ATTENTION ARIZONA: THE WAR ON THE CHINESE CULTURAL CENTER
Phoenix native Bronson Soza tells us why we should all be upset about what is happening with Arizona's Chinese Cultural Center.
You pass through an ornate archway and are met with a garden filled with architecture reminiscent of a traditional China. A left turn brings you through a pavilion to reveal a grand pond of clear blue water and lilies. This is the Chinese Cultural Center, or at least it used to be. The beauty of its Eastern garden is now shrouded in tarped chain link fence and has been since September 2017. Faded spots where signage once was serve as a reminder of what this place used to be. What happened here?
True North, an entrepreneurial private investment firm, has since occupied the Chinese Cultural Center with plans to house their new headquarters. This is not the issue, but rather their plans to “modernize” the facility. These plans include tearing out various architectural elements that comprise the center’s traditional charm. Alongside this, they are ruthlessly running out former tenants such as Beijing Garden Restaurant and Super L Ranch Market. This not only displays their complete lack of courtesy when dealing with neighboring businesses, but also their complete disregard of Chinese Arizonans, their culture, and their livelihoods.
The Chinese Cultural Center was opened in 1997 through the group efforts of both the city of Phoenix and the Chinese American community. “[They] wanted us to build something extraordinary that was fitting of Phoenix’s reputation as a new vibrant city,” says Elizabeth Mann, founder and developer of the Chinese Cultural Center. Accompanied by a city official, Mann traveled to China in order to obtain special visas for 30 master craftsmen. Throughout the construction of the center, the craftsmen were required to follow a vegetarian diet and ritually bathe each day. Not a single nail was used in the construction of the garden, as it was to be built in the style of ancient buildings, solely utilizing interlocking parts. The garden is filled with religious, cultural, and historic imagery: statues carved from the same stone as the Forbidden City, handmade imperial roof tiles, and various religious icons. One of the most notable attractions is a replica of the surging waves pavilion in Canglang. The original structure is now protected under UNESCO as a world heritage site; it can no longer be replicated, making ours the only one in America and maybe even the world. Many Buddhists, Taoists, and Confucianists come here to pray, meditate, and pay homage. Tearing out or even just relocating these features can be likened to destroying a mosque, church, or temple. Beyond religion, this site serves as a place for people to come in contact with Chinese culture, at its greatest the center saw upwards 700 students per week through field trips alone. Yan Zhu, principal of The Contemporary Chinese School of Arizona, stated with tears in her eyes how proud she was that Phoenix had such a site, and how it reminded her of her hometown in Beijing. The Chinese Cultural Center adds to Phoenix’s rich culture and is of significant religious importance. Because of this, it is important that the center and its features are both preserved and kept in their current state.
The maliciousness of True North’s Behavior has gone on to affect Arizonan citizens as well as businesses owners and their employees. In a video found on the cultural center website, Tian Honglei, the owner of Beijing Garden Restaurant, states how he immigrated to America in 1999 and found work at the early Chinese Cultural Center. In 2012 he went on to open his own restaurant, which found relative success until interference from True North. Through the course of True North’s torment, Beijing Garden’s phone lines had been cut multiple times, had their electricity shut off twice during business hours, and involuntarily had their fire exhaust removed at 3 AM, leaving them unable to cook. Despite taking his discrepancies to court, True North had renewed the lease in their own name before a decision could even be made. Lawyers of true North even admitted that they were trying their hardest to drive Beijing Garden out in their conquest of the building. Tian commented, saying, “My life is in turmoil, I lost my business, my employees lost their jobs, I lost my children’s education fund and I lost my life savings. I don’t know what to do and I don’t know who can help me.” Super L Ranch Market, one of the main attractions of the center, suffered a similar fate. Scottsdale resident Julia G., who had shopped at the store before, was shocked when she found that the store was no longer there. Upon asking around she discovered that Super L had relocated after True North had given them only 30 days to pack up, find a facility, and move out. Given the considerable size of the store, Super L managed only to find a facility about a third of the size laying off 55 employees in the process. True North cares nothing of the livelihoods of these people they have victimized, many of whom relied on these businesses as a main source of income. This lack of courtesy and integrity on behalf of True North has been extremely detrimental, leaving many to find work and new sources of income.
The Chinese Cultural Center would be the third Chinatown to be demolished in Phoenix’s history if True North has their way. David Tedesco, the founder of True North, has proposed that features of the Chinese Cultural Center be relocated instead of his companies former plan to just completely demolish them, stating that existing tenants would be able to stay in their redeveloped facilities which would be “nicer” than the current ones. These comments imply that the current painstakingly handcrafted architecture is of little merit compared to modern industrialized architecture, disrespecting the efforts of the architects and master craftsmen along with the history and religious significance behind their process. The Center simply cannot be relocated without changing crucial elements of its architecture. Once these pieces are taken apart they can not be put back together without the use of modern techniques and nails, which devalues the process of their construction.
Under a recent court motion, True North is currently prohibited to remove the roof tiles. Now is the time to act. The Chinese community of Arizona has offered to repay True North the 10.5 million cost of the center with an additional 2 million dollars to return the center to them. Despite this True North has demanded upwards of 30 million, nearly 3 times the original cost. We are left to wonder the reasoning behind True North’s actions, whether it be greed, racism, or some vicious mixture of the two. Whatever it may be, now is the time to call upon True North to do what is right: treat your neighbors with the respect they deserve, apologize for your cruel actions, communicate civilly with the citizens of Arizona, and come to a solution that benefits all.