Memorial Day weekend came and went like a blur. Every time I have a three-day weekend, I say to myself, why can’t it always be a 3-day weekend? Wouldn’t that be perfect? Of course, it’s never truly a 3-day weekend when you inject work into one of the day to prepare for the week in advance. In any case, I didn’t want to travel far this time and decided to just keep it close to home.
This past two months, Season of Cambodia, an initiative to bring awareness of Cambodian art and culture has taken over Manhattan by the storm. It has received many great reviews and receptions and I was lucky enough to go to many of the events. As it comes to a close, there was an announcement about a residencies with many Khmer artists located in Governor’s Island. Keen on checking this out, I got a chance to leave the house and enjoy the little beautiful weather New York got.
Governor’s Island was only opened to the public as long as I’ve lived to New York since 2005. I remembered the first time I visited and it was such a lonely island with barely any visitors. Now it’s a bustling little island with tourists from around the world visiting. There’s festivals and boat docking that take you on a tour of lower Manhattan. You can even take a step back into time to see old games, old jazz parties, even Ascot racing! For the history buff like myself, this is one of the few places in New York City where I can lay down and imagine I were living the roaring 20s.
Docking the boat from Slip 16, just a few stones away from the Staten Island Ferry Station, one gets a free, albeit less than 15 minute ride, across the East River.
You could spend a whole day at Governor’s Island, picnicking, biking, taking historical tours, or just laying on the park. But since I’ve visited it many times, I came with a purpose. I was going to check out the Open Studios. Of course, trying to beat the afternoon crowd, I got there before the studio even opened. So I veered off to see Castle Williams.
It’s not really a castle. It’s actually a uniquely designed fort, instead of the traditional star shape fort which you can find throughout lower Manhattan (for example, did you know that the Statue of Liberty sits on a star-shaped military base?). I remembered the first time I visited Castle Williams, it was quite sparse. Bricks were a tattered and the walls looked like they would sooner lay collapsed than hold it up. This time, I could see work had been done, speckles and reinforcements were in place. Event drapes hung high from the ceilings. And in the center, you’ll find a replica of Castle Williams.
It’s not a huge fort when you enter the courtyard or survey the first floor of cells. But I was fortunate enough to talk to a ranger who was giving a tour that would take us to the roof! If you ever get a chance, talk to the park ranger. They give a tour every hour or so and you’ll get to see the other sections of the castle that are cornered off from the general public. The stairs are high, the rooms are stuffy, and there’s a lot of echo so I don’t recommend bringing children.
Old iron-wrought stairs, tiny and claustrophobic always makes me question, were people smaller in the old days? Probably, since recent statistics have shown Americans have increase in size several times over. I love spiral staircases, to look at but not to walk up. They are a hazard waiting to happen. But I so enjoy the old-world feel they give a place. And Castle Williams offers this extraordinary piece.
The first cell we were shown were quite spacious. I thought, what could be so wrong about it? Of course, you find out that it used to fit 60 people. 60 people! They had to switch turn sleeping and standing, with no basic plumbing. A chamber pot! The horror! We were then shown the solitary cell. I would be scared out of my wits if I were visiting the place at night. It turns out when the Coast Guards used to own the island, they had family day and one of their big event was Halloween. Could you imagine how they decorated these solitary cells and tried to be the scariest of all? Fathers would hang around, arms dangling in the dark, grasping for fleshy youths. Scary, indeed.
Finally, after the 3rd floor, we reached the roof! What a breathtaking view of the city line! You would be amazed, getting a full 360 degree view of your surrounding. Cannons of old still sit atop pointed at the city in case of a phantom emergency, waiting breathlessly until they become like petrified woods, lost in time.
After the tour, I finally made my way back to my original plan, the open studios. I don’t often go to open studios. I always find it awkward looking at the art and not talking to the artist. It’s not that I don’t like their art. It’s just I don’t know how to talk to people. I enjoy lifeless art. They speak more to me than people. They featured Khmer artists in the front room and I thought they were good until I walked around the other side and saw some amazing works by other artists in residencies! I do support my people’s work because it’s great to see how far along they’ve come since the war. It makes me proud. Where I grew up, Khmer were known for all the bad things, the wrong things. Here, Season of Cambodia uplifts and shows the wonderful side our people can make and become.
The trip ends with a quieter ferry ride. It never ceases to amaze me how beautiful Manhattan is and how fragile we are.
- Governor’s Island is NOT where the governor lived. It was named for “his majesty’s governors”, British soldiers who kept a fort here.
- Castle William was designed by Colonel Williams, hence the name of the castle. It was a unique architecture and used sandstone instead of granite (from New Jersey). It’s 6-8 feet wall depth.
- The Colonel was so sure of its strength that he stood in the center of the fort and had a few of his buddies shoot at it, and that was the only action the fort ever saw.
- It was turned into a military prison for Civil War criminals before turning into a rehabilitation center for criminals.
- The military then gave it to the Coast Guard.
- Then finally, it was sold back to the people of New York. It does not allow for cars, only bikes and golf carts are seen moving about.