By Amanda DeRosa
Sifu Mai Du of the Wah Lum Academy in Malden often tells her students, “Under every roof there is a story.” So, when the COVID-19 pandemic forced her to close her martial arts studio on March 10, at the corner of Eastern Avenue and Ferry Street, and board up the windows, Mai Du knew she had to do something to continue to tell the story of Wah Lum. “A boarded-up corner didn’t sit well with me,” she says.
She and some of her artistically talented students hatched a plan to transform the more than 400 square feet of blank plywood into a radiant message of solidarity. Beginning on July 19, a group of artists and volunteers began painting a mural on the boarded-up windows. Today, a dragon snakes around the corner, embracing Guardian Foo Dogs, Lion dancers, and a community united. The work is ongoing.
Wah Lum Academy is not simply another school, Wah Lum is a communal space where members look forward to visiting on a regular basis; it’s an intimate place where individuals practice the arts of physical movement and interaction. Here, Sifu Mai Du teaches the martial arts of Kung Fu and Tai Chi.
The circumstances of Wah Lum’s closing heightened economic and social anxiety already brewing within the local community. With President Trump referring to COVID-19 as the “China virus” and the “Kung flu,” international racism directed toward the Asian-American community had become a concern, too. This tension was felt by the loved ones surrounding Wah Lum, as well as Du.
Du is personally familiar with the isolated feeling of being misunderstood and unheard. At eight years old, she came to the U.S. and enrolled in the Shurtleff School in Chelsea. When she arrived, she was given a Hooked on Phonics book and sat by herself for a year. “They didn’t know what to do with me,” she recalls. Outcast and alone, she taught herself math, and how to read. Though challenging at first, she remembers her time at Shurtleff fondly.
Thirty-six years later, Du has now become a teacher herself, serving as a mentor to people of all ages. Not only is she an instructor of the martial arts, but she now teaches the subjects she once taught herself at the Kumon learning center in Medford. Du personally connects with groups fighting for justice in social identity; Du understands the struggle of youth who are not given the same opportunities as their peers.
A pioneer in youth work and leadership, Du believes that allowing youth the opportunity for dignity, inclusion, and integrity is important for the future of the community… and of the planet, “teaching a respect for nature, the earth, and the universe.” She promotes a reverence for the balance of nature in society.
After boarding up the studio for safety concerns, Du did not want the plywood on the windows to represent a mistrust of her community, “because we do (trust our community).” However, Du explains that the encouragement from loved ones, along with the desire to protect the sacred altar and weapons inside the studio, led to the physical boarding up of the school, swaying to the side of safety and precaution.
With prior experience in organizing mural projects, as well as some artistic students for inspiration, Du conceived the idea of painting a mural on the blank boards covering about 466 square feet of space in the heavily trafficked intersection. Using Facebook messenger to brainstorm, she and a group of artists planned an intense, layer-by-layer mural project, following all quarantine safety guidelines–such as masking and social distancing.
Inspiration for the design comes from a combination of symbolism related to the school’s teachings along with “the nature of yin and yang in social change and activism,” explains Shaina Lu, who is coordinating the project with fellow artist Vivian Ho. Lu is a Wah Lum student and Harvard scholar in arts in education. Lu has studied the importance and power of voice conveyed through visual arts. “I’m really interested in community and solidarity-building artwork that involves creating spaces for community self-expression and ownership. I think it’s also important to think about whose voices we’re prioritizing or amplifying when we create public art.” Lu is leading the human component of the mural—a depiction of “activists marching in unity.” This piece of the mural will include the activists holding multi-lingual signs, supporting unity. Ho is leading the Foo Dog component (the creatures guarding the main entrance), with the help of Sifu Amy Tran, which represent Yin, Yang, and community safety.
However significant each element of this mural represents, this project is not simply about the final piece on display, the process matters, too. “The process of planning and painting the mural is building community, which is something that I think of as a small act of revolution. In addition to representing the Wah Lum school, I hope that when we reach the very last stage and for as long as it’s up, it serves a two-fold purpose — that passersby will be able to understand what our students think solidarity is, and to be reminded that Black Lives Matter,” says Lu.
The artwork is set to be complete near the end of August. All artists and youth are working as volunteers, with most of the paint being donated by the Sherwin Williams store in Medford (from ‘mistake mixes’ or return gallons).
The mural is being worked on as a process painting, and only on days that weather is favorable. Other artists involved include Greg Cook (@gregcookland), who is leading the painting of Lion Dancers, representing strength; Kari Percival(@karipercival), who is leading the background imagery of smoke and clouds inspired by Chinese paintings; Jameson Francois (@the_laidback_artist), who is leading the dragon, protecting and connecting all of the elements; Rayna Lo(@raynalo), who is leading the textual components of the mural. Sifu Mai Du is doing a little bit of painting, too!
Cook, who is also photographically chronicling the mural project, expresses a gratitude for being involved in the adventure. “My partner Kari Percival and I have been honored to be able to help — and inspired by the diversity of artists, ideas and traditions represented. We hope this collaborative effort by local artists will be a model for public art in our city. We can have public art that gives opportunities to the talented artists living in Malden (especially women and people of color), promotes social justice, and celebrates the community that Malden is today.”
Many members of the community have become involved in the project, including: Jennie C., Matt Chan, Yen Chit, Vivian Dang, Anna Geoffroy, Laura Le, Nelson Liu, Yu Sin Mok, Cindy N., Thien N., Trisha O., Saiman R., Mandy S., Sifu Andrea So, Thomas T., Andre W., Rei, and Katheeya. Many of these creatives are Wah Lum youth students. Youth from GMAAAC and members of AVOYCE Malden are also helping with sidewalk chalking and protest signs for the activists in the mural.
Lu reveals that they are also planning a lion dance ceremony, or eye-dotting ceremony, in respect to the mural. She explains: “Eye-dotting is when the person who uses the lion ‘awakens’ it by putting red pigment on the eyes and other parts of the lion.” The red pigment is usually placed on other sense organs, including the nose and mouth, to “awaken” these senses. The date of this event is yet to be determined.
While Wah Lum is closed indefinitely, and Du says that they are “no where close to how we were operating,” online classes are available. Du meets students for an in-person, outdoor session once a week — being very cautious of safety guidelines. She says it has been “heartwarming” to receive an outpouring of support from people concerned about the school, friends and strangers alike.
Says Cook, “Wah Lum does so many great things for Malden. And this mural is another one.”
Editor’s Note: This story has been updated.