On Bayard Street in Manhattan’s Chinatown, artist and activist Chanel Miller created a mural to cover the outdoor dining structure at Alimama and Yin Ji Chang Fen. Along the wooden barrier, cartoon creatures feed each other with open mouths, an image Miller picked for its cultural significance.
“In Chinese culture and a lot of Asian cultures, the way you express love is by making sure the other person is fed,” Miller, the bestselling author of Know My Name, says in a video interview for TIME. “Instead of asking, ‘How are you?’ you usually ask, ‘Are you hungry?’”
The structure is one of several created as part of Assembly for Chinatown, a program launched last summer by the non-profit Think!Chinatown to build outdoor dining spaces for restaurant owners in the area, where local businesses were hit especially hard by the pandemic. “Seeing how businesses were really harmed with the lack of foot traffic and with the lack of visitorship we thought, ‘What are the ways we could help the businesses to survive through this difficult time?’” says Amy Chin, Think!Chinatown’s Board President.
As the city began to allow outdoor dining, many vendors didn’t know how to build outdoor dining structures that were durable and compliant with new city regulations, so Think!Chinatown partnered with A+A+A design studio to design and build the barriers at no cost to the businesses. The projects are funded by donations, with volunteers and local artists like Miller coming together to help paint and personalize them. The group hopes that the project can help draw customers to dine at the restaurants.
Miller adds another motivation, citing the rise of hate crimes and violence against Asian Americans and a desire to embody a joy with her art. “When I feel really overwhelmed and powerless, I have to think about zoning in on what I can do with my little corner of the earth. Today, this is my tiny corner,” she says. “I can make it better.”