” said Chin. “They have no connection to Chinatown or Chinese culture and don’t reflect our community at all.”

Bob Lee, executive director of the Asian American Arts Centre, said the combination of a dog’s head and a human body is a typical image in European art that contains a certain connotation of degradation that some Chinese immigrants may not fully comprehend. “I was stunned when I learned about the sculpture. But at that time, it had already been a done deal,” Lee said. 

Jan Lee, a property owner in Chinatown, said the sculpture shows little understanding of the cultural and historical sensitivities of Chinese Americans. “Chinese Americans were often accused of eating dog meat in the past,” Lee said. “If it’s Chinese artists (making the sculpture), it wouldn’t come out like that. There are so many artists and art organizations in this community. Why did we spend our money to make some Australians rich?” 

Lee said what she really cannot stand is that the sculpture was brought to Chinatown with little community input. “The biggest question is that the sculpture draws so much opposition now, so how did it get approved by the Parks Committee of Community Board 3 in the first place?” Lee asked.

Karlin Chan, the only Chinese member of the Parks, Recreation, Cultural Affairs, & Waterfront Committee of CB3, said when a representative from the Department of Parks presented the proposal at a committee meeting last Thursday, he didn’t like the sculpture very much, and thought it had too much of a European style. But there were no other Chinese attending the meeting, and he didn’t hear any opposition at the time. So the proposal was passed unanimously. “If I knew there would be so many people against it, I would have tried hard to persuade other committee members to vote no on it,” said Chan. 

But Wellington Chen said the critics’ focus on the selection process is unreasonable. “The Confucius statue, the Lin Zexu statue and the Sun Yat Sen statue in Chinatown, which of them have gone through the process of public discussion before they were installed?” said Chen. “The BID only has a handful of staff members. How do we manage a process like that?” 

Chen doesn’t agree that the artists have no relation to the community either. He said Australia is a part of the Asia-Pacific region and the artists, who are a couple, tied the knot in Hong Kong. “During the imperialism period, a park in Shanghai had an infamous sign saying ‘Chinese and dogs are not allowed,’ and we Chinese considered that shameful,” said Chen. “Now if you say only Chinese artists are allowed to make public art for Chinatown, is that the same as saying ‘White people and dogs are not allowed’?”

Chen said the sculpture was planned to be displayed temporarily in Chinatown and then travel to other locations in the city. Now that the plan has been thwarted, some other organizations have shown interest in taking the sculpture over. So his financial loss can be alleviated to some degree. But “Chinatown is the biggest victim,” said Chen. “The neighborhood is not as vibrant as it was before. The sculpture was to be placed here to bring tourists in. Now Chinatown is bleeding.”     


  1. Fuck this stupid statue

  2. with respect to the closing quote by wellington, chinatown is not “bleeding” because tourists are not coming; chinatown is dying because developers and tourism has caused rents increase and longtime tenants have had to move. chinatown is no longer as vibrant as it used to be, because it is the people make up the community; not tourists and restaurants and public art project like these that cater to those that merely pass through a neighborhood with over a century of history, creative organizing, and community-building efforts.

  3. Supporter of Chinatown Culture says:

    Wellington says that “the critics’ focus on the selection process is unreasonable” and “The BID only has a handful of staff members. How do we manage a process like that?”

    The Lower East Side BID has a similar, maybe even smaller, budget than the Chinatown BID, but Lower East Side BID just issued an open call RFP for public art that states “The Open Call is now live and we will be accepting submissions through Friday, March 16, 2018. At the conclusion of the open call, participating artists will be selected by our community panel.”

    How come THEY can manage an open RFP and selection process and Chinatown BID cannot? How poorly and ineffectively is the Chinatown BID being managed?

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