Five Cents A Can
Writer: Leong Ying
It started six years ago, as Siyan watched from her Manhattan apartment, an elderly Chinese woman collecting empty aluminum cans from the pile of trash stack on the curb side ready for collection by the city. As a worker’s rights lawyer, she’s dedicated her profession in support of the working class, but these under-class citizens are a level lower in our societal hierarchy; surviving on a paltry existence as scavengers off what the rest of society throws away. And from this spark of humanity, Siyan was flamed to tell their story, tell it in a medium that she loves; that of art. And fast forward to our present time; her story of the under-class is told in her sole exhibition at New York Arts Center (78 Bowery) in the heart of Chinatown, from 10th November to 1st December.
Siyan Wong Solo Exhibition at New York Arts Center
As I conducted this interview with her, I realized that our paths had indeed crossed several years ago, when I was Master of Ceremony for a Haitian fundraising event organized by Karen Chung and at that time I knew her by her English name as Joane Wong. And perhaps fate has chosen this reunion, as she describes what her goals are for this exhibition beyond simply showcasing her artworks. She wants her art to inspire others to take action, others who can bring in solutions from the business and humanitarian spheres; social activists that can truly make a better difference to our world. But Siyan is not merely one for talking about actions, she walks as boldly as she talks, driving a campaign to buy back at 10 cents per can from these independent street collectors she calls Canners, double what the recycling stores are paying.
Campaign to increase recycling price of cans to 10 cents
Although as an artist, she has grown emotionally attached to her subjects who she interacts with on a daily basis in her neighborhood, she stated that the Canners are very private individuals, even amongst themselves. They tend to keep to their own invisibly marked designated scavenging territories, coming together only at the recycling sites, where like members of a worker’s union, they do help each other when needed.
Siyan’s masterful artworks has given us a glimpse into this underworld of under-class citizens, here in our local neighborhood that most of society passes by each day, oblivious to who they are, and what they have to do to survive. So while we are dashing frantically around fixated in a virtual world within our five hundred dollars or more smartphones, they are those that feed off our waste in the real world collecting our throwaway five cents cans.