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Chinatown block party celebrates APEC with disco, art and free pigeons

A line of red lanterns hang across a street in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Lanterns hang over Grant Avenue in celebration of Lunar New Year in San Francisco’s Chinatown. | Source: Getty Images

Next week’s Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit will draw hundreds of political and business leaders together for more than five days, and Chinatown is in full celebration mode. One of San Francisco’s most famous neighborhoods, it’s hosting its first-ever art block party, called Disco YES!, which will cap off the economic conference with inflatable pigeons, live paper-cutting demonstrations and a crowd-sourced wishing well.

A man holds an inflatable pigeon in an art gallery.
A spectator holds an inflatable pigeon at the exhibition "Present Tense 2023: Perilous Playground" at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy Robert Borsdorf

Held on Grant Avenue on Nov. 17, Disco YES! was named to convey hopefulness and energy since Chinatown is bouncing back from its pandemic woes, said Hoi Leung, deputy director and curator of the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, which is putting on the event in collaboration with the arts organization Edge on the Square.

“What we find special is Chinatown’s creativity, resilience, gritty colors,” Leung said. 

Five women dressed in fancy clothes crowd together around a woman wearing a Miss Chinatown banner.
Chinatown art group, Grant Avenue Follies, celebrate Penny Wong’s 98th birthday. | Courtesy Pat Nishimoto | Source: Courtesy Pat Nishimoto

The APEC attention might be global, but the participating artists will be local. There’s the Grant Avenue Follies, a troupe of dancing seniors who embody the legacy of Chinatown’s golden era. And the LionDanceME dragon dancers, who pop up all over the city with eye-catching and colorful acrobatics. Plus, live paper-cutting demonstrations by Yumei Hou, the artist behind the intricate installations that adorn the Central Subway’s Chintaown-Rose Pak Station.

“We expect it will be a time people are eager to get to know San Francisco,” Leung said. 

Free with an RSVP, Disco YES! block party doesn’t promise only art, dancing and DJs—but also scores of inflatable pigeons. 

Block partyers will be encouraged to take home one of artist Bijun Liang’s blow-up birds and mail them back to the Chinese Culture Center after their travels. Liang, who grew up in Chinatown, created the art piece “Free Pigeon” as a response to the proposed renovation of Portsmouth Square, including the removal of a hulking, concrete pedestrian bridge spanning Kearny Street. 

A group of people collects free bags of merchandise from tables in Portsmouth Square in San Francisco's Chinatown.
Community organizations and volunteers hand out free bags of merchandise to attendees at Chinatown Night Out in Portsmouth Square on Sept. 7, 2022. | Source: Justin Katigbak for The Standard

“If the park is reimagined and the bridge is taken out, where will all the pigeons go?” Leung said of the artist’s inspiration.  

The pigeons were previously distributed during Chinatown’s first Hungry Ghost Festival, and Leung recalled the charming sight of people with pigeons tucked under their arms all over the neighborhood. 

The one-night party will also include a queer dance performance by Melissa Lewis Wong and Joy Chenyu Lewis with DJ Marky Enriquez spinning funk, hip-hop and disco. 

A mass of inflatable pigeons forms an archway in an art gallery's exhibition space.
"Free Pigeon" by Bijun Liang is on view at the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco. | Source: Courtesy South Ho/Chinese Culture Center

Attendees can join a joint gallery tour of the culture center’s "Present Tense 2023: Perilous Playground," an exhibition that explores the consequences of overhauling “Chinatown’s living room,” and Edge on the Square’s "Within Others," an exhibition that explores the possibilities for collective healing. Both the center and Edge on the Square will be open until 6 p.m., giving attendees extra time to view the exhibitions. This a big moment for Edge on the Square, which is gearing up for a massive, $40 million renovation that will make it a major player on the city’s cultural scene.

Art and culture excel at building empathy and in building a sense of identity and voice for the community, Leung said. But the spectators, too, play an essential role. 

“A work of contemporary art is not finished until an audience engages with it,” Leung said. 

Disco YES! Art Block Party 

🗓️ Friday, Nov. 17  | 3 p.m. to 6 p.m.
📍 Grant Avenue between Clay and Washington streets
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