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3d grayscale rendering of a street with shops featuring second floor balconies.
Relational reconstruction of Hanford, California's Chinatown Alley in the late 19th century.

Relational Reconstruction of Hanford, CA’s China Alley with artist Evelyn Hang Yin

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The following is a guest post by Library of Congress Innovator in Residence Jeffrey Yoo Warren in conversation with interdisciplinary artist and filmmaker Evelyn Hang Yin. “Relational reconstructions” are a creative, experiential research method developed by Yoo Warren for minoritized groups to reclaim archives and access erased moments, histories, and spaces personally meaningful to them, through collectively crafted immersive 3D environments and other artistic means. You can read more about Seeing Lost Enclaves in previous blog posts. Jeff’s relational reconstruction toolkit is available on the LC Labs website.


This winter, as my work on Seeing Lost Enclaves continues, I’ve begun a series of collaborations to use the techniques in the Relational Reconstruction Toolkit to virtually recreate other erased communities of color around the country. One that’s been really interesting is my recent work with Evelyn Hang Yin, an artist based in LA who’s spent years working in and around Hanford, California’s China Alley. She writes about Hanford in a 2021 article for The China Project:

“The town of Hanford was formed in 1877 when the Southern Pacific Railroad extended into California’s San Joaquin Valley. Many Chinese laborers came to work on the tracks, and later stayed for farming. They were mostly from Sam Yup (三邑 sānyì), the three former counties of Namhoi (南海 nánhǎi), Poonyu (番禺 pānyú) and Shuntak (顺德 shùndé) in Canton — now known as Guǎngdōng 广东 — province. China Alley prospered to include restaurants, homes, boarding houses, general merchandise stores, herb shops, gambling establishments, a Chinese school, and a temple. Over 100 years later, the brick buildings remain largely intact and unaltered.”

The following is a transcript from my conversation with Evelyn about our work together building a relational reconstruction.

Jeff: So because most of [Hanford’s] buildings still exist, it’s different from sites like Portland, Oregon’s Chinese Vegetable Gardens, where Dri Chiu Tattersfield and I have had to recreate the community entirely from century old photographs, since it’s buried under 20+ feet of infill. Here, we’re working not only with your memories, but those of Arianne Wing, the President of China Alley Preservation Society. 

Evelyn: The Chinese population in Hanford started to decline after WWII, although it was a thriving community for decades after. I never witnessed that, since I only started going there in 2018, but Arianne has described to me many times how China Alley was a bustling place when she was growing up.  

Aerial view of sanborn map overlaid with satellite photo and building labels. Some historic photographs are the block are featured at the bottom of image.
Our working map, which helped us track which buildings we had already reconstructed, and which photos we wanted to use for each. This incorporates a Library of Congress Sanborn Fire Insurance map from the Geography & Maps division in addition to a present-day satellite photo, composited with the Leaflet Distortable Image Tool. Archival photos courtesy of China Alley Preservation Society.

The China Alley Preservation Society was founded more than 50 years ago, and the stewardship of China Alley has been passed down from generation to generation. It started with Arianne’s uncle, who owned the famous Imperial Dynasty restaurant, which occupied four buildings until it closed its doors in 2006. Folks of his generation became concerned about the Taoist Temple building (Kwan Tai Temple, 关帝庙 guāndì miào) next to the restaurant, that it was neglected and deteriorating in shape, so they formed the Society, formerly the Taoist Temple Preservation Society. 

Since my first visit in 2018, I slowly got to know the caretakers of China Alley—a very small group of local volunteers. Led by Arianne, they do all sorts of things, from curating, managing the gift shop, cleaning, fundraising, organizing the yearly Moon Festival (which has been paused since the pandemic). One of them offered me to stay with them every time I visited, which became instrumental in allowing me to continue doing work in Hanford. 

I’ve heard and experienced many different stories at China Alley- joy, death, water, fire, challenges, perseverance… 

Jeff: I think your long-term relationship with the people and place was one thing that really inspired me, and a reason I was very interested in doing this work together. I’ve spent so much time with records of places where I rarely have contact with descendants or continuity of community, apart from my starting point in Providence’s Chinatown, where I live. I was also excited to see what direction our collaboration would go in, after seeing your really interesting video, photo, and projection work in Hanford—not to mention your woodworking-based approach to reconstruction, which maybe we can talk about more another time. 

Wooden stool on left is A-shaped with two legs and slats for foot rest. Framed black and white temple picture on right features members seated around perimeter of the room looking at camera.
The abovementioned woodwork by Evelyn Hang Yin, reproduced based on the dozens of stools that still exist in China Alley. Image shared courtesy of the artist (Left). The only object left that still serves its functional purpose (replica) (2019–2020), wood, 9×14×20″. Interior of Temple, c 1890 (2019), pigment inkjet print, 14×21″, courtesy of China Alley Preservation Society (Right).
Rough 3d rendering in progress with photographs of a building and tree stretched over model.
Archival photos from the China Alley Preservation Society in Hanford are used to create the neighboring building facades. The left image is mirrored as we only had a good photo of the right side—an effect we both enjoyed.

Evelyn: Our approach is distinct because as artists, we both got really excited about certain things (the likes of the symmetrical trees and building facades). China Alley is special because it still exists and it has more than just one building, allowing us to source from contemporary imagery, Google Street View for example, but also from a ton of archival photographs. As a result, the mixing of the two and how to make the buildings look consistent was the difficult but fun part. 

It might seem odd for us to “recreate” something that’s still there, but at least for me, this process made me look at these building so close at a level that I have not done before, even though I have taken so many photos of my own to the point where I felt I had exhausted all “new materials” to capture. Now I know which building has banisters and which don’t, which have decorative rooftops and which don’t, etc. I enjoyed these aspects of the process a lot, as well as when you analyzed the images more from the perspective of a historian, comparing photos from different eras and deducing information from them. 

Jeff: We both definitely got drawn into the tiniest of details and made some really intense diagrams. 

Historic images of Hanford Chinatown with red lines and circles diagramming small differences between them.
Two photos of the west end of the street, where we had to puzzle through which buildings matched from two different time periods. Images courtesty of the China Alley Preservation Society.

Evelyn: The last point I’ll make is the blending of history and imagination, and how I feel like 3D modeling is a perfect tool for this. The model is obviously based on historical materials, but it has a sense of gamification to its aesthetics, and the fact we played with it a lot…I was making my own work recently and talked to my friend about memory and imagination, how remembering always is partially an act of imagining—at least that’s how my memory works. 

3d rendering of a street with shops and balconies, lit with glowing lamps.
Nighttime test of the Hanford reconstruction in Mozilla Hubs.

 

This post has been updated to describe woodwork image as shared courtesy of the artist.

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