This past winter, Wing On Wo & Co's The W.O.W Project hosted their very first artist residency to coincide with the Lunar New Year. China Residencies and Wing On Wo put out an open call for creative activations of the 26 Mott Street storefront, generously supported by Nom Wah. The residency jury selected Melissa Liu as the inaugural resident to create a series of oral history workshops, silkscreened red envelopes, a window display, and a series of public events and talks around intergenerational dialogue and activism within communities of the Asian diaspora.
China Residencies: How did you hear about the 店面 Residency?
Melissa Liu: I first heard about the W.O.W Project because of their “Chinatown: New York’s Newest Gallery Scene?” anti-gentrification panel. After that, I started following their work on Facebook. And a few months later, I was at the Asian American Fund for Equality’s (AAFE) community development conference, in which Mei was on a panel with Ryan Wong about bridging the intergenerational gap in social justice organizing, which was helpful in planting a seed for me to push forward with my own work around this issue. So when I saw the call for proposals for the W.O.W residency, I was excited to apply with the idea that I would do a participatory project around intergenerational organizing through oral histories and red envelopes.
CR: Had you already come up with the Lunar New Year Red Envelope Oral History Project prior to applying or were you inspired to create it once you saw the call for applications?
ML: I had wanted to find a creative way to encourage myself and those around me from the Asian Diaspora to connect with those in our community with whom we have a cultural or generational gap, and when I was considering the call for proposal, I thought immediately of incorporating red envelopes because they are the first thing that comes to mind for me around Lunar New Year. Red envelopes fit really well with what I wanted to explore in doing a project like this since the tradition of giving red envelopes is naturally intergenerational and reaches across borders
handmade 红包 red envelopes from Melissa's first workshop
CR: Can you tell us about your connection to Chinatown and its community?
ML: My closest connection to Chinatown is that my grand aunt and grand uncle have lived in the neighborhood in Confucius Plaza since they immigrated to New York. My first memories of New York are of Chinatown, when my mom, dad, sister, and I would visit. For my time in the city, we stayed in their one bedroom apartment in Confucius Plaza, which houses mostly Chinese tenants.
I have distinct memories of being in Chinatown from those first few times I visited since I grew up in a suburb where I wasn’t surrounded by a Chinese-specific community. Because of those memories and the time I spend there now as a New Yorker, Chinatown has a special significance to me and I understand the urgency of anti-gentrification efforts in the neighborhood. My granduncle has lived in NYC speaking only cantonese, as he immigrated here later in his life, and I wouldn’t want to see this community disrupted which would have immense consequence for those who have called it home and are part of the community of immigrants who live there.
CR: Tell us briefly about some of the projects you worked on before your project at WOW.
ML: I worked as a cultural organizer in various capacities doing programming, communications, and participating in actions for Art and Labor and its Alternative Economies working group. I also worked with other board volunteers for Museum Hue. And I volunteered with The Laundromat Project before working there, doing a few cooking workshops at The Kelly Street Garden, when I started thinking about my relationship to my own cultural diaspora through food. My oral history experience before this project came from the work I did with Columbia's Center for Oral History.
CR: Central to your residency were oral history workshops. Can you tell us about those?
ML: For me, the window display was more so a way for those who didn’t participate to glimpse into this collective experience of those who were involved in this project and their stories. I came into doing this work as someone who had learned a little about what oral history is from my own work and academic experiences, so the oral history workshops weren’t really about me teaching what oral history is to others, but more so creating a space of collective learning and imagining around what oral history can be in reaching across generations. My intention in setting up these workshops were to also share skills and experiences that could help us be more successful in having conversations with others in our community and building solidarity around that.
I was also intentional in how I designed the workshops, which were meant to be intimate and safe spaces for sharing, which is why I limited participation to those who identify with the Asian Diaspora and celebrate Lunar New Year. I think having the common experience of this holiday made it easier for us to converse about ourselves and our memories. These oral history workshops ultimately ended becoming a way for me to collect multiple oral histories in a way that wouldn’t have been able to otherwise, as it would’ve been difficult to meet with that many people on an individual basis during the short time of the residency.
Melissa leading an oral history workshop
CR: How did you conceive the window design itself?
ML: The only clear idea I had for the window design before this project started was that I would have a TV or projected screen of sorts displaying transcribed oral histories. I wanted to let the other elements of the window display be inspired by what came from people’s stories through the series of workshops I held. Ultimately, that led to my ideas of create large “red envelopes” for the window display that had screen-printed icons on them (inspired by the pictograms from Bing Lee’s Empress Journey piece in the Canal St stop part inspired by mobile app “icons” like WeChat’s).
I want to shout out Juliet Phillips and Mei since they were also instrumental in helping me figure out an integral part of the window display, which was the ancestral shrine made of crate wood that housed the TV with the oral histories on them. This was my first time designing a 3-dimensional window display as well as working with certain aspects of art installation, so working with Juliet, Mei, and her father Gary was really helpful in making a visual idea actually become a reality.
The 店面 window display during the opening.
CR: What were some of the other collaborative aspects of this project?
I worked with the WOW team, as well as the community of people who participated in this project through the red envelope making and oral history workshops. However, early on, when I was developing my red envelope oral histories workshop into what it would become, I wanted to design screen to be used for screenprinting red envelope designs in the workshops. My grand aunt introduced me to my grand uncle's friend Mr. Liao at Confucius Florist, who was one of my first project collaborators. He wrote calligraphy for a few of the phrases that are commonly written during Lunar New Year.
Another huge collaborative aspect of doing this work was working with China Residencies, and Emma in particular, as well as the generous interns and volunteers who helped out along the way, like W.O.W intern Michelle provided transcription support and Sam Gong, who made the translation of the transcriptions possible.
Screen-printing red envelope patterns
CR: What were some of the challenges? What was easier or more difficult than you expected?
ML: As I was getting deeper into my own creative practice and the residency project, I encountered the challenge of time and over/underestimating one’s capacity. I found out that I got the residency last year during the holiday season and got started right before January, but as the workshops leading up to the window display were happening, I realized that parts of my vision for the project may have been too ambitious considering I had a little over a month until Lunar New Year. I also wasn’t expecting the outcome of the U.S. presidential election to be what is was, the outcome of which was a challenge to work with since it really changed how many of us were feeling and our balance of energy. I think doing this project during a political moment like this did allow me to stay focused on something that brought me joy, but also made me question if I should also be spending more time out in the streets at the many protests and responsive actions that were happening. The weekend before the opening was the Women’s March in D.C., during which I ultimately watch happen while in my studio since I felt I needed to use that time to get my window display together.
Another challenge, a worthwhile one, in doing a project that is community engaged and participatory is learning how to work with others and be collaborative. I think that is contrary to what many typically think about artist, which is that we should be spending time alone in a studio making our work. For me, a lot of the work was having the time to be out there with people and get our stories together in a way that can be shared with a wider audience.
CR: Do you think your work has changed significantly as a result of this residency? If yes, how so?
ML: Of course! I think effective residencies expand one’s thinking and approach to their creative practice. For me, working in a residency that was specific to Chinatown and centered around the communities that WOW project has challenged me to think about my accountability and role as an artist in doing a project like this and what it means to enter and exit community.
CR: Tell us about the opening. Was that an important part of the experience. Why?
ML: Yes, it was the first time the supporters and participants of this project got to see the window display with it’s visual elements and transcribe excerpts of the oral histories that were collected. It was open to the public, and I met a lot of people who I continue to see now at other Chinatown-based art projects. I think the preparation before the opening was also an important part because it pushed me to work on a tight deadline before Lunar New Year, which was challenging but ended up working well in terms of getting the window display up before the busiest holiday of the year in Chinatown.
CR: You organized an arts and activism round-table and artist talk at the end of your residency. Why did you want to close out your residency with this? How did you choose the participants and respondents that you did?
ML: I was asked to end my residency with an artist talk, but felt that so much of this project was more than just me doing a creative project as an artist. I think in going through this experience, I encouraged the histories of community engaged artists and their projects going back to the work of basement workshop and other Asian American collectives. My oral history-focused project is situated in the legacy of these artists who were also thinking of community activism and organizing, and I wanted to amplify this through doing a roundtable in addition to a talk. My project was inspired by my desire explore doing artistic work alongside others while advancing conversation and action around the issues and politics of our time, and intergenerational and cultural difference. So the roundtable ended up focusing more on Asian American artists today and the work they are doing to represent their diasporas, advocate for their communities, advance social justice, and fight oppression. The participants were collectives, peers, or collaborators who I found could speak to how they were approaching arts and activism, some of whom I’ve met in doing this work, and other who I’ve seen doing work recently or were introduced to.
Melissa moderating a panel during the Art and Activism discussions at the Museum of Chinese in America.
CR: What does this project look like to you long-term? What do you plan to continue?
ML: I’ve been speaking to The W.O.W. project about how this project will continue to live on, especially in how it’ll be publicly accessible after the de-installation of the window display. My shared vision with Mei and The W.O.W team is that the oral histories will be housed on the W.O.W Project website in a multitude of forms and I hope in the future I can also program events and in-person experiences around it to allow others to come together and share about their stories as part of the Asian Diaspora. Most recently for the one-year anniversary of The W.O.W project, Mei and I reached out to former participants in the project, inviting them to participate in the open mic. What I learned from this project that is everyone in their own right has a compelling story and their own creative ability and goals. To me, the most important part of this project was giving others a chance to explore and share that!
CR: Overall, what experience or encounter will stay with you from this time?
ML: I’ve learned so much from my experience as the inaugural artist-in-residence at The W.O.W Project about my relationship to cultural as a Chinese-American, my own practice as an artist, and the many ways organizing and community building has taken place in Chinatown and other Asian Diasporic communities. This experience of being able to take time and intention in learning while doing has been so valuable to me and will stay with me as I continue this project and my future work. Having been in what we refer to as the “art world,” this experience has shown me that other ways of artmaking and being an artist are possible and that we can continue to challenge others about what art is. I should add that having this artist residency coincide with the 2016 election and the first 100 days of the current presidency also reminded me that the personal is political, and artmaking can be a part of radical resistance in representing and standing up for our identities and histories.
This interview was conducted over email on May 23 by Emma Karasz for China Residencies.