As Wing On Wo’s inaugural Lunar New Year 店面 Artist in Residence, Melissa Liu created a window installation that was filled with handmade red envelopes (紅包, known as lai see in Cantonese, hong bao in Mandarin) and short-form oral history responses collected from members of Asian Communities in New York City and beyond. In the weeks leading up to Lunar New Year (January 28, 2017), anyone identified with the Asian Diaspora celebrating the Lunar New Year was invited to participate in workshops organized by Melissa in collaboration with The W.O.W. Project, local artists, and community members and groups. Participants had the opportunity to design and make their own red envelopes, in which they placed a question to share with a family member or friend from an older generation and then collected a written response. Participants also received basic training on how to conduct an oral history interview within their community, and had a safe space to discuss issues that Asian communities face in today’s political moment.
In her window display project, which compelled participants to engage in an exchange of questions through shared Lunar New Year traditions, Melissa sparked deeper conversations and moments of empathy between young and older generations that helped bridged intergenerational understanding in Chinatown and Asian American communities and also prompted other Chinatown locals and visitors to consider the importance of the sharing of stories and memories.
Melissa Liu 劉慧慈 is a cultural worker, activist, oral historian, and social sculptor, and a first-generation Chinese American. Melissa has worked as an arts administrator in Los Angeles, Paris, and New York with institutions and organizations such as The Laundromat Project, Columbia University School of the Arts, Hammer Museum, Fowler Museum at UCLA, Terra Foundation for American Art, and The Getty Foundation. She has organized and facilitated workshops for the College Art Association and Kelly Street Garden Bronx, and was part of Arts & Labor and its Alternative Economies working group. She is currently part of the working board of Museum Hue, and a longtime advocate for better representation of communities of color in cultural institutions. As a social sculptor and oral historian, Melissa explores culture, cuisine, identity, and place in the Asian Diaspora through cooking, writing, artmaking.
I have always associated Lunar New Year with Red Envelopes (hong bao in Mandarin, lai see in Cantonese). As a first generation Chinese-American, I would receive them from my parents and grandparents each year, as well as from relatives that occasionally visited my family in Irvine, California. Even in the years when my family was too busy to go out to dinner at a Chinese restaurant, my sister and I could still count on receiving our red envelopes, and with that, making calls to relatives. As I approach the age when I will have to give, and not receive, red envelopes, I’ve begun to realize the cultural significance of this tradition. Red envelopes are a vessel for the exchange of goodwill between generations.
In conceptualizing my project Chinatown Diaspora and the “Red Envelope Oral Histories” for my Lunar New Year Window Display residency at W.O.W Project, I wanted to understand what being “Asian American” and “Chinese American” means in the current moment, learn from the different perspectives that exist in the East and Southeast Asian Diaspora, and contribute my work as a social justice advocate and creative practitioner to conversations around these moments. With political events in the past year that have polarized many within Asian communities, oftentimes within families, I’ve wondered how we might hold space for learning and non-confrontational exchange of ideas in the communities that I am part of. Lunar New Year is a time to explore this, as it is a widely celebrated holiday in many Asian countries that centers around families reuniting and reflecting.
I developed this oral history project from the realization that there is often an understanding and cultural gap between older generations who grew up in different circumstances and those of us who have been raised as “Asian Americans.” I am using my artist residency as an opportunity to empower myself and my peers to have meaningful dialogue with our families and older community members in the hope of bridging this gap, while also giving ourselves agency to tell our own stories and define what being Asian means. Oral history is a practice rooted in listening and privileging a narrator in a conversation, and therefore a tool that lends itself naturally to this work.
Through the workshops and conversations I’ve held over the past month, I am conducting oral histories while offering basic training to participants in the hopes that they will be empowered to speak to those within their families and communities, which will lead to moments of empathy that help bridge intergenerational understanding. My longterm goal is for those who have been part of this project to continue creating safe spaces to discuss issues that Asian communities have confronted in the past and face in today’s political moment. The window display at Wing On Wo & Co. is a place to share what has come out of a series of oral history workshops I have held with participants who identify with the Asian Diaspora. Though red envelopes containing money are passed from those of married age and older to younger generations, I have encouraged participants to reverse this exchange by giving their handmade red envelopes to someone from an older generation in their family or community. But rather than money, the red envelope will be exchanged with a question, opening up an opportunity for a conversation to happen.
MORE ABOUT CHINATOWN DIASPORA: Chinatown Diaspora is a collaborative and ongoing project that comes from the idea that “Chinatowns” have existed throughout the world as centers for Asian immigrants to come together in the absence of their home country. In addition to immigrants from provinces throughout China, chinatowns include those from other Asian countries—such as Korea, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines. However, children of immigrants often leave these communities with no intention of returning. Chinatown Diaspora explores and unpacks the stories of immigrants who have left their ancestral country, and generations beyond who have left the Chinatown in their new home.