Thousands of Chinese immigrants working at southeastern Connecticut casinos have adapted mid-20th-century ranch houses to their native traditions and the demands of communal living. Stephen Fan, 31, an architectural designer who grew up in Norwich, Conn., and runs a firm with projects from New York to Boston, has studied front-yard melon patches, garages turned into sociable sitting porches, and narrow, repartitioned bedrooms for “Sub Urbanisms: Casino Company-town, China-town,” anexhibition at the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London through May 12. (The museum is publishing a book based on the show, and a related symposium will be held March 29.)
Mr. Fan has documented hazardous byways where night-shift workers commute on foot, including a backyard path that some neighbors call “the Ho Chi Minh Trail,” and Chinese good-luck symbols that immigrants post on their front doors. He has also developed his own proposals for Norwich downtown attractions and communal housing. He recently led a reporter on a tour of the exhibition, nearby casinos and Chinese-owned homes, stopping off for dim sum at his parents’ restaurant, the Golden Palace, which he has helped renovate. (This interview was edited and condensed.)
Q. Why had no one studied this phenomenon before?
A. Probably due to language barriers. As a Chinese-American, I could enter the community and act as a linguistic and cultural bridge. It was architectural diplomacy. As a designer, I became fascinated by this human-centered, informal settlement of suburban ranch houses. Like many Americans, I grew up in a suburban home, and the showinvites visitors to question their own norms and values embedded within suburban living.
The exhibition shares some very charged comments from longstanding residents about the immigrants.
It highlights some negative perceptions of this community. I found a Wi-Fi network named “No Chinks Allowed.” I can only imagine what their password was. It makes one wonder about local ordinances that limit the number of unrelated people that can live in one house. Who is most affected? Why is that ordinance in place?
How did the workers react to your wanting to interview them?
Once they understood we had a shared goal, they were open. It was a way for them to tell their story from their perspective, to counter prevailing negative stereotypes. And it’s always entertaining to hear me speak Cantonese.
You mapped where they own houses and how they get to work.
They’ve created a fascinating form of urbanism within a mundane suburban landscape. They walk and bike to Mohegan Sun at all hours, to cover the 24-hour gambling enterprise. Walking to their job, however, also becomes a safety issue. You’ll see “Keep Off the Grass” signs and strings at the edge of the lawn, on what’s already a narrow strip that pedestrians can barely navigate. One could say it’s a subtle form of spatial segregation. It’s a conflict of property rights and the green lawn’s aesthetic pre-eminence versus public safety and public infrastructure — or lack thereof. At the same time, when I’ve offered rides to workers, they often decline. Even with half-hour walks each way to work, they appreciate the fresh air and like living in Connecticut for that reason.
Do they like living in shared housing?
There are advantages to their cooperative living, which might appeal to some, like empty nesters, single parents or those seeking a stronger sense of community. Some buy in bulk and share meals, chores and child care and translation services. This isn’t to say there aren’t disputes: We’ve found handwritten signs like “Avoid unnecessary conflict,” which makes me wonder what are their “necessary conflicts.”
Their front yards look amazing, with the recycled wood fencesand the vegetables instead of lawns and driveways.
It’s innovative uses of available resources. One owner appropriated a neighbor’s tree trimmings to create an almost Art Nouveau gate. And instead of hanging laundry, they dry fish. It tastes better than laundry, but it’s also more pungent.
Did anyone express an urgent wish to get out of these neighborhoods?
They’re here by choice. The only complaint is that it’s kind of boring. Though it’s a casino town, it’s not Vegas.
When you invited your interviewees to the show, how did they react?
Excited, interested and curious. For some, it’s their first time in a museum, let alone a museum featuring them.