Central Subway: Chinatown Station Proposals



On view at the Chinese Culture Center July 9 – July 16, 2010

Opportunity for Public Review and Comment


Arts Commission staff will be present to answer questions about the Chinatown Station proposals on Saturday, July 10, from noon to 2 p.m. on the Pedestrian Bridge that crosses Kearny Street from Portsmouth Square to the Chinese Culture Center in the Hilton Hotel.

In conjunction with the San Francisco Municipal Transportation Agency’s new Central Subway stretching from Chinatown to South of Market, the San Francisco Arts Commission’s Public Art Program is managing a diverse and exciting public art program that includes permanent artworks and related arts programming in adjacent neighborhoods. Scheduled to be completed in 2018, the Central Subway will include three subway stations, located in the Chinatown,
Union Square/Market Street, and Moscone neighborhoods. Following two national open calls for artists, nineteen recognized local and national artists and artist teams were recently selected by community-based artist selection panels to create proposals for two permanent art opportunities at each station: a landmark artwork and a wayfinding artwork.

The landmark artwork is defined as one large scale, vibrant and engaging artwork that will create a station identity and a landmark for the neighborhood. The landmark artwork will be sited in a prime location such as the station entryways or the large wall expanses on the concourse levels. The wayfinding artwork is a project that will extend through two or three of the station levels, providing a visual thread for pedestrians to follow through the station to help with navigation.

Last fall, a community-based Central Subway Chinatown Station Artist Selection Panel chose artists Ming Fay, Yumei Hou and May Sun to develop public art proposals for the landmark artwork at the Chinatown Station. Carl Cheng, Tomie Arai, Yun-Fei Ji and Faye Zhang were selected for the wayfinding public art opportunity. The proposals presented in this exhibition are the finalists’ preliminary concepts.  The two proposals selected for each station will be further developed and refined to meet all feasibility, maintenance, safety and other requirements, as needed.  All final designs are subject to approval by the Arts Commission prior to implementation.

The final Central Subway Chinatown Station Artist Selection Panel Meeting is scheduled for Tuesday, July 27 at 9 a.m. at the Arts Commission offices, located at 25 Van Ness Avenue, Suite 70. This meeting is open to the public.

Comments may be emailed to zoe.taleporos@sfgov.org. Please note that comments by interested members of the public do not constitute a vote. Comments will be summarized and shared with the Artist Selection Panel prior to the final panel meeting.




Artist: Ming Fay

Title: Gold Mountain Sequoias (金山青松)

Gold Mountain was the name given to California by Chinese who traveled here in search of gold and prosperity during the 19th century. This mosaic mural is based upon an imagined place inspired by the Sierra Nevada mountains in California as well as the majestic native Sequoias, the California redwood state tree.

Staged at the first landing of the subway escalators, the mural welcomes visitors as they ride the escalator down into the station, reminding them of the natural beauty that surrounds their urban environment and an important historical time in California’s history. The escalator trip towards the mural allows the viewer to engage the mural and be drawn into the illusive quality of the mosaic’s colored glass pieces. Measuring approximately 14’h x 40’w, the wall of the mosaic feels like a section in a long scroll, allowing the viewers to experience the piece as they move across the platform into and out of the station.  The mosaic’s vibrant colors will definitely light up the subterranean space.

The mural is influenced by traditional Chinese landscape ink paintings with the idea that nature is the ultimate source of all things and that human beings are just a small, insignificant entity compared to nature’s vast and overpowering grandeur. The proposed image captures the timeless myth and legend of the Gold Mountains in the California landscape layered with a magnificent Sequoia forest.

The Sequoia is an evergreen tree, which metaphorically refers to something that is self-renewing. Living up to 2000 years, it is known for its longevity as well as being the tallest trees on Earth. Set against the stunning backdrop of the Gold Mountains, the mosaic is also a historical reference to the Gold Rush, which propelled San Francisco and California’s early stages of development and laid the foundation for the multi-faceted, dynamic and vibrant city San Francisco is today.


Artist: Yumei Hou

Title: Yang Ge Dance of Northeast China

This is a rendition of Yang Ge (Sprout Dance – a spontaneous outdoor folk dance) in the Northeastern provinces of China. This form of Yang Ge Dance usually is a group dance, involving people of all ages, both men and women.  The costumes are varied and colorful, the movement vigorous and lively.  People dance to celebrate happy occasions such as Chinese New Year, graduation, elderly birthdays, grand opening of businesses, etc. Participants will join the formation voluntarily.

Yang Ge is very popular in China; from countryside to countryside, they all have their different forms and story lines.  Besides having everyone join in, there are times that the dance involves two people, or an individual telling a story through the pantomime dance steps.

The mural on the arch wall depicts some of the more popular dances, such as the well known folk tale of the Monkey King, the tale of the White Snake, the story of the four monsters, and pictures of daily life such as a couple’s harmony, wife visiting her family, dancing crowns, young and elderly ladies.  The arch trimming in red tells the tale of Manchurians driving evils out, and the part in green tells of the celebration of one’s 60th birthday.


Artist: May Sun

Title: An Ocean to Cross / A Land to Build

May Sun’s art work proposal for the wall is a dancing narrative – a symphony of images honoring the lives of the pioneering Chinese sojourners and settlers of San Francisco. These early immigrants were subjected to extreme hardships and racial hostility while working long hours to help build this country. Driven from other neighborhoods, Chinatown was a safe haven where they could live without being harassed, and where they could retain aspects of their cultural heritage.

Chinese fishermen in California in the 19th century introduced abalone as a food item, and were expert shrimp fishermen.  A shrimp fishing junk in the San Francisco Bay is included in the images. Although the early sojourners were drawn to gold mining, the majority of them stayed on to become pioneers in agriculture and set records in laying railroad tracks for the Central Pacific, often working under dangerous conditions. Their industriousness sparked the Chinese Exclusion Act for immigration in 1882, which was not repealed until 1943.

The focal point on the wall is a long photographic panorama of vintage photos of Chinatown taken by German immigrant photographer Arnold Genthe at the turn of the century. The images show street life – men gathering around a letter writer, pedestrians, vegetable sellers and other workers as well as a Chinese typesetting facility.  Above the long panoramic photo panel is a group photo of revolutionary leader Sun Yat-sen, founder of the Chinese Republic, taken with his supporters in San Francisco.  A fugitive on the run, he traveled to California to raise funds from the overseas Chinese for his cause – to overthrow the corrupt Manchu Dynasty in China.  The Chinese in San Francisco were instrumental in its success.

Other images include cultural artifacts steeped in symbolism – a circular bronze disc depicting Heaven, a square column depicting Earth (in ancient Chinese mythology, Heaven is round and Earth is square), farmers’ stone utensils from 6.000 years ago, fish shaped money from 300 B.C., stone engravings from early Southern Chinese culture and various ceramic patterns of flora and fauna.  Since Chinese culture is imbued with symbolism, and the language is filled with metaphors, the meanings and attributions of various animals, flowers and fruit are understood by all Chinese, regardless of their class background.  Contemporary photographic images of Chinatown are also  included on this wall of images – close-up patterns of fabric, fruit, vegetables and lanterns.

The background material for this wall will be polished red granite from China, and the floor will a green/blue stone, such as butterfly blue granite from China.  The color of the floor is reminiscent  of the ocean and there will be bronze inlays in the stone – images of the different kinds of fish the Chinese fishermen in San Francisco used to catch – halibut, cod, salmon, bluefish, mackerel, flounder. Other inlays include ancient Chinese pictograms for the characters water, boat, mountain, fish.

The art wall and floor will be a visual cornucopia of different textures and images.  The panoramic photo panel will be laser etched in black granite, and is placed at a height that can be viewed comfortably by a person of average height. Other panels will be fabricated with porcelain enamel-on-steel panels,  copper panels, mosaic and ceramic tile.  There will also be some bronze inlays in the wall that relate to the images on the floor. The panels on the top of the wall can be viewed by subway pedestrians from the bottom of the ascending escalator towards the South Wall, as well as by pedestrians on the descending escalator towards the South Wall.  In providing a wall filled with images that are rich in narrative, the subway users who use this station on a regular basis might focus on a different element each time.

The art work proposal for the Escalator South Wall and Floor is a site-specific environment that pays tribute to the tenacity and talent of the early settlers of San Francisco’s Chinatown, their connection to the homeland across the ocean and their contribution to the growth of both their adopted country and the country they left behind.




Artist: Carl Cheng

Title:  The Chinese Underground Garden

The basic inspiration for me for the wayfinding portion of this project is to imagine walking into an underground Chinese garden or arriving at an underground Chinese garden and ascending to the street level community.

Of the Chinese gardens visited by this artist in China, the Tang and Sung Dynasties seemed to be the most culturally enriched periods of China’s long history. Imaginary landscapes were built in crowded courtyards. Among the inspirations of that time were the vistas imagined, while looking through a window, a portal or a gate. Moon gates led people through one garden into the next. Among the many sculptural elements used is the lattice grill, placed on corners, edges, as frames around doors, windows, railings and fences. One is constantly looking through something to view what is beyond.  This epoch was centered in Hangzhou and Soochow from 650 A.D. to 1200 A.D.


During the day, Stockton Street, in the station’s neighborhood, is a chaos of markets, shoppers, food stalls and delivery trucks. The market architecture is generally vibrant, bright red and yellow (gold) with at least one stock pagoda roof in every block.  On any day, one can experience the crowded outside public activity in a narrow street environment. The need soon arises for a restful place.  Why not a garden…in the subway?

Three elements of Chinese gardens will be used throughout the station to provide continuity to the cultural community: the moon gate, the window lattice grill designs and the natural vistas, all inspired by the Tang and Sung Dynasty.  The artist will take images of contemporary garden vistas, fruits and vegetables displayed in the local shops and combine them into original artworks to be constructed into the window boxes. Contemporary shadow outlines and silhouette patterns will be used in fabricating the grill designs.

ARTWORK #1 is a large window box art work placed at the wall facing the entrance escalators.  As one descends, the facing garden window will provide a glimpse of an imaginary garden.

ARTWORK #2 is a series of window box artworks placed at the mezzanine escalator landing. The windows provide a transitory glimpse of more imaginary landscapes to come.

ARTWORK # 3 is a moon gate framed window box installed at the vaulted wall space on the concourse level,  facing the turnstiles. The artwork lattice design could expand into a treatment of the wall surface.

ARTWORK #4 – is a circular moon gate installed at the end of the platform mezzanine level stairway.  The artwork gently leads the viewer into a transcendent garden view.

MATERIALS: At this time a number of directions can be taken depending on logistics and feasibility. Lattice grill material would be laser-cut, welded steel with powder coated paint. The landscape vista image can be made of mozaic and terrazzo tile, or a glass photo image backlit with an LED flat panel behind it. The entire window box can be set into a block out niche in the wall or be surface mounted. Color, wall texture, green tinted railing glass, etc. can be considered to enhance the garden effect of the wayfinding artwork.



Artist: Tomie Arai

Title: Urban Archeology

As one of three artists invited to design ‘wayfinding’ artwork for the Chinatown Subway Station, I am proposing designs for the elevators that span the Platform and Ticketing Hall Levels. The medium for this artwork will be architectural glass. A third visual marker will be made from architectural float glass and installed on the Surface Level to welcome passengers who enter the station.

Over the years, I have created projects that explore the complex relationship between history and art within public spaces. My goal for the Central Subway Project will be to find a way to tell a story about San Francisco’s Chinatown.

In this urban narrative, passengers will be presented with a visual timeline that begins with contemporary images of the Chinatown community at the subway entrance and ends on the Platform Level with life before the city was founded.  Moving from level to level, passengers will be invited to experience the artwork in much the same way as archeologists sift through layers of history to discover clues about the past.

Starting from the lower level, passengers who disembark from the trains will encounter two 40’ glass elevator towers visible from both ends of the platform. The story begins at the base of these towers with images of the life buried deep beneath the city streets that may include indigenous flora and fauna, fossils from prehistoric times and cultural artifacts from the indigenous people that first inhabited the Bay Area.

Ascending to the Concourse Level, the artwork will gradually shift from past to present. Following a layered timeline, the design will encompass images from the early settlement of San Francisco, the great San Francisco earthquake and the arrival of pioneers and immigrants from China and Asia.  Actual artifacts collected from the community in the form of photographs, coaching books, letters, etc. may be embedded in the glass. (Image 1 – Ticketing Hall) Passengers will be encouraged to engage in a playful form of ‘time travel’ as the elevators move up and down.

From the Concourse Level to the Surface Level, images of present day Chinatown will represent the vibrant community found at the  busy juncture of Stockton and Washington Streets.

Reverse this passage and the traveler who descends into the station will journey back in time as the history of the Chinatown community and the city of San Francisco are revealed.



Artist: Yun-Fei Ji

Title: The Garden

For this project, I will use the Chinese hand scroll as my point of departure. I envision a contiguous scroll that wends its way through the three levels of the subway station, with occasional breaks, as dictated by the architecture.

The subject of the scroll will be the building of a classical Chinese garden, an ideal place of harmony and fulfillment that reflects the dreams and desires of the community. This garden will be populated with contemporary Chinese Americans, young and old, going about their everyday business of working, playing and socializing, as they do in Chinatown’s parks. These characters will be approximately 14 inches tall and will be situated at eye level.

The scroll’s characters will mingle with text gleaned from interviews I will conduct with Chinese Americans who live and work in the vicinity of the subway station. The topics will include immigration, trials, and the tribulations and triumphs of putting down roots: creating a family, developing friendships, and finding work.

Additionally, there will be an assortment of spirit characters from Chinese folklore placed at children’s eye level in random, surprise locations throughout the station.

The intimate scale of the paintings will invite passengers to interact with the stories. Standing close, viewers are incorporated into the scroll’s story as well. Day after day, passengers will develop relationships with the characters and the lives unfolding in the garden.


Artist: Faye Zhang

Title: Inception, Confluence and Flow


In this series of works, I play with the varying forms and movement of water. My initial inspiration for these pieces came from the unifying quality of water. Not only is San Francisco nestled by the Bay, but early immigrants traveled thousands of miles on waterways, coming together and settling down to make communities within the city. The powerful and beautiful motion of water truly connects us all.

The first piece INCEPTION is in essence a presentation of the colors and shapes that will flow throughout the series. It represents the birth of an idea, the beginning of a journey. The second piece CONFLUENCE carries a great deal of motion in the form of a whirl. The whirl is a gathering of many streams, representing the gathering of many people and the rapid movements of the passengers rushing by. The final work in the series EBB & FLOW brings the journey full circle as the streams divide again and settle into their many individual paths. Placed on the same level as the arriving and departing trains, this last piece represents the parting passengers.

In tribute to the location of the station in Chinatown, mosaic tiles with images of Chinese calligraphy relating to water will be inlaid onto the floors throughout the station.


Given that this is a public space, it is important to use durable materials. Therefore, I believe mosaic tiles and laminate glass would be the most suitable for my project. Another benefit to using these materials is that the maintenance of these works would be reduced to a minimum.


The works will be two-dimensional. The pieces and details on the wall and floor surfaces will be made with mosaic tiles while the images on the guardrails and elevators will be laminate glass.

San Francisco Arts Commission

401 Van Ness, Ste. 325
San Francisco, CA 94102

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