Wen-hao Tien wields metaphorical meanings in her new exhibit: Home On our Backs

“We believe mountains can be moved, that worlds exist within a rock, and respond emotionally to the color red.” These metaphorical words perfectly exemplify Wen-Hao Tien’s new exhibit at the Pao Arts Center: Home on our Backs.

Originally, Tien is trained in calligraphy and monochrome works, but she has recently taken a turn into colorful art that expresses particular community concerns. “I wanted to reveal what’s less visible to outsiders,” remarked Tien. Given the amount of discourse that emerged from COVID, she wanted to use her platform to create understanding, authenticity, and connection through relatability.

As Tien only immigrated to Chinatown 30 years ago from Taiwan, she always viewed herself as an outsider to the old Chinese community. It was only through the guidance of community members like Eugene Mahr, Nancy Lo, and Tunney Lee that she was able to catch a glimpse of what life was like as an Asian American within Chinatown. While she was able to visit the family association of Chinatown, she felt that, “[she] was only able to have access to that because of the community members. It was a privilege.”

Despite that access, she struggled to engage in conversation with many members, believing that “much of the men in Chinatown weren’t talkers, they were doers.” This privilege of meeting these long lineages of Chinatown residents but never truly fitting in, created this phenomenon, which Wen Hao likes to call an “accepted outsider”.

This newfound perspective as an “accepted outsider” influenced her exhibition heavily. She feels that “it provides a comparative understanding and leverage to speak and feel” that many Chinatown residents struggle with.

Each of the five art pieces serves as a portion of her migration and self-reflection story in relation to those of the community residents. Each is carefully created and selected by Tien, who foraged for each specific material used within her artwork. The Red Dress is made out of red plastic bags that bore a similar resemblance to the ones at Chinese supermarkets. To Tien, they are a familial metaphor to her parents.

Not only is this red color prevalent within the dress, but it is seen within the statues of Guan Yu. These statues were molded and created with transparent resin so that the insides could show red string and chili pepper. These symbols were purposed to bring out an emotional attachment to home as well, as Tien sees Guan Yu as a link to loyalty and family to Taishanese people.

With the fast-paced changes of gentrification and displacement, the Chinatown of 30 years ago is much different from the Chinatown today that’s filled with boba tea shops and luxury condos. She hopes that the exhibit will allow outsiders and young people to catch a tiny glimpse into the lives of traditional Chinatown and connect with it.

“Certain things that I picked out from these 5 to 7 works were things that I felt in common with the Chinese people. There are things that we can all relate to, and I wanted to use these few works in the exhibition to create abstract objects that different groups of people could relate to. That was the purpose of the work. Nobody really owns the work,” Tien expressed.

The exhibition is best experienced in person. Some of her works are even interactive. Dusts to Mountain is a box built for explosives and filled to the brim with sawdust. It symbolizes the story of the Chinese contribution to the Transcontinental railroad and a traditional Chinese folklore where a man claims to move a mountain. As immigration to America can be seen foolish to some, the folklore man could be seen foolish for his word.

However, Tien twists the meaning into a positive optimistic one. When people visit the exhibition, they can shake the box and see sawdust drop through the box’s holes and into the ground. Eventually, sawdusts soon collects into a mountainous shape. “This is supposed to represent the grassroots efforts of Chinatown. By shaking the box, one can build a mountain through each singular effort,” stated Tien.

Home on Our Backs opened last Thursday and will stay open until June. One can check out the virtual exhibition on Pao Art’s website or book an appointment to see it in person. Hopefully, this visit could foster conversation and self reflection about the status of Chinatown today and the urgent care it needs for the future.

To read this article in Chinese (Traditional), please click here.

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