Inspired by the civil rights, Black Power, and liberation movements of the era, which sought to collectively overturn the racial and economic order that divided and impoverished people of color since the country’s beginning, a new generation of activists of Asian descent came together to build their own Asian American Movement in the 1960s and 70s. Eschewing a traditional path, they chose a life and work which sought to improve conditions for their communities. In New York, an arts and activist collective which stood at the forefront of this Asian American Movement was the Basement Workshop. Basement grew out of a student-led study in 1969 which mobilized students from local universities to collect data assessing the needs of the New York Chinatown community. As part of the study, bilingual students conducted door to door home visits with more than 500 families and urban planning students surveyed the neighborhood’s aged infrastructure. The experience drew together and introduced to each other like-minded young people of varied skills and backgrounds interested in getting involved in the community. To serve as a home base for this group, the student director of the study, Danny NT Yung, along with a few members, chipped in to rent a cheap basement in the tenement building of 54 Elizabeth Street and founded the Basement Workshop in 1970.

Far from comprehensive, the selected photographs document just a few of members’ wide-ranging programs and activities. Perhaps the most well-known was that it offered a space for artists to collaborate and create a new Asian American counterculture, which gave voice to the experiences and perspectives of this first generation to identify with the term “Asian American.” Out of its creative arts arm came the important anthology of distinctly Asian American music, art and poetry, Yellow Pearl. It also provided a space for members to volunteer-teach classes for the community in photography, filmmaking, dance, and kung fu. At a time of active youth gangs, their free after-school and summer arts programs, street festivals, and field day competitions provided safe spaces for neighborhood children to have fun and cultivate creativity. They also taught free English language and civics classes to help immigrant residents communicate and pass their citizenship tests. Noting that many in the community were without healthcare, they organized the first of what became an annual health fair providing free bilingual health information and screening tests. Members interested in documenting the history of Chinatown, heretofore ignored by existing institutions, conducted oral histories, salvaged old photographs and documents thrown out as stores closed or tenants moved, scoured libraries and archives to collect information saved about Asian American history, and put together exhibits that they hoped captured the experiences of Chinatown’s working people. Members also fought for ethnic and Asian American studies at universities, protested against the refusal to hire Asians in the construction of the Confucius Plaza apartments in Chinatown, and lent their voices, photography and art skills to many more of the era’s social justice protests. Out of Basement and from its members came the Charles B. Wang Community Health Clinic, Asian CineVision, the New York Chinatown History Project, and a constellation of other organizational offshoots still a part of Chinatown and our city’s cultural landscape today.

2013.018.003 Children’s Arts & Crafts table, June 1975. Children’s Arts & Crafts was a free after school and summer arts program launched and coordinated by Basement Workshop members Jeannie Chiang, Linda Lew, and Nancy Gim. It was designed to help children in Chinatown "become aware of their own individuality and creativity" and "develop a sense of self esteem.” Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Basement Workshop Collection.
2013.018.010 Dance class, possibly at Basement Workshop’s multipurpose dance, rehearsal and performance space, 1983. A male dance instructor wearing a T-shirt with a rainbow logo (possibly Basement Workshop member Mel Wong?) is teaching a student how to dance. In the background is a sign with the same rainbow logo that reads "Dance Contest Saturday June 25th.” Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Basement Workshop Collection.
2015.019.102 Charlie Chin and Chris Iijima performing on stage at the intersection of Catherine and Henry Streets, likely at a People’s Festival of Three Bridges event organized in July of 1972 by the Basement Workshop. Chin and Iijima, who along with Nobuko JoAnne Miyamoto formed the musical trio Yellow Pearl, were also members of Basement Workshop. In 1973, they wrote and recorded “A Grain of Sand: Music for the Struggle by Asians in America,” an album of original songs whose lyrics spoke of Asian American identity, history, politics and social justice, and resonated with the experiences of this the first generation to identify as “Asian American.” It is widely recognized as the first album of Asian American music. They toured the country, playing in community centers, parks, coffeehouses, colleges, and rallies, offering music as a unifying and mobilizing force for a pan-Asian American Movement and lending their voices in solidarity with the struggles of Black and Latino communities. Courtesy of Henry Chu, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.
2013.018.011 The first Chinatown Health Fair at the intersection of Mott and Mosco Streets in the summer of 1971. A makeshift outdoor waiting room of white folding chairs lined the street, where elderly community members waited for some of the free screening tests (TB, diabetes, pap smear, blood pressure, drawing blood, etc.) provided by over 100 medical volunteers and college students trained to administer these simple tests. This eight-day street fair, organized by Corky Lee, Thomas Tam, Liz Young and other Basement Workshop members when they noted that many Chinatown residents were without access to healthcare, came to be held annually and led to the establishment of the Charles B. Wang Community Health Clinic. Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Basement Workshop Collection.
2013.018.073 A booth set up with Chinese-language information about health and nutrition, likely at one of the Chinatown Street Fair organized by Basement Workshop in the early 1970s. At these annual street fairs, bilingual activists and youth volunteers addressed the neglected needs of underserved community members and connected the non-English speaking to information about housing, healthcare, childcare, nutrition, and resources for the elderly. Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Basement Workshop Collection.
2013.018.031 In 1974, Basement Workshop members and other young activists participated in a series of protests organized by Asian Americans for Equal Employment against the DeMatteis Corp., which refused to hire any Asian workers for the construction of the government-funded Confucius Plaza Apartments in Chinatown. Protestors fighting to open up opportunities in employment for Asian workers held up picket signs in English and Chinese which included “The Asians built the railroad; Why not Confucius Plaza.” Sustained for months, the protests were notable for a community in which organized protest was rare. Their efforts eventually resulted in DeMatteis Corp. agreeing to hire 27 minorities, including Asian workers, and led to the establishment of an office in Chinatown for Asian Americans for Equal Employment (now Asian Americans for Equity), which for nearly five decades has taken on fights to improve Chinatown working people’s living and working conditions and has fought for equality in the community’s access to employment and services. Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.
Exhibition of “Images from a Neglected Past” put on by members of Basement Workshop’s Asian American Resource Center ca. 1978/9. The Asian American Resource Center included members Jack (John Kuo Wei) Tchen, Gin Woo, Don Kao, Fay Chew, among others who were interested in documenting the history of Chinatown and its community. Before this, no such efforts to preserve this history had been undertaken. Members conducted oral histories with seniors and other members of the community; scoured libraries and archives to find and gather together materials on Asian American history; salvaged old photographs and documents that were being thrown out as stores closed or tenants moved; and put together exhibits that they hoped captured the experiences of working people in Chinatown and would present a history that could serve to bridge Chinatown’s earlier generations and newer post-1965 immigration wave. This mission and collection became part of the New York Chinatown History Project (which later became MOCA). Photograph by Emile Bocian, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.
2015.019.161 Fay Chiang sitting in front of a blackboard, taken in March 1973, possibly at Basement Workshop’s second location on the third floor of 22 Catherine Street. Written on the blackboard are numbered points regarding final and interim reports for its New York Council on the Arts (NYSCA) grant, which funded its Amerasia Creative Arts projects, and on current or planned projects on AA studies, garment workers, and salvaging old photos. Fay Chiang joined Basement Workshop as one of thirty artists and writers who produced the anthology of poetry, art, and music exploring and expressing what it was to be Asian in America, published in 1972 as Yellow Pearl. Chiang attended training on how to fundraise and manage a community organization and took on the work of writing grant proposals and raising funds for Basement Workshop programs on a volunteer basis, later becoming Basement Workshop’s Executive Director in 1978. Courtesy of Henry Chu, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.
2007.012.076 A group photo of Basement Workshop members in 1986, published in Basement Yearbook, a resource rich in information about its myriad programs and history produced by members themselves upon closing and disbanding Basement Workshop in 1986. Courtesy of Rocky Chin, Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) Collection.