Chinese of Fifth Avenue: Street Artists' Tales

No. 16

Greetings! When we started Chinarrative our mission was twofold: to showcase the best of Chinese nonfiction writing with nuanced translations and to present original pieces in English from Chinese voices.

After a steady flow of translations in recent months, we’re delighted to present a five-part series that falls in the second category: the Chinese of Fifth Avenue.

The package will run every other week starting today and will be interspersed among our translation issues. This means that Chinarrative will be effectively becoming a weekly through May 3.

Once hailed the world’s greatest thoroughfare, New York’s Fifth Avenue has long been considered a symbol of American splendor and prosperity.

But as the world becomes increasingly multipolar, how have Chinese perceptions of Fifth Avenue and New York City changed? How has the way the Chinese experience Fifth Avenue and its vicinity evolved?

We hope our five stories will offer a few clues. We start off with a bit of history from New York-based writer and Chinarrative contributor Lux Chen.

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Chinese Street Artists Struggle to Reconcile Past and Future

By Lux Chen

In a walkway above Central Park’s Wollman Rink, a seasonal ice skating rink that overlooks Fifth Avenue, a line of portrait artists waits for customers. All but one are Chinese.

This migration of talented Chinese artists to New York City—and to this stretch of Central Park in particular—has its roots in 1978, when China opened its door to the world after nearly three decades of isolation under Mao.

During the “neo-Enlightenment” of the 1980s, so named by prominent scholar Li Zehou, literature, art, and philosophy from the West poured into China. Young people devoured them.

Among them, artists felt the calling of the outside world especially keenly. Gao Min, a painter from Chongqing who spent 16 years as a portraitist in Central Park, recalled the allure.

“We studied oil painting in college. Its techniques, styles, and masters were all from the West,” he told Chinarrative. “A renowned professor told us in a lecture, ‘You haven’t seen any real paintings in China yet.’”

Ai Weiwei, who is perhaps China’s most famous modern dissident-artist and who was among this concentration of young artists, estimated the total number to be about 100 at its peak.

This, according to a 1991 New York Times report made the city into “a major new center of Chinese art, certainly the largest in the world outside of China itself.” Most of these artists were venturing abroad for the first time and many turned to street portraiture to support themselves. For many, painting street portraits was their first job in the U.S.

Ma Deliang was one of these artists. A traditional ink painter who had already exhibited in China, South Korea, and Japan, he came to the U.S. in 1999 to exhibit his work and ended up staying in New York City for over 20 years and counting.

Crossing the Iron Curtain

Many immigrant artists—not only Chinese, but also Eastern Europeans from the former socialist bloc—envisioned New York City in the 1980s and 1990s as reminiscent of Paris during the “Roaring Twenties,” “a place where people could gather freely and experiment with new forms,” as the 1991 New York Times article described. And yet, in some ways, they faced more challenges than their artistic predecessors.

“We all came from Communist countries, shared similar backgrounds and life experiences, and had received similar ideology-based art educations,” recalled artist Ma Kelu in an essay for the Chinese news website Jiemian last July. “Low self-esteem and poverty stifled our ambition. We all suffered from huge psychological gaps in our adopted country.”

The pursuit of freedom and artistic innovation had brought these artists to New York, their rigorous training in the Soviet-style “socialist realism” made them skilled portraitists, but what really bound them together were the challenges of working in the streets.

Charlotte Fu for Chinarrative.

The artists became part of a vibrant, somewhat unruly street culture. The city’s streets were their stage, and they shared it with itinerant musicians, sex workers, con artists, peddlers of counterfeit watches and exotic perfume, and happy vagrants who, in Ma Kelu’s nostalgic memory, danced in colorful suits on sidewalks to jazz or Caribbean music in the evenings.

But the portraitists considered themselves first and foremost to be artists, and for many, maintaining such an identity while selling formulaic portraits to passersby presented a constant struggle.

Blood, Sweat, and Tears

In the early hours of Aug. 18, 1991, promising 34-year-old Chinese artist Lin Lin was shot dead by a passerby in Times Square. The violence shocked the entire community of Chinese artists, and also awakened a desire to fight for justice and civil rights.

Ma Kelu, Ai Weiwei and other Chinese artists set up an art installation as a memorial at the corner of West Fourth Street and Sixth Avenue, piling up TVs and VHS players that broadcast news of Lin Lin’s murder on a repeating loop. Later, Chinese artists joined forces with artists and activists of diverse backgrounds to organize marches denouncing violence and demanding justice.

In the three decades since Lin Lin’s death, they have continued their activism, marched in the streets, demonstrated in various parks, and testified in courts to defend their right to create art in the city’s public spaces as a form of free speech.

Freedom, both personal and artistic, had always been a major component of the American dream for Chinese artists. Without the limits of socialist ideological control that they faced in China, they were eager to explore new styles of expression.

But working as street artists in a foreign country—coupled with violence, racism, and police harassment—forced them to rethink their definition. Freedom was not doled out, even in a “free country,” but rather, something to be fought for.

Indeed, it was New York that helped Ai Weiwei grow into the activism that would be a hallmark of his work in China. Decades later, in September 2017, Ai would revisit New York to install his public sculpture Good Fences Make Good Neighbors in various parks and landmarks across the city, as a commentary on the worldwide refugee crisis and growing xenophobia.

A Big World to See

Starting in the early 2000s, many artists who had come to New York returned to China to take advantage of the country’s economic growth and now-booming art market.

Ma Kelu was one of them, returning to China after 18 years in New York. In his Jiemian essay, he reflected on his time as a street portraitist in Manhattan. “Portraiture enables us to live independently in a foreign country, to support our livelihood, studios, and artistic dreams,” he wrote.

Gao Min also had the choice of returning to China or, if he stayed in New York, changing to another line of work. Street portraiture allowed him to stay—and to meet his current employer, a commercial artist, while drawing in Central Park.

Now, whenever he sees the new generation of young arrivals filling the streets and restaurants of Flushing, Queens, he remembers his own days as a struggling artist, even though today’s kids are a different crowd. “They come with money, with everything taken care of.”

Central Park, New York City. Credit: Ihor Dvoretskyi.

Still, Chinese street artists persist. Today, a casual walk through Central Park suggests that Chinese artists continue to make up a majority of portrait artists. Indeed, from 2010 to 2014, when Brooklyn-based artist and writer Peter Walsh organized a series of portrait exchanges with Central Park artists, 11 out of the 16 artists featured were from China.

Today’s Chinese street artists take pride in their well-known colleagues: Ai Weiwei, Xu Bing, and Gu Wenda all used to work in the same corner. Now they all have works on exhibition along Central Park East’s Museum Mile, most notably in the Guggenheim Museum.

Ma Deliang spends most of his time in his studio in Queens working on his landscape paintings, and comes to Central Park only during the peak seasons of summer and winter.

“If I had returned to China, I would probably be living an easier and more successful life by now,” he told Chinarrative. “But my goal from the beginning was to see Western art and the world.”

Lux Chen is a New York-based bilingual writer, translator, cinephile and feminist.