New York’s Invisible “Ecological Engineers”

On November 15, English teacher Annie Thoms’s Writing to Make Change classes visited Stuyvesant alumnus and artist Siyan Wong’s 𝘍𝘪𝘷𝘦 𝘊𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘴 𝘢 𝘊𝘢𝘯: 𝘔𝘢𝘬𝘪𝘯𝘨 𝘝𝘪𝘴𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘦 𝘵𝘩𝘦 𝘐𝘯𝘷𝘪𝘴𝘪𝘣𝘭𝘦 exhibit at Gallery 456 to learn about the exhibit’s goal of humanizing impoverished people.

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By Lenny Metlitsky

On November 15, English teacher Annie Thoms’s Writing to Make Change classes visited Stuyvesant alumna and artist Siyan Wong’s (‘93) Five Cents a Can: Making Visible the Invisible exhibit at Gallery 456 to learn about the exhibit’s goal of humanizing impoverished people. The exhibit revolved around a series of nine paintings that followed the lives of three “ecological engineers”—a humanizing term coined by Jean Rice in place of “canners”—as well as a few paintings from one of Wong’s previous exhibits. At the gallery, the students met with Wong; Lynn Lewis, founder of the Picture the Homeless Oral History Project; and Rice, Picture the Homeless board member and civil rights advocate.

Wong’s social advocacy throughout the 2000s began not with her artwork, but rather a job as a senior trial attorney at the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). “I got fired for insubordination [from an earlier job in college] because I was trying to ask for a meeting [to discuss conditions]. I was so shocked to my core about that injustice,” Wong said. She took this issue to the NLRB, where she began working after she graduated from law school. “I realized that more important than anything is the rights of people to be able to improve their working conditions. I don't need to earn so much money and I really enjoy my work, even [working] as a lawyer today.”

During the early 2000s, the existing garment factories in Chinatown began to close down, and production moved overseas. “By the time that 9/11 came about, it was like a death blow to the garment industry because of the closing of the streets. Trucks couldn't go in and pick up the clothing or deliver the supplies, which effectively closed the factories,” Wong said. “I had put out an ad [for a nanny for my child] in the Sing Tao newspaper. The next day, my phone went off the hook. I had to cancel the ad by noon, because I couldn't pick up the phone fast enough. I interviewed about 10 women, and I think eight out of 10 used to work in a garment factory. They were depressed. I could feel the sadness.” 

Throughout the next few years, Wong continued to see the effect of garment factory closures on her community. “In the year 2012, I was seeing a lot of canners. I noticed that there were a lot of Asian females in their late 50s, early 60s, or 70s,” Wong said. “That's when I began to question the work I [did] as a labor lawyer. It really [wasn’t] helping a very specific population that I am familiar with. Those people could be my mother. Their experience is completely not addressed, nobody knows about them—or nobody talks about them. So, I decided to do something about it.”

Wong started to paint the canners that she saw every day for months. “I figure that maybe the best thing I can do is to visually present the issue to the world and get people talking about it,” Wong said; these efforts resulted in the paintings presented in Five Cents a Can

The paintings follow three Chinese immigrant canners—Ah Xim, Choi Yee, and He Ping—exploring their stories in three works each. The first set of paintings depicts the canners’ careers in China, showing Choi Yee reaping the harvest of a grassy plantation and Ah Xim working as a nurse. The second set of paintings explores their jobs in New York City after immigrating to the U.S. with some working as home aides and others toiling in the taxing environments of the garment industry. Finally, the exhibit depicts brief glimpses into the lives of the canners, portraying aspects of the intense and unrewarding labor. 

Junior Oscar Zheng shared his experience visiting the exhibition: “I thought that just the general idea of painting a before, middle, and end of the lives of three ecological engineers on Siyan Wong’s part first of all grounded the artwork and made me think, damn, those are actual people,” Zheng said.

Wong’s unique artistic style is instantly recognizable in her works. For instance, she uses acrylic to create grass through paint layers, forming blades so stereoscopic that it seems you could reach out and touch them. This three-dimensional layering technique is complemented by her more abstract art style, creating works reminiscent of picture book illustrations. The way Wong captures so much of the canners’ livelihoods in just three paintings each is as impressive as it is poignant. 

Many Writing to Make Change students who visited the exhibit took Rice’s words and Wong’s exhibit to heart. “Jean Rice said that often there is a stigma around ecological engineers and how what canners do is often considered dirty work. In my neighborhood, I see them most often in the parks and playgrounds. Sometimes when [my family and I] hold picnics, we leave the empty bottles in a separate bag because it makes it easier for us to sort the trash and later for the ecological engineers to find the cans,” junior Yasong Feng said. 

Zheng shared his personal connection to the exhibit’s powerful content: “My grandparents on my father’s side actually were ecological engineers themselves, and I even remember myself helping them bring the bags upon bags of bottles to recycling centers when I was younger,” Zheng said. After the trip to the gallery, Zheng felt deeply moved. “I think the biggest takeaway I had was the realization that there were actually many issues that were right in front of my nose that I could still write about. I had never previously considered ecological engineers and their plight to be something I could write about, but it’s definitely a possibility now.”

One takeaway that students had from the exhibit was the significance of terminology when referring to people who collect cans. Rice fights to humanize “ecological engineers,” an alternative title to canners. “I coined the term ecological engineers during a training in 2007. [...] I wanted to make sure that the people who collect reusable recyclable containers know that they’re doing good,” Rice said. During his speech at the gallery and throughout the last two decades, Rice has praised the benefit of using a term with a more positive connotation to refer to those who collect cans. “The public should see how unified and diverse the retrieval of containers is.”

Rice and Wong weren’t the only ones at the exhibit who had a positive impact on reducing the stigma around homeless people. As a member of Picture the Homeless (PTH), a grassroots organization founded and led by homeless people to demand that their voices be heard at “all levels of decision-making that impact [them],” Lewis worked with Rice to advocate for the rights of homeless people and the expansion of New York’s Bottle Bill, formally called the Returnable Container Act (RCA). The RCA allows for the collection of cans and aims to increase recycling by providing an incentive to return beverage containers to retailers. “Picture the Homeless organized to make sure [...] that the Better Bottle Bill was not terminated [...] and we wanted to streamline the redeeming end of the retrieval process for people that worked so hard to pick up recyclable containers,” Rice said in the PTH Oral History Project

Wong originally reached out to Lewis and PTH to ensure the accuracy of her exhibit. “I was having this exhibit, the Lives of Three Canners, and it was not exactly how I wanted it. I wanted this to be educational. I'd been trying very hard to figure out how I was going to connect homelessness [with expert information], but I was not able to find anyone,” Wong said. “I saw that people were talking about Women Who Change the World: Stories from the Fight for Social Justice by Lynn Lewis. So I messaged her and we connected just like that. We chatted and discussed [my work] because she's worked on homelessness for pretty much her entire career.” Wong's artwork and Lewis’s activism combined to create an extraordinarily powerful exhibit that would not have been as effective without their collaboration.

Wong’s, Rice’s, and Lewis’s creative, interdisciplinary approach to activism aligns with Writing to Make Change’s emphasis on encouraging students to use their voices through means other than the  standard five-paragraph essay. In a world where overarching societal issues often feel too complicated to tackle, Wong proves how just one person following their passions can inspire others to do the same. She achieved just that by sharing her work with Thoms’s Writing to Make Change class; the students on the field trip will remember Wong’s message for years to come, utilizing her impactful activism techniques to brainstorm ways to get their own messages across as they advocate for causes they are passionate about.