Exhibition examines corner stores and cross-cultural tensions

Ernel Martinez (left) and Keir Johnston stand in their artworks at the Piazza at Schmidts. The miniature stores are part of their exhibition, inspired by narratives they've collected from proprietors and customers of corner stores.
Ernel Martinez (left) and Keir Johnston stand in their artworks at the Piazza at Schmidts. The miniature stores are part of their exhibition, inspired by narratives they've collected from proprietors and customers of corner stores.
Posted: June 05, 2014

Ernel Martinez and Keir Johnston have stopped by many Chinese takeout shops in recent weeks - and the outcome has often been the same.

One encounter was typical: The clerk's confused face and shrugged shoulders were mirrored on the surveillance-camera feed nearby.

"I don't speak English - only a little bit. Sorry," she said, repeating it until Martinez capitulated, leaving a questionnaire behind.

"It's a start," said Martinez, who knows that making connections between Asians and non-Asians like him has been challenging in Philadelphia. "Language is a huge barrier. There's also years of distrust of people who look like me."

Philadelphia's takeout shops - commonly called "Chinese stores" - tend to make the news fairly often, mostly in the crime reports.

Yet, many shops are islands of commerce on blocks of blight, offering affordable meals and a broad array of wares - candy, tobacco, aspirin, condoms, underwear - all sealed off by protective glass. They are points of cross-cultural tension, but they also offer opportunities for greater understanding.

Martinez and Johnston, of Amber Arts and Design in Port Richmond, will explore those issues with "Corner Store (Take-Out Stories)," an exhibition inspired by narratives on both sides of the counter.

For the show, at Asian Arts Initiative (1219 Vine St.) from Friday to Aug. 22, Johnston, who is African American, and Martinez have created their own miniature stores, sealed off by plexiglass and lined with menus and brightly colored food packaging. They're also giving out thousands of surveys, inviting owners and customers to answer questions about the stores and how they fit into the community.

"They become a place of discourse and interaction and, depending on the location, of sales outside or in the lobby, a lot of black market and illegal activity," Johnston said. "For a lot of people for that to be a first introduction to an Asian culture - and for it to be the first introduction for these Asian families who come to the U.S. - it's a crazy way for that interaction to go down: the acculturation, alienation, and isolation."

In Philadelphia, foreign-born people make up 9 percent of the population, but 14 percent of small-business owners.

Yingzhang Lin, president of the Greater Philadelphia Chinese Restaurant Association, estimated that there are at least 500 Chinese takeouts in the city; 300 are association members.

He said they're drawn to the business because of low start-up costs and because they don't have the skills to obtain other work.

Lin has never owned a restaurant himself; he's a former professor at Temple University School of Medicine. But in 2001, a phone call awakened him to the shopkeepers' plight.

"My friend told me that one Chinese takeout restaurant owner, she was in the hospital, and she needed my help," Lin said. He found her in a hospital bed, a tangle of tubes keeping her alive.

Later, he heard that a woman had gone to the store at 11 p.m. to order food, but left without paying. The store owner followed her to her car, demanding payment. When the customer sped off, the owner was knocked into the street, then hit by oncoming traffic.

She was in the hospital for 35 days, Lin said. When he visited her, he met others, all of whom came to the United States for a good life. "And because they don't know English or the environment, instead of getting rich, they get hurt."

Lin said things have changed. Owners have gotten organized; they've received safety training and learned how to request an interpreter on 911 calls. The association arranges monthly meetings with police and community-outreach efforts.

Still, he said, "They work behind the glass because they're afraid. But they don't just want to make money; they want to make friends, too."

The reality behind the glass can be a lonely one.

Take Hailing Wu, who immigrated six years ago from Fujian, China, and works the counter at her family's business, China King on Lehigh Avenue. Her days are quiet, she said; she knows the orders of her regulars, most of whom are not Asian, but not their names.

Still, she doesn't mind sitting behind the glass all day. "I feel safe," she said.

Mark Berrios works at Yum Yum Deli on Huntington Avenue, bought by a Chinese couple last year.

"Customers that have been coming for years are still coming," he said, nodding as a regular approached. "Like, this guy comes this time every day to get his Monster, almost like clockwork."

His boss, Cindy Tsui, like many other store owners, prefers to avoid small talk. "For me," she told a reporter asking about her background, how she likes running the store, her relationships with customers, "your questions are not important."

Wan Woo, president of the 500-member-strong Korean American Grocers Association of Philadelphia, said the economy is on the minds of most owners. He said many Korean Americans are selling corner stores, moving on to other businesses.

"Business is down almost 50 percent," he said. "There's a lot of crime on every corner because the economy is so bad. And food stamps have been cut, so a lot of people have been spending less."

At Good Good Chinese restaurant in Kensington, business was brisk on a recent afternoon. But the lobby, where a man was shot in April, was chaotic. A customer smoked a cigarette inside. Some people openly discussed drug sales, which were dampened by rainy weather but still fairly brisk.

Given scenes like that, Martinez and Johnston expect to encounter suspicion from store owners.

So, they tried to pique owners' interest with a performance piece: Last week, they pushed their portable "corner stores" nearly five miles from their studio to the Asian Arts gallery. It was an homage to the immigrant journey, but also a chance to interact along the way.

"People have given their very honest opinions," Johnston said en route. "One guy said he goes to the same place every day, but if he's short a nickel they won't let him slide. There's familiarity, but maybe not community."

Frenchie Williams of West Philadelphia stopped to fill out a survey. "The prices are too high: they overcharge," she said. "With food stamps, they like to charge you $60 for a loaf of bread."

Martinez and Johnston hope their work can spark a more constructive conversation. It includes performance components, paintings, and video projections that will, fittingly, be streamed from surveillance cameras inside the artists' "corner stores."

This summer, using the surveys, they'll lead kids in Asian Arts' youth programs and make additional works.

"You have to reteach each generation," Martinez said. "I think reaching the young people is the best way to attack it. We don't honestly believe this will change anything, but it will hopefully encourage dialogue. Sometimes a spectacle does that."


Corner Store (Take-Out Stories)

Friday-Aug. 22 at the Asian Arts Initiative, 1219 Vine St.

Admission: Free. Information: 215-557-0455 or www.asianartsinitiative.org




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