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When Stephen Fan was developing a thesis for his Harvard graduate degree in architecture, he started close to home.
Fan grew up in Norwich, and when he would come back during his time at college, he noticed the rising population of Asians who were moving to the region to work at the local casinos — particularly after massive, post-9-11 layoffs in lower Manhattan garment businesses and restaurants.
This was a particularly notable shift in Connecticut, since, Fan says, he was "one of a handful of Asians" in Norwich Free Academy's graduating class of 2000.
"To see this community really develop as I would return home from college and grad school, it really struck a personal note for me," Fan says. "Although my family is not involved with the casino, I could empathize with ... general issues of cultural identity."
He decided to pursue the subject as his thesis topic. A lot of theses end up just getting archived in libraries, but Fan wanted to do something that would have a larger impact.
He recast the thesis as an exhibition — "Sub Urbanisms: Casino Company-town, China-town," which is on view at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum. He took something originally aimed at an academic audience and reframed it for a general crowd. He curated the exhibit, with help on some infographics and book design from his childhood friend Shane Keaney, who is now a graphic designer based in New York.
The exhibit focuses on the community of Chinese casino workers in the region and particularly on "the controversial conversion of single family homes into multifamily communities."
Fan's parents own Golden Palace Restaurant, a Chinese restaurant in Montville, that has become a center of sorts for this community. Through informal introductions, Fan got to know some of the people.
He learned a great deal, which is reflected in "Sub Urbanisms: Casino Company-town, China-town." The exhibit is multi-faceted, showing, for instance, a map of Asian-owned parcels around the Mohegan Sun, and panels about the global flow of workers that compares these workers to the Irish and French-Canadians who flocked to the Ponemah Mills in Taftville during the 1800s.
Architectural drawings and three-dimensional models reflect changes in certain raised-ranch houses used by Asian casino workers. It shows partitions added to make more bedrooms for possible multi-family arrangements. As for the question of the legality, the exhibit references the subject but, Fan says, does "not discuss it in any detail because I do not have a legal background."
The exhibit touches on, too, how these residents use their home exteriors differently from what the "cultural norm" might be here. Wall text notes, "As residents often do not drive, gardens take priority over driveway. Any exterior protrusion is an opportunity to hang or dry food or laundry," with photos showing examples.
One panel describes the people who tend to live in these houses as casino line cooks, dishwashers, wait staff, janitors and housekeepers who make $10,000 to $25,000 plus benefits.
Fan provides brief profiles of eight Asian workers who live in shared housing and identifies each by one name.
Ms. Hwang, 60, is a server at Mohegan Sun's Four Seasons Buffet. She came here after 9-11; she was in City Hall Plaza when the World Trade Center towers fell.
"I was so scared. I didn't sleep for three months — until I moved to Connecticut," she is quoted as saying.
She walks 25 minutes each way to work. Someone in a passing car threw bottles at her on one walk, which she blames on drunkenness, not racism, the exhibit states.
Mei, 45, splits her time between Connecticut and New York City — where she's a caregiver on weekends and where her daughter lives. She spends her weekdays here with her husband, who works at the Mohegan Sun hotel. They rent a bedroom in a two-bedroom condo for $600 a month.
Fan says the point of the exhibit is really to open up a dialogue rather than bring across a specific point of view.
Exhibit notes state that "by transplanting cultural values to their new country, these recent emigrants unconsciously challenge the norms underlying the most ubiquitous American housing type: the suburban single-family detached home. The exhibition invites visitors to reflect on the norms and cultural values that determine how we live, and to consider how cultural expectations for building design might further change in response to ecological, financial and societal pressures."
For example, Fan talks about "the gendered relationships that are embedded within the open floor plans of these raised ranch houses. The idea in the 1950s was that, with an open plan — the kitchen leading to the dining room leading to the living room — allowed for the housewife to cook, clean, entertain, watch over the children at the same time."
"So there are a lot of social and cultural norms that might have been more relevant in the 1950s and less so today," he says.
Fan notes, too, that the U.S. Census projects that by 2030 single-person households will be the largest demographic group in the country — yet the current housing stock, focused on single-family homes, doesn't reflect that shift.
As part of the exhibit, Fan created images and ideas for a "speculative design project" in Norwich that would use some of the principles employed by these Asian casino workers in their houses. The idea was to create more flexible, adaptable, efficient housing, and the project combines "typical suburban tropes with smart growth." Among the theoretical design's elements are, for instance, single-resident occupancy towers that could be reconfigured and divided as needed.
Fan thinks this is a timely exhibit, saying, "It's not only about the transformations around the casino, but part of a larger national debate about the future of suburban homes and suburban development."
What: "Sub Urbanisms: Casino Company-town, China-town"
Where: Lyman Allyn Art Museum, 625 Williams St., New London
When: Feb. 8-May 12; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Tues.-Sat. and 1-5 p.m. Sun.
Admission: Adults $10, seniors and students 18 and older $7, students 18 and younger $5, children 12 and younger free; also, active military personnel $7, museum members free
Call: (860) 443-2545, lymanallyn.org
Forum on the subject: A free public forum will be held March 29 at the museum. Sessions will be from 10 a.m. to noon and from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m. Co-sponsored by Connecticut College, it will include Jason Vincent, vice president of the Norwich Community Development Corp.; former journalist Adam Bowles; Ellen Pader, an anthropologist who teaches in the regional planning department at UMass Amherst; and Chloe Taft, a lecturer in history at Lake Forest College and a PhD candidate at Yale.