A mural of a powder-blue Chinese dragon—symbolizing the Year of the Dragon at the 44-unit Madison Square Professional Building at Jackson and 9th streets in Oakland. Photo by Ken Epstein.
By J. Douglas Allen-Taylor
Some are calling Lailan Huen “stubborn” in the face of the obstacles and challenges to Oakland Chinatown’s newest mural, and some are calling her “persistent.”
But everyone agrees that without the daughter of Oakland Mayor Jean Quan, there would probably be no mural across from Madison Square Park.
“I was at a dress shop buying a dress for my brother’s bride for their wedding,” Huen told a crowd of gatherers last week in the lobby of the 44-unit Madison Square Professional Building at Jackson and 9th streets, “and the shop owner was complaining about the graffiti problem on the wall at the back of the building. She said the building owners would have it painted over and the graffiti would come back, and they’d have to paint it over again, and it was costing them $400 each time. So my brother and I went back and looked at this big, beautiful wall and we said, ‘yes, we have to put a mural here.’”
Many months after Huen and her brother came to that conclusion, the three-story high brick wall facing a surface parking lot on the back side of the professional building boasts a magnificent mural of a powder-blue Chinese dragon—symbolizing the Year of the Dragon—sailing through its own smoke on a blood-red background overlaid in black with Asian symbols, with delicate gold etchings of ancient Chinese motif running across the bottom.
Principal design for the project was done by Tommy Wong of Oakland’s East Side Arts Alliance, with several local artists helping with the actual painting. Internationally-known artist Prime 808 (John Hina) was flown in from Hawaii to paint the dragon.
Amazingly, organizers said that while the design took several months to put together, the actual mural-painting was done over a 48 hour period, with artists staying on the scaffold until 3 a.m. one morning to complete the work.
Carl Chan, past president and still a member of the Board of Directors of the Oakland Chinatown Chamber of Commerce and often referred to as the unofficial mayor of Chinatown, praised the mural at unveiling ceremonies this month. “What you are seeing here today is very historic,” Chan said, “because we are combining the past, present, and future together.”
In an interview prior to the unveiling, Chan said that in the three months since the mural has gone up, it has achieved its goal of discouraging graffiti. Chan attributed that to the fact that the mural was specifically designed to appeal to pride over the lines of several generations, including the young people responsible for tagging.
Seed funding for the $18,000 project was originally supposed to come from City of Oakland redevelopment funds. But when that source was lost after Governor Jerry Brown eliminated redevelopment funding throughout the state, the dragon mural won an $8,000 matching grant from the East Bay Community Foundation.
Other major funding came from the Chinatown Chamber of Commerce, APAPA (the Asian Pacific Islander American Public Affairs Association), the Oakland Chinatown Lions Club, business tenants at the Madison Square Professional Building, and individual donations.
Organizers of the mural project said that the Jackson Street mural is only the first in a series of 11 to be put up in Chinatown and the San Antonio and Laurel and other Oakland neighborhoods with significant Asian-American populations, with each eventually depicting a different animal from the Chinese Lunar Year calendar.