At the He Zhen Snap Button Company at 166 Mott Street, Mr. Li (his name is He Zhen, but everyone calls him Mr. Li) has spent the past 32 years machine-stamping snaps, studs, and rivets into clothing. Any time I've walked by, there have been men inside, hanging out, talking, watching a televised soccer match. It's that kind of neighborhood place.
Recently, I went by to find an art gallery in the button shop's space. My heart sank, thinking that yet another gallery had taken over a mom-and-pop garment business, a trend that's been happening up and down the Lower East Side and into Chinatown. But something felt different about this one. I went inside and discovered a more compelling local story.
Above the paintings, stacked on shelves, are clear boxes crammed with buttons. Not props for authenticity's sake, this is the real thing. In the back room, Mr. Li still has his workshop, with a phalanx of stamping machines and a well-organized array of buttons on the walls and hanging in bags from the ceiling.
His daughter, Amy Li, runs the gallery. First-generation Chinese-American, Amy grew up on the same block as the button shop. She studied painting and art history at Hunter College, and recently received a master’s in arts administration from the Savannah College of Art and Design. Much of the work by artists in her current show, Karmic Play, takes off on images from popular culture: silkscreened Kim Kardashian heads done in Warhol style, Philip IV in a UPS uniform, t-shirts that read, "I AM BANKSY."
Amy opened her first show in September, planning to stop at just one and then relinquish the space back to her father. She was searching for a full-time job, but the artists' work sold so well, she took it as a sign to continue.
She and her dad co-exist peaceably in the shared space. At first, he needed some convincing to let her open shop. "I asked very nicely," Amy explained, "and promised not to do anything crazy. No performance art. I told him I wouldn't destroy the place."
"When I was growing up," she recalls, the shop "was packed with 6-foot-high piles of clothing. The clothes usually smelled like cat urine because the sweatshops that did the sewing beforehand raised cats. There were constant sounds of workers operating heavy machinery to apply metal buttons to the clothing. Today the business is mostly wholesale and small jobs applying buttons for fashion designers."
The button shop is known as a spot for neighbors to gather. Some might think it's a social club. As Amy said, "One of my friends always thought it was a club for old Chinese men to chain-smoke and watch television."
Though they can't watch TV in the shop anymore, the local community has been very supportive of Amy's endeavor. Some of her father's customers have worried that his business is closing. "I’ve had to do some explaining, but they like the idea of the gallery."
And selling art out of a functioning button shop has its advantages. "It has helped me stand out," says Amy, "and also provides character and personality. As a start-up, I would have failed if I sat in a white box. The button store attracts many visitors and allows me to have conversations with anyone who walks in. Artists think it’s a humble and cool space."
She hopes eventually to move to Chelsea or to open a second gallery there. She'd like a larger space for mounting solo exhibitions and bigger shows. Besides, she says, "I’ve been told that if I want to be anything, I can’t stay in a Chinatown button shop."
For more information about the gallery and its artists, please visit the Amy Li Projects online and at Facebook.