The article in the Helena Independent Record about the opening of the mural yesterday (1 pm, Wed., Nov. 16, 2011). It was cold but sunny, and a couple of dozen folks showed up to help celebrate and learn about the murals. Hot Oolong tea and fortune cookies supplied by Yat Son Chinese restaurant in East Helena kept folks warm-- thanks!
Public art keeps Chinatown memory
By MARGA LINCOLN, Independent Record | Posted: Thursday, November 17, 2011
Photos by Eliza Wiley, Independent Record
Lance Foster stands under a gateway entitled ‘Sometimes I Feel Like Chinese Take Out’ as he explains his thought process of each mural he painted.
Memories of a once-bustling Chinatown in Helena are the inspiration for the newest public art murals on the Trolley Block of the Downtown Walking Mall.
Mural artist Lance Foster recalled his childhood growing up in Helena and how much he loved to visit downtown.
First, catching the eye is his mural “Dragon Gate,” which features a bold green dragon stretching up a red archway or gate, next to the Windbag Saloon. On its backside is “Memory Wall,” which gives a view of the once-thriving block and its busy shops — Wing Shing Grocery, Yat Son Noodle Parlor, House of Wong and others. All traces of that vital neighborhood were erased by urban renewal projects decades ago. Foster also painted a portrait of Wong See Q, which he says represents the workers who labored here and on the railroad.
A second Foster gateway depicts a Chinese carry-out food box, whimsically titled, “Sometimes I Feel Like Chinese Take Out.”
On the backside of it is “Dorothy’s Room,” depicting the round red bed of Helena’s last madam, Big Dorothy. Her brothel was next door in the current Windbag Saloon building.
A few steps deeper in this alley is a final gateway, called “Urban Renewal, 1973-1977,” which depicts T.O.K. Garage, one of the places Foster remembers fondly. It stood where the Lewis and Clark Library is today.
Foster named the series of murals, “Palimpsest: Memory that has been erased and re-written.”
The word means a surface that was erased, then reused, leaving a faint and incomplete trace of the old, Foster said.
A crowd of art lovers gathers behind the ‘Dragon Gate’ as artist Lance Foster explains the opposing side’s mural Wednesday on the Trolley Block of the Downtown Walking Mall. Foster was commissioned by the Helena Public Art Committee to paint the gateways on the north side of the Windbag Saloon.
A few former neighborhood residents joined officials at the Wednesday dedication of the new art installations. For them, it was a bittersweet event.
Diane Langenfus, whose family ran the House of Wong, said “I grew up down here.” Like many in the neighborhood, they lived above their business. “This is the playground we had as children,” she said, gesturing toward the former busy neighborhood street.
While she is moved that the murals honor her former neighborhood, there is sadness over what was lost. Quoting Helena writer Flora Wong, Langenfus said, “You took my home and my history with Urban Renewal.”
Foster, whose mother ran the Outpost Cafe, attended the Institute of American Indian Arts in Santa Fe, N.M. He earned a graduate degree in landscape architecture and anthropology and teaches archaeology and art at UM-Helena.