Archive for the ‘Art’ Category

On this last day of APA Heritage Month, I wanted to remember the thrilling poetry reading I curated at SOMArts Gallery in San Francisco earlier this May. (These amazing photographs were taken by Shahrukh Faquih. See the full set here: Navigating the underCurrents)

We had such a great turnout for the AAPICC (Asian American Pacific Islander Culture Center) and AAWAA (Asian American Women Artists Association) co-sponsored event!

Poets wrote original poems inspired by an artwork in the “underCurrents & the Quest for Space” exhibition. SOMArts-bartender SOMArts-Calvillo-2 SOMArts-Calvillo SOMArts-crowd-2 SOMArts-crowd-mido SOMArts-crowd SOMArts-Frances-1 SOMArts-frances-2 SOMArts-guy SOMArts-Kimono SOMArts-Linda-Bory SOMArts-Ploy-2 SOMArts-Ploy SOMArts-Seigel SOMArts-Shiz-May-lee SOMArts-Shizue-2 SOMArts-Shizue SOMArts-Shobha-2 SOMArts-Shobha-3 SOMArts-Shobha-Ploy SOMArts-Shobha SOMArts-Susan-Amy May-lee-SOMArts

In several cases, the poets were able to meet face-to-face with the artists who created the works that inspired them.


There was an amazing group of poets who participated: Amy K. Bell, Susan Calvillo, Ploy Pirapokin, Shobha Rao, Shizue Seigel, Bory Thach, and Frances Kai-Hwa Wang. Their work represented many different forms of poetry–from narrative to language poetry.

It was a lovely evening!

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Save the date! I’m curating this poetry reading:

Poetry Reading: Navigating the underCurrents, May 15

What: Poetry Reading: Navigating the underCurrents

When: Wednesday, May 15, 7–8:30pm

Where: 934 Brannan St. (between 8th & 9th)

How Much: Free admission.

Bay Area author and international journalist, May-lee Chai curates this poetry reading inspired and surrounded by the socio-political visual art works during the underCurrents & the Quest for Space art exhibition at SOMArts Cultural Center, as part of Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center’s (APICC’s) Annual United States of Asian American Art Festival.

The activist poets read their original poems in reaction to specific art pieces, challenging the status quo and proposing new aesthetic spaces. The reading, which will take place in front of the art piece that inspired each poet, will question our concepts and assumptions of gender, race, class, nationality, and the constructed femininity used to silence Asian American women throughout history.


Amy K. Bell writes fiction and poetry. Her chapbook, Book of Sibyl, is forthcoming from The Gorilla Press (thegorillapress.com). She studies writing at San Francisco State University’s MFA program and lives in Oakland. Find more of her work at amykbell.com.

Susan Calvillo is a Chinese- and Mexican-American poet whose work has appeared or is forthcoming in West Wind Review, New American Writing, Zyzzyva, LUMINA, Davis PoetryAnthology, Gesture Zine, and others. An excerpt of her Dual Duel poetry collection received an honorable mention from The Academy of American Poets for the Harold Taylor Prize.

Ploy Pirapokin is a Thai born, Hong Kong native, and an MFA candidate in Fiction at San Francisco State University. Her work will be featured in the sixth anthology of the World Englishes Literature series coming late 2013, and she has been accepted to the post-MFA summer residency at the City University of Hong Kong. She is now working on a collection of short stories grounded in Asia focusing on themes such as identity development, third world culture kids, and scary Asian parents.

Shobha Rao is currently pursuing an MFA at San Francisco State University. Her work has been published by Gorilla Press and in the anthology Building Bridges and will be forthcoming in Tincture. She was awarded the Gita Specker First Place Award for Best Dramatic Monologue by the San Francisco Browning Society in 2013. Previously she practiced as a lawyer in the areas of domestic violence and immigration law. She lives in San Francisco.

Shizue Seigel is a third-generation Japanese American writer and visual artist whose paintings, mixed media and photo collage explore complex intersections of history, culture and spirituality.  Her artwork has appeared in local, national and international group exhibitions. She authored In Good Conscience: Supporting Japanese Americans During the Internmentand her poetry and prose have been published in numerous anthologies.

Bory Thach was born in Khao I Dang, a refugee camp on the Thai and Cambodian border.  He is an Iraq War veteran and graduate M.F.A. student at California State University San Bernardino.  He enjoys writing fiction and poetry.  He currently lives in San Bernardino, CA.

Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a second-generation Chinese American from California who now divides her time between Michigan and the Big Island of Hawai’i. She was the arts and culture editor of IMDiversity.com Asian American Village, wrote a nationally syndicated column called “Adventures in Multicultural Living,” and is also a contributor for New America Media’s Ethnoblog, Chicago is the World, Pacific Citizen, InCultureParent.com, and HuffPost Live. She is the author of Imaginary Affairs—Postcards from an Imagined Life andWhere the Lava Meets the Sea—Asian Pacific American Postcards from Hawaii, available at Blacklava.net. Check out her blog at franceskaihwawang.blogspot.com and her website at franceskaihwawang.com.


May-lee Chai is the author of seven books, including the memoir Hapa Girl, which was a 2008 Kiriyama Prize Notable Book, and most recently the novel Dragon Chica. A former reporter for the Associated Press, she is a frequent contributor to The Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine. Her fiction and essays have appeared in numerous journals, magazines, and anthologies. She is the recipient of an NEA grant in literature.


Asian American Women Artists Association (AAWAA) is a nonprofit arts organization dedicated to ensuring the visibility and documentation of Asian American women in the arts. Through exhibitions, publications, and educational programs, we offer thought-provoking perspectives that challenge societal assumptions and promote dialogue. www.aawaa.net

Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center (APICC) supports and produces multi-disciplinary art reflective of the unique experiences of Asian Pacific Islanders living in the United States. underCurrents is featured as part of Asian Pacific Islander Cultural Center’s  (APICC) 16th Annual United States of Asian America Festival at SOMArts Cultural Center. www.apiculturalcenter.org

Pictured: Alexandra Lee’s “Do I Dare” 

(From the SOMArts web calendar. Written by Jess in News)

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I saw the cover for my new novel, Tiger Girl, for the first time this week. And it is GORGEOUS!

I’m so excited that I just had to share it with everyone!


TIGER GIRL is coming this October 2013 from GemmaMedia.

Tiger Girl continues the story of Nea Chhim, the heroine of my novel Dragon Chica.

Plot: Nea is struggling with college. Nightmares of war flood the waking memories of this 19-year-old survivor of the Cambodian Killing Fields. Nea decides she must confront the past to overcome her fear and begin her own life in America.

Without telling Ma, she hops on a cross-country bus in Nebraska to see her biological father in Southern California. There Nea comes face to face with a man wounded by survivor’s guilt who refuses to acknowledge the family’s secrets. Nea decides to revive his struggling donut shop and help him recover. Her tireless efforts attract a mysterious young man’s attention. Is he casing the place for a gang? she wonders. It is up to Nea to find out the truth: about her family, the war that nearly destroyed them, and herself. Tiger Girl weaves together Cambodian folklore and its painful past with contemporary American life to create an unforgettable novel about love, war, and acceptance.

Advance praise:

“An original storyteller writing a book about the need for a young woman’s love, her cross-country journey that is also an inner journey, and her surviving, with others, a life they weren’t meant to survive. This is their story. I couldn’t stop reading. This is a writer to follow on her own journey of words.”–Linda Hogan, award-winning author of The Book of Medicines and Indios.

“Like many of her characters, May-lee Chai is a masterful storyteller with a poignant and gripping tale to tell. I couldn’t put TIGER GIRL down: I wanted to know what was going to happen next of course, but I also wanted to learn more about the past, to understand the painful and astonishing paths that led these people to find one another. Her book travels far and wide, but in the end it’s about families–not just the ones we’re born into but also the ones we make for ourselves. It’s enthralling and moving and fascinating and absolutely wonderful.”–Claire LaZebnik, best-selling author of If You Lived Here, You’d Be Home Now and Families and Other Non-Returnable Gifts.

The cover was designed by the talented Howard Wong of Grace Image Photography/SF.

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I just got back from meeting with my publisher, Trish O’Hare of GemmaMedia, in Boston. We had a great time discussing launch plans for my new novel, Tiger Girl, the sequel to Dragon Chica. This time around Nea is going to be traveling to California where she will surprise her father, who is still looking for her missing older brother. Ah, the family intrigues continue! I’ll be posting more soon. The novel is coming out this fall.


(This photo with Trish O’Hare was taken in front of the famed 10 1/2 Beacon Street Boston Athenaeum, one of the oldest independent libraries in America and one of only 16 members-only libraries. What beautiful art! It’s really a lovely place, full of stacks that members can browse with stunning works of American portraiture on the walls and sculptures tucked into alcoves. At a time when so many libraries are removing books and replacing them with computer terminals, I have to say the Athenaeum was a powerful reminder of the joy of browsing actual, physical, let-me-hold-you-in-my-hands books.)





I also was able to visit the lovely Boston Museum of Fine Arts where I was particularly taken by some of the works depicting what I call “fierce women.”

For example, these polo-playing Chinese ladies:

Tang Dynasty polo players

Tang Dynasty polo players











And this rather interesting porcelain figurine (made in Germany circa 1720) of Guan Yin:

Guan Yin...and Christ?

Guan Yin…and Christ?











And how about this 1803 portrait by William Jennings of “Mrs. Cephas Smith and Child”?

Quite the expressions on this madonna and child!

Quite the expressions on this madonna and child!










Overall I had a great trip and feel energized as we prepare to launch Tiger Girl in 2013!


Speaking of fierce women...the Dragon Chica's adventures will continue this fall!

Speaking of fierce women…the Dragon Chica’s adventures will continue this fall!

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So glad I had the opportunity to see Ai Weiwei’s documentary “Disturbing the Peace” at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts in San Francisco.

“Disturbing the Peace” depicts Ai’s attempt to attend the trial of activist Tan Zuoren in Chengdu, Sichuan province. Tan conducted research on schools that collapsed in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake and found evidence that shoddy construction work was to blame. However, officials did not appreciate his efforts and charged Tan with subversion.

Ai and a group of 10 associates travel to Chengdu in the documentary to show their support for Tan, but shortly after they arrive, police break into their hotel room, beat Ai, and take a woman into custody. The film shows their efforts to free her. The documentary shows rather amazing footage of Ai, his lawyer and the woman’s husband confronting local police and the public security bureau’s legal affairs department bureaucrats. The verbal battle of wits and nerves is fascinating…and harrowing. It’s amazing how brave these activists are!

This month (July) every Sunday the YBCA will be showing one or two documentaries by the internationally acclaimed Chinese artist (and dissident) Ai Weiwei.  You can check the schedule at the  YBCA website.

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I had a fabulous time at the 8th Annual Asian Heritage Street Celebration in San Francisco this past Saturday, May 19th.

at the Asian Art Museum of SF

The Asian Art Museum opened its doors for the festival and had free admission all day! There were splendid Southeast Asian dance performances (loved the children’s dances), art demonstrations, and even a flash mob dance performance. I enjoyed seeing the Phantoms of Asia contemporary exhibit exploring concepts of the supernatural past and present. And it was a thrill to be able to see Apichatpong Weerasethekul’s short “Phantoms of Nabua.” I’d seen this visually stunning film online but it was even more powerful on a big screen. (You can watch it online here: Phantoms of Nabua.)

Larkin Street from Civic Center Plaza through the Little Saigon District was filled with vendors and hundreds and hundreds of visitors. Smoke from the many barbecue stands formed a wafting cloud on one side street:

And the Asian fusion food trucks that are super popular in the city also set up for the day. The line in front of Chairman Bao Buns was running half-way down the block at one point. I managed to get some fabulous Korean bulgogi tacos at Seoul on Wheels!

It was a great celebration indeed. Even the weather cooperated. It was sunny but windy, which really made the Breathing Flower lotus sculpture in front of the Asian Art Museum come to life!

This street fair was a great way to celebrate APA Heritage Month and brought many diverse communities together.

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This December my article on Asian American women artists in the San Francisco Bay Area appeared in The Jakarta Post Weekender Magazine. I really enjoyed interviewing the artists and getting to see their extraordinary work. I could only scratch the surface in this article, but I hope it gives everyone a taste of the exciting work that these  artists are creating. For more examples, people living in the SF Bay Area can check out the Asian American Women Artists Association website www.aawaa.net or individual artist’s websites, such as Nining Muir’s at www.niningmuir.com.

To see how the article appeared in the Weekender Magazine, you can download the pdf here: “A Place of Her Own”.

I’ve also pasted the text below with the permission of The Weekender editor so that people who follow my blog can read about these amazing artists and the San Francisco-based Asian American Women Artists Association. (Note: the pdf shows the much nicer layout from the magazine)

A Place of Her Own:

San Francisco’s Asian American Women Artists

By May-lee Chai

What does it mean to be an Asian American woman artist today?

Apart from superstars like Maya Lin and Yoko Ono, very few Asian American women artists ever make it into the public eye.

But one San Francisco-based art group is working to change that invisibility.

“Most of this country has not talked to an Asian person,” said artist Cynthia Tom. She recalls participating in an art exhibit in Indianapolis where she stood in a room full of people, but no one came up to talk to her. At first she felt perhaps they hadn’t liked her paintings. After she approached a few people, she realized that the problem was far more basic. “They weren’t sure I could speak English.”

That’s one of the reasons why Tom has dedicated herself to increasing the public’s awareness of Asian American women artists.

Tom is the current president of AAWAA, the Asian American Women Artists Association based in San Francisco, the first national organization dedicated to promoting such art.

“We fight for recognition all the time,” said Tom.

For this reason, for the past few years AAWAA has created an innovative series of exhibits and workshops to bring artists and the public together. Called “A Place of Her Own,” after the famous Virginia Woolfe essay about a woman needing a room of her own in order to be creative, the project asks, “If you had a place of your own, what would it be?”

Asian American women artists were invited to create original art installations that would answer this question and allow members of the public to participate in this “space.”

For example, artist Vivian Truong made a giant bathtub filled with foam “bubbles” and surrounded it with giant papier-mâché boulders covered with her own Post-It note “To do” lists. Members of the public were encouraged to write down on Post -It notes things that they wanted to let go of and stick them onto a giant cork board on the wall. Then they could climb into the giant tub and relax.

Another of the exhibits’ biggest hits was Irene Wibawa’s miniature dioramas that fit inside baby food jars. People could walk around her mini-worlds and imagine the life of the tiny characters depicted.

“I wanted to make my dioramas in jars using everyday materials. I wanted to say you don’t have to have a lot of money to make art. It’s accessible to everyone,” Wibawa said.

Wibawa, who is a biological science technician with the USDA (United States Department of Agriculture), says she came up with her idea because of her work. “I work with plants and insects. I look into a microscope, looking for damage to leaves. Some of the insects are so small, you have to pick them up with an eyelash attached to a toothpick.  So I thought, ‘If I were this mite or this beetle, I’d want to hide. Where would I hide?’”

Besides engaging the public, the art exhibits also allowed the women to get to know each other. Because most of the women also have day jobs outside the art world, it can be hard to get to know other artists or have any sense of community.

Wibawa has felt this lack since immigrating to the U.S. from Indonesia when she was eight. “I’m always disappointed when I go to the Asian American section of anything and Southeast Asian women are less represented. The numbers aren’t there,” she said. “I wanted to join AAWAA if for no other reason than to say, ‘I’m Indonesian and I’m here.’”

In fact, through AAWAA’s exhibits, Wibawa was able to meet San Francisco-based artist Nining Muir, who like Wibawa was born in Indonesia.

“Prior to joining AAWAA, I didn’t know there were other Indonesian American women artists!” Wibawa said.

Muir echoed that feeling of excitement. In fact, she said her primary reason for joining AAWAA was to counter the sense of not having a community in America since she moved to San Francisco with her husband in 1996.

“I think it was a little surprise that there’s such a group of Asian American women artists,” Muir said. “Not that I wanted that label. But then I ran into Irene so I joined. I’m here as a foreigner, no family, so it’s a comfort thing.”

Muir feels their Indonesian heritage is in many ways more conducive to creating art than America’s culture. “In Indonesia, we think of art as a part of life. It’s a little bit exclusive here [in America],” Muir noted.

Muir who liked to work in wood as a sculptor in Indonesia now primarily paints, as wood is prohibitively expensive in the U.S. Her artwork has been featured in eleven exhibits and ten group shows in San Francisco since 2006.

Most recently, Muir’s oil paintings have been of cows. “I’m fascinated by cows because of the Hindu background, the holy cows concept from Indonesia,” she said.

Her latest series, entitled “This Little Sapi,” using the Indonesian word for cow, was inspired by a recent trip back to visit family.

When she discovered her nephew was thrilled with the English nursery rhyme “Five Little Pigs,” Muir decided to make paintings of the rhyme, but substituting cows for pigs.

The result is a series of five delightfully whimsical paintings depicting life-size heads of cows poking out of a red barn, each titled after one line of the re-invented nursery rhyme: “This Little Sapi Went to the Market,” “This Little Sapi Went Home,” “This Little Sapi Had Roast Pork,” and so on.

Muir is amused by the reactions from the public. She remembers at one show, a few male patrons came up to her and expressed their surprise. “They were shocked. They didn’t think a small female would paint such cows!” she said.

It is exactly this type of reversal of expectations that fuels AAWAA and its members.

“Some people question us, [asking] do you still need a women’s organization?” said artist and AAWAA board member Shari Arai DeBoer. “And we say, ‘Yes!’”


Copyright of the artwork belongs to the artists.  1st work ©Irene Wibawa. 2nd work: “Self Portrait” ©Nining Muir.

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