The City Game

We made it to the NBA. When Jeremy Lin sized up Pau Gasol a few feet beyond the 3-point line during a key moment in the 4th quarter of friday’s New York Knicks – Los Angeles Lakers game, I knew he had him. Gasol, the Lakers’ star center, was backing up as Lin dribbled threateningly towards him. He rose for a long jumper over Gasol’s long, futile reach. Water.

Basketball in New York City. In 1970, sportswriter Pete Axthelm mythologized the sport’s significance to Gotham in The City Game, weaving together anecdotes of the 1969-70 Knicks team that won the championship with back stories of playground legends like Earl ‘The Goat’ Manigault and ‘The Helicopter.’ “If the Knicks brought a special pride to all New York, they were only multiplying the feeling that the playground kids have always understood,” he wrote.

It’s true that only the success of the Knicks can galvanize and focus New York City basketball interests into pure mania, but since I’ve lived in New York, the Knicks have been a tired joke. For the last decade, the team’s leadership has stacked one star player on top of another in hopes of manufacturing that fleeting magic known in sports as chemistry, or at least buying enough talent to render chemistry irrelevant. But each addition only brought greater disappointment. Madison Square Garden was a place where promising careers went to flounder into incoherence.

Lin was inserted into the Knicks’ lead guard role in pure desperation after a listless start to the season made last year’s gains seem like a mirage. After leading them to five wins in a row with virtuostic performances, he has bridged the 1% row of Madison Square Garden with Korean church pick-up basketball in Long Island City; outdoor runs in the shadow of the 7-train on a 30 degree, windy day in Flushing; rec league games in Upper Eastside gyms; and little kid basketball in legendary Rucker Park in Harlem.

Did you see that move on Luke Ridenour on Saturday? Lin took it hard right then screeched into a crossover. Whoops, sorry! Left Ridenour somewhere out in the forests of Oregon circa 2002, then rained a 15 footer on his head. It was like when Randolph Childress crossed up Jeff McGinnis in the ACC tournament in 1995. Childress motioned for McGinnis to get up off the floor before he drilled a 3. But getting back to Lin.

Asian Americans from California recognize the type: Taiwanese and religious, studious and quiet; there’s something dorky and utterly suburban about him. He crashed on his brother’s couch in the Lower East Side between monster games like a clueless under-rested student. We haven’t yet figured out what Jeremy Lin means, and why this moment feels so historic to us. But even if he is our Jeremy and even if we want to apply the lessons of race to his rise, the most important thing for me is that he’s been tagged by New York’s unforgiving, jaded basketball fans with the most elusive and important of titles: a baller.

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Old Hats

Description of an old hat I lost a few years ago: It was a forest green baseball cap made by Nike, part of a series of gear they used to produce based on legendary playground basketball sites, for instance The Cage on West 4th Street here in Manhattan, Rucker Park in Harlem and Wilson Park in Compton, California. Each one had a distinct graphic identity. My cap recognized St. Cecilia’s gym in Detroit with a simplified graphic of the church’s facade, the words “St. Cecilia’s” stitched below it. “3 Detroit” was embroidered on the back next to the velcro strap used to adjust its size. I loved that hat in all its detail, in all that it conjured about a dank, musty gym housed in a church, but other hats have come into favor.

I’ve had my Kangol fisherman’s hat for almost 10 years. It’s the typical tan colored bucket hat with a big brim and a dark red and blue ribbon around its base; it’s my preferred rain protection over umbrellas. The hat’s been crushed into bags and suitcases, left in my car for weeks, drenched in torrential rain, nearly blown out of my reach, and baked in the sun all over the world. It’s a formidable hat that shows its age and battle scars better than the young show off markings of youth.

I’ve collected a couple of free hats since working at the Museum of Chinese in America. One was left on one of our common tables along with other discarded office accessories. An abject sign grouped them together with “FREE: Please Take By 5pm Today or They’ll Be Thrown Out.” It was a black baseball cap with orange tiger stripes embroidered on the bill and on its side, framing a tiger head image with the words “Chasing A Legend” underneath. Nobody really knows the back story to this hat, but one of my co-workers surmised that it might have been made in honor of the Flying Tigers, a crew of Chinese American air force pilots that fought in World War II and who hold their annual reunion at the museum.

That turned out to be false, but I did get an authentic Flying Tigers reunion hat just recently from a co-worker who couldn’t stand me wearing the tiger striped one and claiming it to be the real thing. This cap features a much more subdued, eloquent design befitting its honorees – a navy blue cap with a round royal blue logo featuring a full bodied tiger with a red and white star above it. The words “WWII Veterans” are stitched in yellow thread above it and “Chinese American Combined Reunion 2011” flank it. It is unspectacular, but has a grace and restraint that most commemorative hats lack. Nevertheless, stylish types and guys that know hats appreciate both of these pieces.

I wear my Oakland Raiders cap on fall Sundays while watching their games and in the winter I throw on a dock worker-style wool knit hat. I’ve lost two of these in the past month, such is the fate of hats constantly being taken on and off during the day. I used to wear a Houston Astros cap because its logo was a large white “H” with an orange star as its backdrop. Hats get better with age and when you lose them, you remember them well. But you also realize: they’re just hats.


Russian Barber

This morning my barber Ray, who’s from Russia, explained why he wasn’t so concerned about the protested parliamentary elections in Moscow. “Putin’s been doing this for 8 years. He knows how it works and since he’s been Prime Minister, things have been good for Russians. How many people did they say were protesting? 50,000? Out of how many people that live in Russia? You’re always going to have unhappy people.”

I pressed him a little bit: “People were upset because they thought the elections were rigged.” He answered that “all elections are rigged. I feel like every country, they know who they want to win. They just have elections to make the people feel like they have some voice. Even in America maybe. Putin’s a KGB guy. He knows how to fight the terrorists and keep the country safe.”

Ray is convincing in that friendly way of barbers, where every utterance, no matter the topic, carries the same non-chalant, self-assured tone. Where any position, as long as it sounds good or funny, is just agreed upon. And so I shook my head in agreement at his reasoning about Russia. After all, he’s been my barber for 5 years now and it wasn’t worth arguing – if there even was an argument to made. Because maybe all elections are rigged. Politicians like Putin may not be any more or less corrupt and power-hungry than those trying to challenge him. Of Mikhail Prokhorov, the billionaire industrialist and owner of the soon-to-be Brooklyn Nets basketball team and who this week announced he would run against Putin for president, Ray dismissively said, “he just wants to be in the history books.”

Ray holding court at his chair could probably cut my hair blindfolded. He is a virtuoso of his work and an expert of everything uttered while he performs it. At the end of every session Ray takes out his mirror to show me the back of my head and with exaggerated pride exclaims, “see, nice and clean. Now you can put yourself in your museum. Just stand there and everybody will look at you.”


A Tan for All Seasons

Note: This essay was first published in P.S.1 Newspaper (Winter 2007) in conjunction with the exhibition Silicone Valley, curated by Nick Stillman.

Laser Quest is one of the world’s largest laser tag companies with over 140 centers worldwide. Its Mountain View, California center in Silicon Valley is housed in a large strip mall next to a mini-market and several restaurants. Given the high concentration of large and small hi-tech offices in the area, it’s appropriate that Laser Quest offers a Corporate Teambuilding program that, according to its promotional material, is “designed to introduce and reinforce the four pillars of effective teamwork: Fun, Communication, Cooperation, Trust”. Like most office buildings in Silicon Valley, Laser Quest’s benign, tree-lined façade conceals a structured, cut-throat environment.

It’s the day after Christmas and I’m driving around, looking at architecture in the land of software innovation, the Internet and network solutions: Silicon Valley. The region sits on flat terrain and is bordered by the San Francisco Bay to its east and the Santa Cruz Mountains to its west. Traffic grinds and snarls in rush hour on the valley’s two main highways: 101, which traces the edge of the bay and 280, which snakes the foothills of the mountains. The valley boasts a consistently mild year-round climate.

I stop at Menlo Park’s Chevron gas station to fill up and pick up a Vitamin Water and donut in its Extra Mile mini-market. Across the street, in a fairly new strip mall complex, a bewildering array of stores do business together: All American Mortgage and Properties, Dashi Japanese Restaurant, Tu Casa Taqueria, Lil Jakes restaurant, H & R Block, Baskin Robbins 31 Flavors, Togos, Nina’s Nails and Hair, and Starbucks. The blocky, irregular cream-colored building units are bland and innocuous, but at least they unify the mismatched stores with a freshly built finish. Imagine taking a mall and turning it inside out. Most importantly the little buildings serve as canvases for the machine fabricated signage.

Developed after World War II during the boom in suburban living and automotive dependence, strip malls are a quintessential feature of American suburbs. A typical one consists of a parking lot and a sidewalk connecting businesses that provide basic day-to-day goods and services. Strip malls offer the community around them a convenient way to get the things they need. Built quickly and cheaply they are invisible at best, neighborhood eyesores at worst. With their complete lack of communal space, they promote suburban isolation.

Just east of the Chevron station on Willow Avenue is an old-looking, poorly maintained  strip mall featuring Mi Rancho Supermarket, Tony’s Pizza, Willow Cleaners, a fish n’ chips restaurant and a sparsely stocked convenience store. The low, long building exudes a quaint charm with its pitched roof, wood trimming and simple signage. It is fronted by a tight parking lot with diagonal spaces.

Strip malls continue to survive despite the enormous popularity of national mega-stores like Target, Wal-Mart, Costco and others with vast parking lots that stock a dizzying variety and amount of products. Shopping in these mega-stores brings Americans together under one roof and unites frantic shoppers in one cause. It is the morality of the consumer: Not everyone believes in the same religion, votes for the same political party, and roots for the same football team, but no one can turn down a 24-pack of toilet paper for $10.98. Nobody can deny value like that.

El Camino Real, the major thoroughfare running north/south through Silicon Valley, is made up almost entirely of strip malls. A particularly unspectacular one offers these shops: A Tan for All Seasons, European Cobblery, The Dry Cleaners, Launderland Wash & Dry, and Applewood 2-Go Pizza. The building is rectangular and painted peach, but the color has grown dingy from what looks like decades of neglect. One notable feature is a long, flat roof halfway up the two-story building that supports spotlights for the store signage adhered above it. Like most strip mall facades, the shops have large glass windows and doors into which patrons can see the business’s inner-workings.

In Silicon Valley, roads blend into parking lots, which merge with building façades in a seamless silicone and mirrored glass landscape. Its strip malls, office parks and corporate campuses leave no mark. They are the architectural equivalent of a white dress shirt and khaki pants. They are a ream of printer paper.

While strip malls offer tiresome, meaningless convenience, mega-stores like Target are a favorite weekend destination and offer hope for national unity. Waiting in line at Trader Joe’s unites Americans. Shopping in bulk at Costco unites Americans. Wanting the same 42” Toshiba plasma HDTV unites Americans. A $2.50 hot dog meal with a refillable soda unites Americans. The Express Lane checkout stations at Target are America’s new dynamic plazas.


Notes on Photography

Cameras on smart phones are pulled out and scenes snapped as breathlessly as pointing a finger at something and saying, “Check that out!” Photography is a global transmittable form, unlimited in its immateriality and able to effortlessly bear the burden of truth.

My parent’s photos from China, Hong Kong and our early days in America are kept in photo albums which are stored underneath a counter in their kitchen. My dad was and is obsessed with picture-taking. He planned annual trips to the photo studio at the mall to get a proper family portrait behind a dull, splotchy blue background. My sister and I, dressed awkwardly in formal clothes, smiled uncomfortably when the bored teenage valley girl demanded. We didn’t get it then, but this ritual, these photographs were a big deal to my dad, and to a lesser extent, my mom. We seemed to go on holiday trips to Yosemite, Disneyland, or the Russian River just for the photo op. In middle school, when my basketball team had our team picture taken and I was the only kid who wore a t-shirt underneath my jersey, he scolded me for looking different than anyone else.

The function of photography today is a dense subject and one I’ll return to frequently, but I believe Chinese families like mine, newly settled in America, use photography to sort out their own figure/ground relationship in a new land. It’s a way to locate themselves in a foreign landscape and to picture themselves as ‘normal’ within it.

A few years ago, as part of her residency at the Jamaica Center for Arts and Learning, artist Xaviera Simmons set up a make-shift photo studio on Jamaica Avenue, shooting free portraits of passersby in front of patterned fabric backgrounds. Etched on the faces of most of the people she photographed was the duality of New York: hard-headed resilience and open-hearted vulnerability. Many of her photographs are just straight-up beautiful in their frankness and it’s heartening to know that they’ll only look better as they get farther and farther away from their moment.


Street Life

In the 1950s Fluxus artists in New York, Situationists in Paris, and the Gutai group in Japan proposed an integration of art into life in their work. A radical proposition at the time, we now find ourselves at a more distressing juncture as war mixes into life. Yesterday Anders Behring Breivik was arrested in Norway, believed responsible for the bombing of a government building in Oslo and the gunning down of scores of youth at an island summer camp. War’s theater is now moving into the streets, into the reality of everyday encounters.

Tupac rapped in 1995 that the Streetz R Deathrow. He was talking about America in the aftermath of the crack epidemic. But today streets in Tunis, Taiz, Cairo, Athens and Beijing are pulsating with ideological conflict and power mongering at the scale of religious parable. In the 50s, the Situationist International group voiced a desire to wander the streets in willful playfulness, a subversion of the programmed order of modern life under capitalism. They wanted freedom from a society that war won them. And these artists, who would later ban art as a means of production in their revolutionary work, knew that revolutions spread on the street.

A city’s identity, the sum total of its various anthropologies, from the highest corner office to its underground, will always reveal itself on the pavement, on its sidewalks. L.A.’s emptiness, for instance, is reflected on its desolate streets. New York’s competition-driven neuroticism finds a stage on congested avenues and boulevards. But the streets of New York aren’t a revolutionary space anymore. They have become what developers and local politicians have wanted since probably after World War II: smooth corridors of various consumer experiences whose roughness is only inferred through decoration. New York is nostalgia’s boutique.

Those whose countries are now at war will hopefully see peace in their lifetimes. Like Paris, Tokyo and New York before them, their darkened streets may be the ground for new artistic and cultural action rising from the ashes of chaos and hopelessness.


Air Conditioner

Streams of consciousness dry up by mid morning when it’s this hot in New York City. 100 degree weather is forecast for Thursday, up from the mid 90s on Wednesday. Old people on Chinatown’s streets struggle to the curb and glance alarmingly up then down the road, waiting to cross. They squint through the waves of heat for oncoming traffic, only to conclude that it’s a guessing game. It’s possible to imagine them melting and then sparking on fire, like in the recent Tsui Hark movie, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

New York could go up like this. In weather like this, it’s possible to sit on the street with your back against a brick wall, look up towards the atomic sky, and imagine New York’s end. The city isn’t just glancing nostalgically backwards; only its ass is pointing towards the future. We hide from tomorrow in quaint, air conditioned speakeasy bars, museum shows about the revolutionary 60s, and in burnt rotten pages from modernist texts. Right now, in some other place, a non-city maybe, or one much bigger than New York, some people are brewing a new culture for a future without weather.