Wen-ti Tsen turned 86 in January, just as he was embarking on his most ambitious project: the permanent installation of four larger-than-life bronze statues in Boston’s Chinatown.
The Cambridge artist figured it would take him 20 years to complete the work, the length of time he would need to raise the money to fund and create it. If he lived long enough to see his vision come to life, he imagined himself, feeble and infirm, carefully making final touches to his magnum opus.
Then, in mid-April, Tsen got a call from Karin Goodfellow, Boston’s director of public art. Mayor Michelle Wu had heard Tsen’s pitch for the project during an art walk through Chinatown. Under her administration’s first multibillion-dollar budget proposal, Goodfellow told him, Wu was pledging $1 million in city funds to back his project. Tsen was speechless. He couldn’t believe what he’d heard.
For more than 30 years, Tsen has been making art that pays homage to Chinatown’s century-and-a-half history as a working-class immigrant enclave. His latest project will cast into bronze four Chinatown archetypes: a laundryman, a cook, a garment worker, and a grandmother watching over her grandchild. The statues, which Tsen hopes will flank the neighborhood’s boundaries, will serve as an immutable reminder of Chinatown’s roots, even as development and gentrification squeeze and chip away at the neighborhood.
If the funding is approved, Tsen could finish the project in as little as two to three years. Wu sees the project as a tribute to the history of the neighborhood and its residents.
“Art transcends language and culture, engaging and connecting our residents through our public spaces,” Wu said in a statement to the Globe. “Wen-ti Tsen’s latest project celebrates the contributions of Asian Americans and all of Chinatown’s families past and present.”
Wu noted that the only statue currently depicting a person of Asian descent in Chinatown is one of the ancient philosopher Confucius, standing atop a pedestal outside the Chinese Consolidated Benevolent Association building on Tyler Street.
Tsen’s project has won support from local advocates and service providers working to preserve Chinatown as the cultural and economic pulse of the East Asian diaspora in New England.
“Who has their sculptures up in a [city] like Boston? Whose stories are told and whose are not?” said Cynthia Woo, director of Chinatown’s Pao Arts Center. Tsen’s work, she added, is a testament to the life-affirming power of the arts and their capacity to make people feel not only celebrated, but seen.
As Asian Americans, “we’re always confronted with a particular kind of racism — being viewed as the perpetual foreigner,” said Tsen’s longtime friend Lydia Lowe, director of the Chinatown Community Land Trust. “We belong here. We have a place here. And I think that’s what these bronze statues are stating.”
Tsen was born in Shanghai, the youngest of three sons, in 1936, the year before the Imperial Japanese Army invaded the city at the start of the Second Sino-Japanese War. His mother, Fan Tchun-pi, was an accomplished French-trained painter; his father, Tsen Tsonming, was a poet and close friend of the revolutionary leader Wang Jingwei. His father was killed and his mother shot several times in a failed assassination attempt on Wang in Hanoi.
Even after the foiled assassination plot, Tsen’s mother and her sons lived comfortably in China, with servants and country homes, but war eventually drove them to Paris. Tsen, always an unremarkable student, had little interest in art, but he admired his mother’s bohemian, globetrotting lifestyle. He went to art school in London before following his mother and oldest brother to Boston, after his brother got a job teaching electrical engineering at Northeastern University. Tsen studied painting at the Boston Museum School.
He worked as a billboard painter and a movie projectionist while pursuing his art on the side. An antiwar activist throughout the ‘70s and ‘80s, Tsen designed protest posters and booklets for local causes. For a while, he had little interest in Chinatown.
“I thought of China as being revolutionary and Chinatown was, at that time, rather conservative,” Tsen said.
But the neighborhood was undergoing its own political transformation, led by young activists who rejected the traditional leadership of huiguan associations, family and clan organizations ruled by the merchant class. Grass-roots organizations like the Chinese Progressive Association and Asian American Resource Workshop formed to try to protect Chinatown from encroachment and urban renewal at the expense of the residents.
In 1986, Tsen worked with the artist David Fichter on his first project for Chinatown, the “Unity/Community” mural on Oak Street, depicting the history of the neighborhood, which has since been torn down. (A replica of the mural is on display at the Boston Chinatown Neighborhood Center.) Two years later, Tsen completed another mural, a reproduction of a classic Chinese painting “Autumn Mountains with Travelers,” in collaboration with the Museum of Fine Arts, on a building on Oxford Street. More recently, in 2016, Tsen staged “Home Town,” an art installation in which he hand-painted 12 life-size wood cut-outs, reproduced from archival photographs of former Chinatown residents.
“I just want to celebrate people’s lives and their hard work and to say that what they have done is fine, is what life is about,” Tsen said.
At Tsen’s crowded Cambridge studio, where he is finalizing details on clay models — the first step of the bronze casting process — he notes the stoic expressions on his figures’ faces, boldly staring straight ahead.
“None of them are looking at their work, even the garment worker. Have you ever seen someone sewing clothes and not looking at the sewing machine?” Tsen said. “They’re not focusing on the viewer, nor are they focusing on their work. [They’re looking] in between somewhere, inside them.”
For the viewers, his sculptures are an invitation to contemplate their shared humanity with these often invisible laborers, and to recognize their dignity.
“We all have to [work] to make our lives worthwhile,” Tsen said. “And I want people to see, even though they’ve been doing nothing but cutting up duck, that their life has a certain kind of power.”