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Art “Made in Chinese-America”: Ada Chen on wearing your identity

Oct. 12, 2018
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It was almost 10 PM in NYC (7 PM for me in San Francisco) when we talked on FaceTime. I often criticize technology for the ironic disconnection it creates between people at the dinner table or at lunch outings. But on this occasion, I was only able to have a conversation with Ada—a true honest talk which felt close to an in-person interview—due to the existence of technology. So, tremendous thanks to the internet. 

Ada Chen is a jewelry/sculptural artist born and raised in San Francisco. Raised Chinese in an American society, she uses her biracial heritage to encourage conversations about the Chinese-American experience. She describes her art as “expensive memes,” wearable representation of micro-issues often overlooked amidst today’s turbulent social dynamics.

When I gave Ada a call, she’d just finished cooking dinner and was doing the dishes. Under the bright yellow, fluorescent light, one half of her face was overexposed for the majority of our call. Although the pixelated quality was a downer at times, the true quality of our conversation lied in her personal stories about heritage, culture, and identity as a young, emerging artist in America. At its core, Ada’s art explores relatability. Incorporating gender-neutral perspectives through her drum toy set depicting a cat, which symbolizes Asian women’s submission, and a shrimp, which demeans Asian men’s masculinity, she plays off deep-rooted sexual stereotypes. It’s safe to say that her art helps those who feel like they’re part of the “minority” feel less small and isolated. Chinese-specific household objects and traits such as take-out boxes, jet black hair, and monolids are deployed to push forward a multilayered, complex racial conversation. Similar to memes, an art form which Ada loves and by which she is constantly inspired, she seeks to create functional art that reaches the public’s psyche and tackle serious conversations in a satirical and quirky manner. 

P.S. This conversation has been condensed and edited for publication.

P.P.S: Ada showed me her favorite meme (and here it is!)

Adolescent Content: I don’t think you’re often asked about the technicality and craftsmanship of your pieces. Out of curiosity, how long does it actually take to craft a piece? What’s the technical process like?

Ada Chen: Hella fucking long. Like, Jesus. That’s one thing people people don’t [realize] about jewelry, because it’s metal and it has to function. Just one of my slippers took 63 hours to make. I made that from a sheet of silver and metallic wires. For the text message earrings, I used a laser cutter... I think that’s why people don’t do jewelry that often, because [the resources] aren’t as accessible, unless you really go to school and learn about it. Because you can’t just have a [soldering] torch in your house without knowing how to use it. 

Adolescent: Are your pieces made to order?

Ada: Well, it’s really expensive to use a laser cutter so I’ll always just cut a lot at once. The last number I had was 30—[that’s] how many I could fit on a piece of 12-by-12 acrylics. That was my stock, because I could fit that many on a piece. Then when people order a pair, I would put them together. So it’s kind of made to order, but also not at the same time. I feel like if this was my full-time job, to make my own jewelry, it would not be made to order. But since I have a full-time job, I can’t really keep up a lot of the time. Because even now, it [still takes] me about 2-3 hours to make a pair [of earrings]. And you only have that amount of time when you work a 9-to-5 job, which sucks. 

Adolescent: In the future, do you plan to start your own jewelry line?

Ada: I guess. I mostly want to work for myself, but I don’t really want to just do production and commercial pieces. I want to make one-of-a-kind pieces that will make a statement. I’ve been saying that what I really want to do is make jewelry accessible...which means that they can relate to it in different ways. It’d be nice to sell things and just survive on that. But that’s not my main focus. It’d be great to have people relate, wear my [designs], and also represent my brand, I guess. Personally, I’m more interested in pieces that express my thoughts and things that I discover along the way about myself and my identity. But then there’s also the capitalist reality of our world. I can’t just have pieces in gallery and survive, because then I’ll be broke forever.

Adolescent: I read in an interview that you actually applied to fashion colleges in high school. Why did you decide to switch to jewelry and drop out of fashion? And when did you start to explore metalsmithing?

Ada: Honestly, I was just thinking about the industry and the competition. It didn’t seem worth it to pursue [an overly critical] field [or] a community that didn’t fit me. It sounds corny, but I just didn’t like the vibe of the industry. I wanted to try something new, so I started metalsmithing in college. I went into it without really knowing how to do anything, and I liked that challenge. I felt like I’d already done everything else. I was like, “Where else am I going to learn how to make jewelry?”

Adolescent: Are you parents supportive of your career path?

Ada: They are. But they don’t know exactly what they are supporting. For them it’s about survival. They basically had nothing [before], so they’re like, “How can I have my child succeed?” because this country is so much about money. So that’s what they focus on, but I feel very lucky to have a dad who wanted to do art [in the past]. The second I took interest, he was super supportive because I’m [now] kind of living the dream he never lived. 

Adolescent: Do you think fashion still inspires you as an artist?

Ada: Well, I guess subconsciously. I do look at couture designs on Instagram, but it’s not as if I study it [extensively]. But also, most of it is just the aesthetics and shapes—how someone can innovate a shape. I do like looking at Asian designers and how they represent their voice [in the industry]. It is still inspirational, but...I’m more inspired by my own experience [than] other people’s art, because it has already been done—why would I do that again?

Adolescent: You seem to like bold colors. Would you say that’s your aesthetic? Metal and bold colors with bold incorporated messages?

Ada: I feel like there’s no reason for it except my own taste. I just think that you can do more with colors and they’re more interesting and eye-catching that way. I don’t know how you can explain your gravitation towards something you like! I just can’t get into nude colors. They’re boring. And I was just talking to someone, her name is Kelly Riggs. I’m working with her for New York City Jewelry Week. She said, “You know, traditional academic jewelry is always placed on a white background to shove your attention [towards] the jewelry. It’s like, “Look at this piece, this object on a white background.” And it’s always the white background, it makes no sense. Because why wouldn’t you [give] context to the piece? So I guess I unconsciously place my objects in context. But it also has to do with me not making “aesthetic” work and making it more about a concept, because usually jewelry is the thing you see that’s pretty. That’s all there is to it. And yeah, it’s great, the craft is good. But then also, can you say something more? I guess that’s where my mind was. 

Adolescent: Do you think you’ll start exploring other mediums, or have you decided to stick with just jewelry and wearable objects?

Ada: I actually have no permanent interest in jewelry. I have taken classes that were more inspirational to me than jewelry, but they have nothing to do with a lot of my work. Like, I loved my woodshop class, but that has nothing to do with my voice as an artist. And I loved my photo class, which kind of seeped into my thesis. A big part of me being able to create those images was having taken that photo class...I definitely want to keep it on more a sculptural level, and it’s not like I’m dissing jewelry or anything, because it’s a great medium. 

Adolescent: Like you said, you were born and raised here—you are an American. But at the same time, your Chinese heritage is so evidently with you in how you were brought up and your appearance. How much does your heritage define who you are?

Ada: [My heritage] posed a lot of issues really when I was growing up and didn’t...want to be Chinese. I think recognizing that has helped me appreciate how I grew up, and it really made me appreciate how much effort my mom puts into feeding me every day. It helps me to understand where [my parents] came from and [why] they told me not to go out at night. And it makes me feel less like I’m missing out on a white life that I’ll never have. I know people who have never been to a sleepover because their parents think, “Why would you sleep at a stranger’s house?” And it’s because of that [immigrant] survival instinct. I’m not going to generalize, maybe I am right now, but with immigrant families, they obviously came here because they wanted to escape something else. And it’s just this survival mindset that pushes them to be overprotective. So then their children can’t understand it, and they become resentful. It’s the clashing of this ‘collectiveness’ mindset of Asia and the ‘individualist’ [mindset] of [America].

Adolescent: Would you say you were resentful towards your parents in high school?

Ada: Yeah, definitely. [We fought] about things like hanging out with friends after school, because she happened to work near my school. She would be like, “Why don’t you just do your homework at my office after school instead of hanging out with friends?” And inside I was like, “Because I’m in high school, I want to be sociable.” I definitely [also] felt resentful for having a curfew, [even though] I just had to be home before dinner or go home with my mum every day. I definitely was super angsty. But that was a part of being a teenager.

Adolescent: I read that you like memes. 

Ada: I do. (Laughs)

Adolescent: How much do memes and internet culture inspire your art?

Ada: I think it’s super inspiring because if you think about it, someone still had to make that. Someone put together all these puzzle pieces of society—they noticed and they put them together in a way that is relatable to other people. I would describe my art as expensive memes. I feel like memes are an art form too, because somebody created them. All these images just come out and become viral, and then they become formats for other ideas to exist within the same surrounding and the same social context. 

Adolescent: Did you have a lot of Chinese-American friends growing up? 

Ada: In middle school, I had mostly white friends... The school was supposed to be diverse and you had to apply to get in even though it was a public school. But by diverse, they meant about four Asian kids, four black kids, four Latino kids, and the rest was white. In high school, I had so many Asian friends, but I didn’t even realize it. In college, it was a lot more international. Many were rich Asians that I couldn’t connect with. And although my school prides itself [on] diversity, you can’t really count international students as diverse. So I knew like two Asian Americans, and they became my best friends in college. I related to them more than the Chinese kids with a lot of money who didn’t accept me because I’m “American.” 

Adolescent: You were born and raised here, so technically you are American. But you’re also Chinese, so how did you feel about being in the in-between?

Ada: I think I got over it in college... When I started having revelations about my identity, then I cared even less. 

Adolescent: So in college you felt a stronger sense of identity?

Ada: Definitely. In high school, I was really into hip-hop and pop culture. So then in college, when I met black friends who became my close friends, I noticed that they were super proud of who they are. But I couldn’t be the same proud as them because I’m not black, so [I started] sharing my culture with them and [they did the same]. I think that’s when I started seeing that I have all these great cultural aspects, and...I started embracing it. It sucks that it took me moving away from home to do it. I think the idea of cultural sharing is successful.

Adolescent: Tell me about those earrings and your experience with being fetishized. When men romanticize Asian women, do you think it’s because they’re uneducated on the matter and they haven’t been exposed to us a lot, or are they just ignorant, disrespecting an ethnicity and treating it as something exotic? 

Ada: Oh, those conversations were actual conversations with men fetishizing me. The green ones were real text messages. I hate when non-Asian men just point out the fact that I’m Asian, because then I know that that’s all what they see. Obviously, that comes from a fetishization standpoint because this is what they’re focusing on. I think it’s both uneducated and ignorant, because you’re only saying these things when you don’t know that it’s disrespectful, right? They are objectifying us from a place of ignorance. Being uneducated doesn’t justify [that]. So someone has to say something about it, because it’s not anyone’s particular job to teach someone how to not be problematic. It takes a certain person to do it, and I’m fine being that person right now.

Adolescent: Have you received any negative feedback? Like, saying your art is too dramatic or passive aggressive? Have men approached you about the earrings?  

Ada: Yes! Actually, the most significant ones were Asian men. One of them said, “Your eye piece is not beautiful. I don’t know who you’re trying to convince that this is art, but this is ugly.” And I basically just replied, “Because you think this is ugly—that’s why I made this piece. It’s because you think that ‘chinky’ eyes are ugly.” He didn’t respond. 

There were a lot of comments on [my text message earrings] specifically about Asians dating white men, even though the real conversations I had weren’t with white men. But it doesn’t matter. Basically, there is a lot of turmoil just within the Asian community itself because Asian men can be resentful. But I can’t respond to any of these people, because they’ll start a whole thing and that’ll take a lot of energy to deal with. I guess I can change my entire approach, but then again that’s a lot of effort. I’m often very solid about my ideas and what my intentions were so if the [response] doesn’t match up, I’ll just be like, “Sorry, you just didn’t get it.”

Adolescent: You use a lot of Chinese inspiration mixed with ordinary American household objects in your pieces. How exposed are you to your Chinese culture? 

Ada: I didn’t pay a lot of attention to the Chinese things that my parents showed me growing up. But now that I’m sort of nostalgic about it, I’m a lot more interested. So I’ve been revisiting and watching Chinese drama because it’s so nostalgic. I wish I knew more Chinese songs! I recognize them when I hear them, but I wish I knew their names and the classics. 

Adolescent: How do you feel about the representation of Asian American artists and culture in the media nowadays? Clearly, with the success of "Crazy Rich Asians" and "To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before"…

Ada: It is definitely not enough. I love "Crazy Rich Asians," and it has to do with me being East Asian. I think there’s a lot to be said about having so much pressure to represent all of Asia in one movie—like, one single movie. And also, even the term “Asian American” is so broad that sometimes it doesn’t make any sense because it just lumps the whole continent with all these different countries together. The celebration of Chinese-American culture is rare, because do we even have a culture? That is the question that I always think about. That’s why I gravitated towards hip hop culture—because I didn’t know if Chinese-American pop culture [even existed]. If you think about it, we didn’t grow up around authentic Chinese culture—we didn’t grow up with that connection to the Forbidden City that was across the whole ocean. That to me is Chinese culture, or the Dragon dance. Chinese-American culture is different. It’s basically something like boba.  

Adolescent: What are you working on at the moment? 

Ada: Oh my God, this question! (Laughs) So I graduated. And I got a job a month later. I work for a company and I make their jewelry. It’s a nine-to-five, Monday-through-Friday production job. So [I] do the same thing over and over again. I clean the rings, polish, do’s just labor. I feel like I’m not meant to do that [in the long term]. But early on I [realized] that I need to build experience in this industry. [But] at the same time, my work kind of blew up and I started making more earrings because they were selling. New York City Jewelry Week is giving me the opportunity to build my voice as an artist. So these things are all happening at the same time, and I just feel like I can’t do both [jobs]. It’s a struggle to fulfill myself...and also balance my job which I need for money. I got a spot at a shared studio space so I that could work on my own stuff, but then I realized—realistically, how often would I go there after work? I’ll be tired. It’s just a lot, but it’s the same thing that every artist goes through. So I’m trying to work on myself and at the same time [am doing a job] I don’t like as much for money to support myself.