Studio International: Betty Yu: ‘Wherever you are, there are folks fighting for their lives’

New York-based artist Betty Yu talks about the gentrification of her neighbourhood in Brooklyn and what galleries can do to help


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Multimedia artist and activist Betty Yu was born in in 1977 in New York City, the youngest of four sisters. When her parents moved to the US from Hong Kong, her mother, Sau Kwan, found work in New York’s garment factories. “Mum worked in more than two dozen factories over a 30-year period,” Yu tells me. “She moved around quite a bit in union and non-union shops. The unionised shops sometimes practised even worse conditions, so it really made no difference.” Yu explored the terrible environment her mother – and many thousands like her – endured, in a documentary called Resilience, which debuted at the Margaret Mead Film Festival in 2000. The film also touched on Kwan’s leadership in the fight against exploitation and the hunger strike Yu’s sister Virginia participated in to draw attention to the exploitative environment in which Chinatown workers found themselves.

An archival photo display of Betty Yu's multimedia project (Dis)Placed in Sunset Park. Open Source Gallery, New York, 2018. Photo: Betty Yu.

An archival photo display of Betty Yu's multimedia project (Dis)Placed in Sunset Park. Open Source Gallery, New York, 2018. Photo: Betty Yu.

Things got worse for the garment workers of New York after 9/11. “A lot of people lost their jobs in Lower Manhattan because Chinatown was so close to the Twin Towers,” Yu explains. “A lot of the trucks couldn’t get in to pick up and drop off garments, and that provided a window of opportunity for the real-estate developers to move in. It was at that point that a lot of workers ended up getting laid off.” Fortunately, her mother found work in Sunset Park, Brooklyn, where Yu and her sisters had grown up.

Much of Yu’s work centres on her Brooklyn neighbourhood, but she has also made a number of short documentaries about social justice and gender. In 2015, she co-founded the Chinatown Art Brigade(CAB) with artists Tomie Arai and ManSee Kong. CAB, a collective that seeks to precipitate change through art, also collaborates with the local tenants’ union to tackle the negative impact of gentrification on Sunset Park. Of course, New York City is not the only place experiencing the effects of what some are calling modern colonisation. Issues of economic and social displacement are global, and the art world, Yu argues, is complicit in pricing out local communities. So what can be done? I spoke to Yu about gentrification and what artists and galleries can do to help.

Emily Spicer: After the hunger strikes featured in your documentary Resilience, did the conditions in Chinatown factories improve?

Betty Yu: The conditions are still bad. The sweatshops are coming back with similar conditions that my mum worked under, but not in such large numbers, so there’s not a lot of media attention because folks think they’re all overseas now.