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Encore: A new app guides visitors through NYC's Chinatown with hidden stories

MARY LOUISE KELLY, HOST:

Visit one of America's Chinatown neighborhoods and you might find yourself focusing on the vibrant street culture. But there are details you might miss. NPR's Jennifer Vanasco reports on an app that takes visitors around Manhattan's Chinatown in a new way through voices and oral histories.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #1: Yeah, my mom is from Taiwan.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #2: I think they were in an era where most people just thought that going to America would immediately mean prosperity.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #3: That's a very kind of sad story because...

JENNIFER VANASCO, BYLINE: That's from Family Association, a new app that helps visitors experience Chinatown in a different way. Using geolocation, listeners can follow the included map and wander around. And as they move, the soundscape changes. Composer George Tsz-Kwan Lam created the app, and he walked me around the neighborhood to show me how it works.

GEORGE TSZ-KWAN LAM: I am thinking that if I embed these stories within music and also within a place, you start connecting with, oh, well, I've walked by this building so many times, and now I can associate with this voice that's talking about how this person came here or who their grandfather was.

VANASCO: For the oral histories, Lam interviewed five Chinese Americans who grew up around the country, and he set their stories to music.

LAM: One of the challenges of oral history is that, sometimes, they just get locked up in the archive. I think partly it's because it's hard to relate to some of these stories, right? They can be very personal.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #4: His distant aunt worked in a garment factory, but he didn't know which one. So he went knocking to each - knocking on the door for every garment factory that he could.

VANASCO: Central to the map are five Chinese family associations. They're civic associations that since the 1800s have connected new immigrants with those already here. The audio soundscape centers around them, just like the associations are a center for immigrants and their children to connect with each other. If you're near the Wong family association, you'll hear this.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON #5: Just a really good access point, I think, for Chinese immigrants who come from a more old generation and kind of younger Chinese Americans trying to understand it and maybe pick up a little bit of these traditions and pass it on.

VANASCO: Lam says he wanted to use the piece itself as a kind of family association to bring people's memories and experiences of Chinatown together in one place. Jennifer Vanasco, NPR News, New York. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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