Two new art installations have been completed as part of “Little Saigon Stories,” a community-based arts program showcasing San Diego’s Vietnamese-American community through public art and placemaking activities along El Cajon Boulevard.
Little Saigon Stories was designed as a platform for local youth to capture, preserve and share the first-hand accounts of intergenerational members of San Diego’s Vietnamese-American community through photography and film. The project began in 2017, facilitated by the Media Arts Center San Diego, in collaboration with the AjA Project, Little Saigon Foundation and the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association.
The latest installation in the Little Saigon Stories series is a large-scale mural created by acclaimed artist Shinpei Takeda, co-founder of the AjA Project, a participatory photography-based program for refugee and immigrant youth in San Diego. The 120-by-30-foot mural covers the entire parking lot of Sin Lee Foods, located at 4665 El Cajon Blvd. in City Heights.
Painted by Takeda and a small team of volunteers over the course of eight nights, the work centers around a 66-foot ship, the actual size of the typical fishing boats refugees boarded to escape the communists in the aftermath of the Vietnam War. The image was inspired by a story shared by Andy Tang, owner of Sin Lee Foods, whose uncle Stephen fled to the U.S. on such a vessel. As many as 300 to 400 people were crammed onto each boat, a devastating fact that Takeda depicts in his painting by using the same number of Vietnamese letters to tell the personal stories of escape collected through the Little Saigon Stories project.
Funded through a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts, the mural was designed as a semi-permanent installation using durable road sign paint on the asphalt lot, which sits at the center of the designated Little Saigon District in City Heights. The Sin Lee store is also the site of the landmark “Greeting” wall mural completed in 2018 to commemorate the district.
A second Little Saigon Stories art installation has also been completed at a vacant storefront formerly occupied by Thrift Trader at the corner of 30th Street and El Cajon Boulevard in North Park. The owner of the property has donated use of the store’s large display windows to showcase the artwork of local students until a new tenant is found. The art pieces were previously displayed at a series of community events and pop-up exhibitions in City Heights earlier this year.
Located in the heart of the heavily trafficked “30ECB Hub” along The Boulevard, the storefront location offers the opportunity for more members of the San Diego community to learn about the vibrant Little Saigon District just down the road.
The installation will be center-stage for viewing during the next “Stroll the Boulevard” on Friday, Sept. 6, from 6-10 p.m. The lively neighborhood event will feature a variety of fun activities, games, music art, and food and drink specials from local businesses.
“These two new art installations are a key part of our larger place-making strategy along The Boulevard,” said Beryl Forman, marketing and mobility coordinator for the El Cajon Boulevard Business Improvement Association, in a press release. “We are always looking for new ways to create special community gathering spaces, similar to what we have been able to do with Fair@44. By transforming a boring parking lot or an empty storefront into something not only beautiful, but that also tells a story, creates dialogue and fosters a sense of community pride, that’s really powerful.”
“My hope is that the people will physically step into my painting on the ground, whether consciously or subconsciously, and recognize that we are all part of these stories, that we are literally making history,” said Takeda. “The imagery relates not only to the refugees from the Vietnamese War, but also those suffering right now on the Mediterranean Sea and elsewhere in the world. The ship represents the ongoing voyage on the sea of negotiation and reconciliation, towards the formation of new identity and new collective history.”
More information about Little Saigon Stories can be found at www.mediaartscenter.org/littlesaigon.