For Monyee Chau, everything begins with food.
I meet this year’s Northwest Folklife Festival poster artist in the Chinatown-International District, which she proudly calls her favorite Seattle neighborhood. We find our way to Fuji Bakery on the corner of King and Sixth, where we buy two beef curry buns, then move towards Hing Hay Park – a central meeting place for locals in the neighborhood. The park is buzzing with people of all ages, each enjoying their Friday afternoon in the sun. We are surrounded by folks playing ping pong, chatty elders sipping tea, and kids chasing pigeons.
Photos: Monyee, in front of the Historic Chinatown Gate in the Seattle Chinatown-International District.
As we eat, we talk family, food, art, and community building. To Monyee, the four are intricately woven together. A 23-year-old Taiwanese/Cantonese American born in Seattle and a self-proclaimed restaurant baby, she fondly recalls memories of growing up in her family’s restaurant, where she watched in awe as her grandmother and grandfather lovingly folded dumplings and cured pork belly for the community.
“Eating is a really big part of who I am, [and] my family. There’s so many stories that are tied to food. I think that’s also why my artwork has gone in that direction. I identify as a storyteller and food carries so much story within itself.“
Much of her recent work has explored the ways in which food has served as a focal point in her cultural upbringing. Her show “Home Away from Home” at The Vestibule was an exhibition featuring sewing and sculpture that brought to life her family’s intimate relationship with food. From detailing stories of how her family’s restaurant was the first to serve live seafood in the neighborhood to the sweet moments shared with her grandmother (who she tenderly calls ama) in the kitchen, it is clear that Monyee’s creative work is strongly rooted in understanding her personal cultural context in ways that are close to the heart.
As a second generation immigrant, she finds that much of her work is about recognizing, addressing, and healing the trauma felt by her parents and grandparents as the result of racism and assimilation upon immigrating to the United States. She notes the privileges she holds in having access to healing, whereas previous generations often had to suppress their pain in order to survive day-to-day life.
“I think there’s so many things that have happened so close to us in our family line that we don’t talk about at all and I think it’s really important to be vulnerable about those things because we’re just sweeping it under the rug.”
She notes that her process in becoming the artist she is today has very much been a journey in allowing herself to be vulnerable in her work. And it is through this vulnerability that she has been able to tell her story in a way that other folks have been able to resonate with.
“I realized that I need to make work for myself even though it may feel selfish. It’s you giving yourself permission to be who you are, which also gives permission to other people to be themselves too.”
As a young artist herself, she offers this message of vulnerability and ownership of your identity to youth aspiring to do their own creative work. She holds this upcoming generation of youth creatives in high regard.
“The youth is without question, our future, and our saving grace. I think they have seen what has and hasn’t worked in terms of building community and fitting each other’s needs, and that they have the best means of moving forward and what we need to do to sustain ourselves. I believe that the youth are the ones that will challenge a lot of what we do and practice so that we can grow as a more inclusive society.”
Photos: Some of Monyee’s pieces at Home Away from Home at The Vestibule. This exhibition specifically focused on her and her family’s relationship with food.
At the core of her practice is what she calls “a journey of healing and love” through explorations of familial traditions and cultural transformation. Her conversations on art and culture made her the perfect artist to tackle the project of creating the 48th Annual Folklife Festival poster. The poster features her trademark “wiggly boys,” which is the name she uses to address the flowing, amorphous characters that spill over each other on the poster as the dance in between different languages and musical instruments. To her, the wiggly boys represent “positivity and unity but also being flexible with your environment and just working together with each other.”
Her vision for the poster was to create an image that represented the power of art and music as important tools in culture and community building. A departure from her usual sculptural art style, her poster design still carries elements of movement and audience interaction. The genderless, colorful characters allow members of all kinds of communities to see themselves as part of the design, and thus, part of the work of community building. Each of the characters exists in an intimate relationship not just with the art and music but with one another. The seamless blending in of all of the elements of the poster creates an intentional story of bringing together all aspects of culture in order to strengthen community relationships.
Photos: Two drafts of Monyee’s Folklife Festival poster design and the official poster.
This story is a reflection of what she believes to be the center of her work nowadays. As an artist, she sees it as her role to be a facilitator of important conversations, a healer of past and current traumas, and a resource for other artists and community members. These roles are all connected to where we began our interview and where her family began their story in the United States: Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. The conversation steers to the quickly changing landscape of the neighborhood. As developers and new businesses move into the area without taking into consideration the needs of the community, she has witnessed the mom and pop shops she loved as a child disappear.
“People use Chinatown as an aesthetic,” she says, commenting on how folks unfamiliar with the history of racism that created Chinatowns all across the United States are contributing to the destruction of a neighborhood that she has known, loved, and worked for all her life. As Seattle’s historically ethnic neighborhoods experience gentrification, one wonders how to preserve the culture, traditions, and life that are so integral to the vibrant cultural tapestry of Seattle. As outsiders argue for developing spaces into newer, supposedly better ones, long-time locals who call this neighborhood their home wonder where they fit into the picture.
“There’s so much of a conversation that’s like, ‘ok but we have to move forward, right?’ You can move forward, but it has to be in a way that is inclusive, accessible, and participating in community.”
When asked about how she herself contributes to the preservation of her beloved neighborhood, she goes back to the mom and pop shops she’s grown up with. When she worked at the Wing Luke Museum, she would point visitors looking for food to restaurants that have been serving food and actively participating in the community for generations. She still does this at the Office of Arts and Culture when her coworkers comment on how they miss the food at their old office at Columbia Tower.
“I’ll tell you about Ping’s Dumpling House. I’ll tell you about Szechuan Noodle Bowl or all these places you can go and support, and I think that’s the biggest part of it.”
After walking through the neighborhood with her, I can feel the love she has for this corner of Seattle. She points at stores and talks about her relationship with them and their owners, says warm hellos to several people on the street, and speaks on the infinite ways that the C-ID has inspired not just her art but her goals in community building.
When asked why she believes that community art events, such as the Northwest Folklife Festival, are important, she answers:
“Because they foster these relationships that are really important. When I was making the poster, if I didn’t have anyone to bounce ideas off of or to help critique my work, I would have a very narrow view. So all of these perspectives are really important for us to be able to build and grow as a community. we can understand that there our experiences outside of ours. And that’s why it’s really important to listen to Indigenous voices or people who are nonbinary and trans and just being able to be really accepting of all different identities and experiences. I think that’s why it’s important to build community. We don’t have all the things we need to succeed but other people do and that’s why we need to help support each other and be in communication and be in communities together. That way we can all succeed rather than the few and the rich and the white. It has to be more than that.”
Following our conversation, I am left with a lasting impression of her genuine warmth. There is an authenticity in her words cannot be faked. And most notably, there is a powerful ferocity that exists alongside a gentle tenderness in ways that are not at all contradictory. I watch her hold two cultures and weave them into a new one – one that holds space for the duality of her identity while allowing for the creation of new stories. I see her art as a love letter to the community that she calls home — to her ama, to Chinatown, to the resiliency of her ancestors that have survived trauma, to the food shared with the people she loves. After walking her back to her office, I marvel at the labor it takes to keep culture alive. But more so, I sit in the love. And I am thankful that there are people out there like Monyee, willing to share beef curry buns and stories of resilience with a stranger, not out of obligation, not out of requirement, but out of love for place, love for community, and love for home.
If you are interested in learning more about Monyee Chau and her work with art and culture, she will be a featured panelist alongside Kenju Waeru and Gabriel Teodros at the Narrative Stage at the Folklife Festival. The panel is called “The Intersection of Art, Culture, and Heritage” and will be hosted on Sunday, May 26th from 1:30 PM to 2:30 PM at the Narrative Stage on the third floor of the Seattle Center Armory.
Learn more about this panel and the rest of the events happening at the Northwest Folklife Festival here.
Photos of art and family supplied by Monyee. Photos of Monyee and words by Cara Nguyen.