NYC may get its first landmark related to Chinese American history

Posted On Tue, May 4, 2021 By

Posted On Tue, May 4, 2021 By In Chinatown, History, Landmarks Preservation Commission

Photo by Ken Lund on Flickr

The Landmarks Preservation Commission on Tuesday voted to calendar the Kimlau War Memorial, a tribute to Chinese American veterans located in Chinatown. Designed by architect Poy G. Lee, the memorial honors Americans of Chinese descent who died during World War II. If designated by the city, the Kimlau War Memorial would be New York City’s first individual landmark that relates specifically to Chinese American history and culture.

The decision to consider landmarking the memorial comes as the country marks Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month, and as the city continues to experience an uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes.

“I can’t think of a better time to consider a property that is significant to the Chinese community and I hope that action here would set the stage for considering more in the future,” LPC Chair Sarah Carroll said on Tuesday.

The memorial is located within Chatham Square, which was co-named Kimlau Square in 1961 in recognition of Lieutenant Benjamin Ralph Kimlau. Kimlau, a Chinese American from New York City, served as an Air Force bomber pilot in World War II and died in combat.

The American Legion, Lt. B.R. Kimlau Chinese Memorial Post 1291 was founded in 1945 by Chinese American veterans of World War II and named in honor of Kimlau. In the 1960s, American Legion asked the city to pay tribute to the Chinese Americans who served with a memorial dedicated to them. In 1961, Chatam Square was renamed and a year later, the Kimlau Memorial Arch was unveiled.

Designed by Lee, who was born on Mott Street in 1900 and later studied at the Pratt Institute, the Kimlau War Memorial was designed as a ceremonial gateway to Chinatown. The granite structure stands nearly 19 feet tall and features elements of traditional Chinese architecture and streamlined modernist design, according to Kate Lemos McHale, the director of research at LPC.

The monument, inscribed in both Chinese and English, reads: “In memory of Americans of Chinese Ancestry who lost their lives in the defense of freedom and democracy.”

Flanked by two benches, the site serves as a space for reflection and remembrance. It continues to serve as an annual site of celebration to honor war veterans and as a symbol of the contributions of Chinese Americans to the history of the United States.

“The arch and its two surrounding benches feature a streamlined interpretation of traditional Chinese architecture, with a peaked roof, interlocking brackets, and a symmetrical configuration,” reads a report from the LPC. “The arch itself is a typical Chinese architectural element that can be used both as a physical gateway or as a decorative symbol.”

While there are several significant landmarks in Chinatown, none are directly related to the history and culture of Chinese Americans. A public hearing on the designation of the Kimlau War Memorial will be scheduled in the coming weeks, followed by a public meeting and vote.

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