In this HAPA project, HAPA recipients, Wenrui Zhao and Yuanxie Shi from Anthropology Department wanted
to understand the experience of female artists who had come to the United States over the
past 30 years by conducting oral history interviews and making a short documentary film based
on the interview footage.
Read their notes below:
We have conducted interviews of eight artists: Yan Lin, Xin Song, Fei Cui, O Zhang, Annysa Ng,
Cici Wu, Bing Han and Pixy Liao. This is not a particularly large sample – there are fewer female
artists overall in China, and those who emigrated and are currently living in New York are even
rarer. However, their stories are more diverse and intriguing than we could have ever imagined.
They are across three generations: from those who came to the States in the early 1980s and
are now in their 50s, to those who came after the millennium, and the emerging artists who
have recently graduated from art schools. They also carried diverse background with them,
from growing in an artist family whose parents and grandparents were all well-respected
artists, to coming to age when Hong Kong was undergoing the transition between Britain and
China; from receiving their art training in the elite yet conservative art academies in China to
We had thought to seek out a certain degree of similarities among them before we officially
started the project, but then we realized such diversity is probably the beauty of this group of
people and the meaning underlying this project. Even the notion of “woman” means different
things to different of them and when they were in different stages of their life. Many relatively
older artists never felt a strong identity as a woman. The era in the 1970s and 1980s in China
when everyone, no matter male or female wore similar types of clothes; when both husband
and wife had to work to sustain a family certainly left its own mark on what meant to be a
woman to them. Yet more and more artists also felt the politics of gender in current art world,
some trying to take advantage of it, some trying to reject it.
Motherhood and Wifehood also acquired new significance with regard to this group of Chinese
American women artists. We were struck by a story Xin Song told about her work “Lust,
Caution”, a piece trying to tackle the role and symbolism of pornography. She started to
become interested in the material after her first child was born. She then became aware of the
easy availability of adult magazines and popularity of those advertisements where large area of
bodies was exposed. These things didn’t exist when she was growing up in China, and made her
at a loss about the sex education of her child, and concerned about what should be the
appropriate amount of information a child should be exposed to. She then found all sorts of
adult magazines back to the 1960s, attempting to understand their messages and see the
changes of the portray of bodies. Her work resulted from this experience.
Whether “Chinese American” or “women artists” seem to have relative fixed stereotypes and
connotations, in terms of class and identity. But our project shows that this is not the case. The
understanding of these terms probably should not lie in abstract concepts, but from real stories
of real people.
We have archived these oral history materials at the Museum of Chinese American. We are
planning a screening on this short doc and a talk on Chinese female artists in Spring 2017. The
Museum of Chinese American has also expressed interest in an exhibition featuring works of
Chinese female artists, but we are still discussing that as too many factors need to be
Neither me or Yuanxie had any oral history or video-making experience before this project.
However, we were deeply interested in oral interviews and video representation as alternative
forms of historical narratives. We self-taught ourselves many skills required for this project, like
those self-taught artists, as well as learned from experienced professionals. It was a steep
learning curve, yet we found the whole experience extremely rewarding. Moreover, we went to
their studios, saw them working, and talked to them. The combination of seeing, listening and
thinking makes it an unusual history project unlike any other we have done only in library.