Through the Restaurant: Art as Mechanisms of Asian American Identity
For 25 years Seattle's historically redlined Chinatown, now called the International District, was home to Chau's International Seafood Restaurant. The old site on 4th and Jackson recently became a sparkly new chain drugstore, one of the many looming displays of the constant urban economic and ethnic displacement this cultural community has faced for decades. A couple blocks away, the building that housed Mon Hei - the bakery responsible for half of my childhood breakfast meals - sits vacant surrounded by construction notices and yellow tape. A few blocks farther is a parcel with a Kung Fu dojo and hookah lounge slated to become a Marriot, despite a neighboring nonprofit's efforts to acquire the land for expanding senior services. Gentrification is a relentless beast with widespread impact on individuals and communities.
Sabrina Chau was only 8 years old when her father's side of the family closed the doors of their
establishment for the final time, but the sentiments and imagery of growing up within its walls are still vivid in her mind. In her series "Through the Restaurant", the 20 year old visual artist and director/art coordinator of Lifetime Supply Club channels the power of these memories into a self-exploratory reclamation of Asian American identity and heritage. Sabrina's interpretation of artifacts found in the restaurant are much more than the physical reconstruction of the mundane objects she references -a neon sign and a billboard for example, which she found in the handful of surviving photos of the establishment. In this [consumer capitalist society?] that often only values non-white culture as commodity, "Through the Restaurant" is an act of creative resistance against the erasure of her family history as well as a redefinition of her role in carrying it forward. Below are her reflections on the series and process in her own words:
Q. How would you characterize your work and approach overall as an artist and how did this project differ and/or open new space? A. "Overall, I think of myself as an artist that explores a lot of the things that surround me as a woman of color, nature, and tenderness/wholeness. Like I've been working on a series right now that is all about the comfort of the womb. I approached [Through the Restaurant] more as a grasp for what I know I'm losing, the culture and family and food around that. This project was the first time I worked with wood and opened up the idea of recreation of what has both been destroyed and lost. It was a great reintroduction into what a Chinese restaurant represents, in itself, in Chinese culture, and symbolism." Q. You had a showing of this series entitled ID, and before that, your father's side of the family
wasn't aware you were working on this project. What was their reaction? A. "My favorite was my dad's reaction. It was my grandpa's restaurant, and it was the restaurant he opened when he first moved to the states. We had been there for 25 or so years, and my dad worked there since he was 12. Grandpa had a lot of pride about the restaurant, and when my dad saw the signs of his old restaurant he started to glow and his eyes became so soft. He told me he was so proud, that it brings back so many memories for him, and that my grandpa would be incredibly proud. Lots of hugs were shared and photos were taken. There are almost no memorabilia from the restaurant, and practically no record online because it closed before the internet was big, and so to have a real, tangible piece of what the restaurant was and had created through me as an artist, was a lot for him. He looked so proud to be my dad."
Q. Your answer to that question made both of us tear up because for our generation of Chinese Americans, it can be rare to experience such connections with our elders who express and internalize their emotions so differently. Did you anticipate this response? And overall, what did you learn in the process of creating and sharing this series? A. "I had hoped that my family would see what I had done and be proud. Especially to know that although I was raised in the states, that it's impossible to overcome the inevitable loss of a beautiful culture, but that I am trying. I'm trying to keep what I once tried to hide what made me different of, absolutely alive and more proud than ever. When I decided what my project would be, it seemed to be the tip of an iceberg I've never explored, but yet a part of who I was. I learned more about Chinese culture, Chinese restaurants, my family, and how this ended up shaping an 8 year old visual artist."
Q. If this is the tip of the iceberg, what can we expect from Sabrina Chau in the future? "An empowered and proud woman of color, charged by self love and appreciation for her culture. I’m so ready to explore, express, and learn about a heritage that is a big part of who I am. Once I began to chip away at the surface of my own family, the traditions and the cultural tendencies within a family owned Chinese restaurant for example were also incredibly interesting to me. It’s like a rabbit hole, a really deep but beautifully interesting and rich in matter rabbit hole. It’s only going to get better from here." Q. What do you want others to take away? A. "I had made this piece more for me and my family than anything, and I hope that through this artwork an audience can see the culture still living through a second generation artist. It lives through my experiences, my hands, and what I create!" Q. What would you say to other artists who may be hesitant to tackle aspects of their identity they feel disconnected or alienated from due loss of language, culture, continuity in identify? A. "Don’t hesitate. The work I’ve produced about myself and my culture that I’ve lost is some of the most important, content rich, and exciting work that’ve done. You have a lot of beautiful history as a person of color, and don’t let anything get in the way of you expressing that. We’ve been taught to be quiet and not proud, but it creates some of the best work out there. People want to hear what you have to say, so don’t be afraid to share."
image descriptions: (to be posted)
Sabrina Chau is a Seattle born artist/designer/crafter. She identifies as Chinese and Taiwanese and is passionate about the subjects that surround her as a woman of color. She is passionate about social change and the impact of art in everyday life.