Omens in Chinatown

2018

User Research, Art
3 months, individual project
Commissioned by the Chinese Culture Center

Activating the local community via an interactive installation. Combining user research and art, I created a crowd-sourced wishing well that empowers the voices of women in Chinatown San Francisco.






Chinatown exhibit explores gender equity in immigrant communities"

– Hoodline


The Chinese Culture Center collaborated with lead artist Laura Boles Faw to kickstart the exhibition Women​ ​in​ ​Chinatown:​ ​Reimagining​ ​Symbols​ ​of​ ​Power​ ​and​ ​Access. They wanted to find artists to develop work that “explore issues of gender and struggles for equity in the neighborhood and city while building connections with community members.” (Chinese Culture Center)

I was chosen as 1 of 3 artists, alongside Vida Kuang and Shishi Huang, to participate in this project.

As a Chinese-American raised in Chinatown, it was a perfect opportunity. This was a chance to activate a local space and empower the people I grew up and live with.

Exhibition

Womxn, Omen, Wǒmén in Chinatown:
Reimagining Symbols of Power and Access
41 Ross Gallery
Exhibit: May 4th - June 17th, 2018


The Project

There were three primary constraints for the project. The project had to be interactive. It should highlight the voices of women in Chinatown. And, the project had to reimagine what "symbols of power and access" meant to the community. My job was to translate this idea into an installation.



It was only right to talk to the actual people this project is dedicated toward. I wanted to know:

  • What empowers the women of Chinatown?
  • Who or what are the symbols of power and access?
  • What engages a community that may not have interest in contemporary art?






Empathizing with the Community

Luckily, I had easy access: my mom, aunts, and a number of childhood friends, fit the bill for who I needed to talk to :) Quick chats with 6 people let me understand some things:

  • In a very Chinese spirit, these women in Chinatown don’t find empowerment from our government.
  • They cared little about art and visual representation in the neighborhood. (“Too busy!”)
  • They didn’t feel like they had to be given anything. They were proud of their ability to be resourceful and make the best of every situation.
  • They are highly invested in their own family, so news/events/art projects that really place them at the center is much more meaningful.





Empowerment by Belief

There are grandmothers well into their eighties that continue to work, whether by killing chickens for neighbors or by collecting recycling cans. To find empowerment, these women persist not by the aid of an external force, but by their own determination and resilience.

What was the best medium to carry this message? On my walk back to the neighborhood one day, an idea struck: Superstition as an agent for empowerment.

The power of superstition and spirituality permeates across the Chinese community. Chinatown storefronts showcase beckoning cats and small money trees that call forth good luck and fortune. One 80-year old woman delayed a flight by throwing a “lucky coin” into the plane engine. In Buddhist shrines, children and adults alike throwing coins at stone turtles for good omens and longevity.

The simple existence of these objects, gold or plastic, provide the believer with psychological protection through pure symbolism. Whether it is century-old sculpture at a grand temple or a janky figurine on the floor corner, the object embodies equal auspicious power.



The Installation

Omens in Chinatown is a crowd-sourced wishing well that combines elements from traditional Chinese superstition, coin-throwing culture, and carnival games to address and empower the mental fortitude of women in Chinatown.



Community at the forefront

I collected 100 objects, purchased or donated, from different women in Chinatown. I asked each person, "What wish do you have for yourself or the community?" That wish was then bestowed as an omen to the object.

During the exhibit, visitors can throw coins at these neo-auspicious objects to pray for an omen of their choice. Those that believe will be empowered by their own thinking.

Placing the voice of each contributor at the forefront meant a direct connection between them and the art installation. People came in to see their contribution, and some brought friends.

Addressing adversity with optimism

The community faced their challenges with a positive spirit. It was important that the project relayed that tone. By personifying each object, solemn topics could be approached in a light-hearted, welcoming manner.

“Artists previously in this space had talked about the concerns of the community in a very heavy, serious tone. You addressed these same issues but managed to make it fun.”

– Visitor




Outcome

The installation was exhibited for 2.5 months.

  • 428 wishes collected
  • 82 quarters, 43 dimes, 43 nickles, 250 pennies, 10 international travelers
  • $29.45 worth of hopes & dreams
  • The installation was invited to exhibit again at the 2018 Annual Gala for the Chinese Culture Center.
  • Local tours brought visitors in to learn about the community.
  • I realized there are people living in San Francisco that didn’t know ABC stood for American-born Chinese. :’)
  • One child loved the inflatable, which forced their grandma to stop by multiple times. (Hehehehehe)
  • I got approached by a fortune-teller.