Baby Jack Rice Story, You gotta be brave
Mixed media, rice sacks, sequins, thread
26" x 34", © Flo Oy Wong, 1993
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Flo Oy Wong
I am a Sunnyvale-based contemporary installation artist, painter, activist and elementary school visual arts specialist, born and raised in Oakland, California's Chinatown. I attended Lincoln Elementary School and Oakland High School and for ten years from 1943-1953, I also attended Chinese School daily. I learned to speak two other Chinese dialects in addition to the Cantonese slee yip dialect that I spoke at home. I graduated from the University of California, Berkeley with a Bachelors degree in English (1960) and received my teaching credential from Hayward State University (1961). I taught elementary school after marrying.
My art focuses on personal, collective and cultural expressions which come from my working class background as the sixth daughter of immigrant parents from China. My creativity was awakened at the age of 9 when I imitated the artistic expression of several classmates. I drew cartoons, made Christmas cards and wrote poetry. I began my serious pursuit of a fine arts career at the age of 40 after teaching elementary school for 5 years, staying home to raise a daughter and a son, teaching creativity and cooking classes in community institutions and running a silkscreen tee shirt business.
My sibling family was a traditional one where Chinese was our first language and English our second language. When my parents came from China, they brought practices and rituals of our culture which favored the boy child. My father's family were poverty-stricken peasants who farmed. Because my grandmother recognized the limitation of village life, she sent my father to America in 1911 to the care of two male relatives. In 1933, my mother emigrated as an adult. She was my father's second wife. She brought my three older sisters who were born in our village of Goon Do Haung. Because of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law, which was reinforced by other acts such as the 1924 National Origins Act, my mother entered the United States as an illegal immigrant. The latter act was broadly interpreted by the Supreme Court to determine that Chinese wives of U. S. citizens could not enter this country.
Since my father was a U. S. citizen, my mother's legal entry to this country was barred. To circumvent the law she entered as my father's sister. Thus our life of deception in America started in 1933.
I was born at 725 Harrison Street in Oakland on October 28, 1938. The attending doctor named me Betsy but an older sister changed it to Florence. I was given the Chinese name of Ling Oy which means to solicit love. my Chinese name is different from those of my sisters whose middle ideogram is Li. beautiful. Because my mother so desperately wanted a son she thought that by giving me a different Chinese name she could change her luck. It did. My brother was born three years later.
Our life was centered in Chinatown from the 1940s through the 1960s. We owned a variety of businesses, a grocery store, a Chinese lottery and two restaurants. When we owned the lottery my father was shot by a relative who had accused him of embezzling funds. At the time, we were very poor and depended upon other relatives to donate sacks of rice for our family of 6, so that we could have food. My father survived the shooting and went on to work in the shipyard during World War II before opening two restaurants. I started working at our second restaurant, the Great China Cafe, when I was 5 and continued working there while attending elementary, high school and college, until it was sold in 1961. We served a variety of customers including many White men without families; it became a focus of their lives as well as ours. Chinatown housed the slan doy, the Chinese men who had come from China without their wives and families to work in America. Several worked at our restaurants as cooks and waiters.
In my late 30s, I decided to become a fine artist and enrolled in art classes at nearby community colleges. Awakened by ethnic pride and a desire for visibility, I struggled with gender, racial and cultural issues in my class assignments. Once, when I made a silkscreen print symbolizing the Chinese concept of worry, kwa sum, the instructor critiqued it as too simplistic. He didn't understand the non-Western frame of reference for my symbolism. An instructor of color, a Filipino artist, did understand my need for an Asian frame of reference and modeled the use of rice as a metaphor in his own art. It was then that I began to visually explore rice as a symbol in my work and this exploration has continued until the present. When I first started to exhibit, I saw that artists of color were not always included in the contemporary art scene. Because of this exclusion, I began to advocate for our visibility and inclusion in exhibitions.
My work represents me as a woman artist of color in a white society. My mature bodies of art - the graphite drawings of the Oakland Chinatown Series, the installations of the Asian Rice Sack Series, the Joss Paper* Series, and the Ink Painting Series which include the Tian'anmen Series, Circle Series and the Inner Children Series, talk about gender, class, family, community and spiritual issues. They represent my visual coming to terms about identity, visibility and social justice.
It was my father's philosophy that encouraged me to volunteer with various arts organizations. His ideas - mmm hoong sill, no empty hand and yu loy yu wohng, have come, have go -- were primary lessons of our family life when I was a child. He said that life was a two way street and taught us to give and take. So, as an adult, I gave back to the community by serving as a founding member of the Sunnyvale Arts Commission and a member of the board of directors of two community organizations, Asian Americans for Community Involvement and Asian Heritage Council, both based in San Jose, California. In 1989, I co-founded the Northern California-based Asian American Women Artists Association and, in 1991, I became the first Asian Pacific American woman artist appointed to the national board of directors for the Women's Caucus for Art. I belong to the Women of Color in Art Committee of the Women's Caucus and am an active voice in creating a slide registry from women artists of color in this country.
I have traveled extensively to many primary art sites in the world - the prehistoric art caves of Altamira and Lascaux, the cathedrals and museums of Europe, Macchu Picchu, the African Rift valley, Pakistan and China. When I returned to the classroom, I was inspired to teach lessons based on these sites.
I visited the People's Republic of China twice, once in 1994 and again in 1995. In 1994, my family and I traveled to our father's village of Goon Do Haung and to my husband's family village of Nai Gee for two days of reunions with relatives. In Goon Do Haung, we surprised our kin folk because we had lost contact for many years and didn't notify them that we were coming. In the village, I spoke Cantonese fluently and people were delighted that I could speak the village tongue. We met our second cousin and his mother who became the guides to our past. Unknown to our family, they had kept family relics that my mother had left behind when she departed for America. On that first day's visit, my husband and I distributed family photographs and lee see (red envelopes) with money for our relatives. On the second day, we returned to my father's house and burnt incense in memory of our ancestors. We bowed three times, bai sin, in ancient ritual to their honor. Later, my second cousin led us to the grave sites of my father's parents. It was overwhelming to find their graves because we didn't know anything about our paternal grandparents. Before we left the village, we walked on the path where my starving parents, during a famine long ago, stripped leaves and bark from trees for food. We wept when we saw the actual trees.
In 1995, I returned to China and traveled to Huairou as a Women's Caucus for Art (WCA) delegate to the NGO Forum on Women '95. While in Beijing and Huairou, I spoke elementary Mandarin which gave me access to the Chinese people. I collected signatures of women conferees, hotel workers and ordinary citizens on cloth rice sacks for a personal souvenir. The name harvesting opened up interesting dialogues of friendship. On behalf of the WCA, I co-coordinated the U.S. women's color xerox exhibition and moderated and presented a panel featuring Chinese and Chinese American women artists. The Forum was an exhilarating experience which taught me much about issues facing women and girl children today world wide.
I am an artist because I have things to say and I state my private truths. I am fortunate that others have recognized those truths which use formalism along with substantive content from my bi-cultural life in America. Pulling from these multi-sources and putting the final products of personal and political concerns out in public has not been easy. I had to learn to break my silence.
Coming from an immigrant, working class background, I consider myself a community-based narrative artist. Although I was born in America, I know, first hand, the challenges and struggles that my immigrant parents faced in this country. As an artist, I transform their extraordinary experiences and mine to make art which I offer to enrich the lives of all. I have been fortunate to show my work in many places including the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C..
Flo Oy Wong, a 1997 recipient of an installation/new genre fellowship from the Arts Council of Santa Clara and a Nebraska Arts Council Grant, was born and raised in Oakland, California's Chinatown. A contemporary mixed media installation artist since the age of 40, Wong creates narrative work that features personal, cultural and collective tales. She displays her work locally, nationally, and internationally in group and solo exhibitions. In 1994, Wong exhibited in the inaugural National African American Museum Project show at the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, D. C. An Oakland Chinatown drawing is currently featured at the US Embassy in Lusaka, Zambia under the sponsorship of the Art in Embassies Program of the US Department of State. Wong is also showing in a three-year traveling Exhibits USA exhibition entitled "Pure Vision: American Bead Artists."
Wong, a founding member of the city of Sunnyvale's Art Commission, served from 1985-1989 on the board of directors of the Asian Heritage Council board, a San Jose-based arts group. From 1990-1992, she worked as visual arts staff for the Asian Heritage Council. Wong is a co-founder of the Northern California-based Asian American Women Artists Association. In 1997, Wong accepted an appointment to the board of directors of the Arts Council of Santa Clara County. Since 1991 to the present, she has served on the national board of directors of the Women's Caucus for Art (WCA) and is a member of the WCA's Women of Color in Art (WoCA) Committee. As a WoCA member, Wong was instrumental in creating national slide packets of women artists of color. Wong attended the 1995 NGO Forum on Women in Huairou, People's Republic of China as a WCA delegate. Wong co-coordinated a visual arts exhibition and moderated the Chinese Women Artists' Panel at the conference.
Wong lectures on her work at colleges and universities and, in 1995, was a visiting minority scholar at the University of Wisconsin, Madison. Wong lectured spring and fall of 1997 as a resident artist in the University of Nebraska, Lincoln's Artist Diversity Residency Program. She also spoke at local Lincoln high schools and elementary schools. At Lincoln High School, Wong conducted a storytelling workshop for selected students who then created their own photo-based sculptural projects.
Wong has received recognition for her art, art-related community work, and art instruction. Timothy Anglin Burgard, Ednah Root Curator of American Art at the deYoung Museum invited Wong to show and to collaborate on "Art of the America: Identity Crisis". Wong also wrote an essay in the exhibition brochure. Wong has served artist residencies at the following sites: Headlands Center for the Arts, Montalvo Historic Center for the Arts, and Bemis Center for Contemporary Arts in Omaha, Nebraska. In 1992, Wong received an art education award from the Euphrat Museum of Art at DeAnza College in Cupertino, California. In 1995, Wong received the President's Award from the Women's Caucus for Art for her work in connection with the Fourth International Women's Conference in the People's Republic of China. Wong is a 1995-97 California Arts Council Multi-Residency Grant Teacher, teaching at-risk students with the ArtsConnect program of the Arts Council of Santa Clara County.
Essays about Wong and her work have been published in Pluralistic Approaches to Art Criticism, M/E/A/N/I/N/G, and in Women Art Educators III. Square Gone Haywire, a T'ian'anmen Series painting illustrates the cover of A Gathering of Voices on The Asian American Experience from Highsmith Press. Drawings from Wong's Oakland Chinatown Series will illustrate Holt Rinehart & Winston's excerpt of Amy Tan's chapter, "Two Kinds" from THE JOY LUCK CLUB for a 1996/7 multicultural high school reader. Wong will be a featured artist in a Spiritual Values book written by Robert Wuthnow of Princeton University.
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All text and artwork © Flo Oy Wong.