While calmly sipping her tea, Ada Chen wonders why there's a lack of Asian American representation in American pop culture. “Like, memes don’t apply to us,” she says matter of factly. We’re seated at a table in a small dessert cafe on the edge of Manhattan’s Chinatown, just around the corner from her new job. She graduated from Pratt Institute a couple months ago and now works as a jeweler’s assistant, making decorative ornaments for a small shop — a change of pace for a former art student who spent the majority of her senior year crafting sculptural jewelry with a message for her senior thesis.
Recently, one of those pieces went sort-of viral on the internet: a pair of lime green and blue iOS text message-shaped earrings that had engraved on them a particularly stupid, microaggressive exchange that began with the eyeroll-of-a-question: Are you Chinese or Asian? It was a cute piece that doubled as sharp-edged social commentary on the misconceptions surrounding Asian identity. As the photo of the piece made its rounds on the internet, many people began asking her to sell them. (Ada complied, and you can now buy a pair through her website.)
A cursory scroll through Chen's Instagram makes clear that social commentary a-la-clever statement pieces is a comfortable space for her to explore through art. Her works are often extravagant in design, with in-your-face messages challenging Asian American stereotypes. One example is her gold wire headpiece that’s meant to pull at the corner of the wearers eyes to create monolids — or chinky eyes. “What if we wanted our own eyes?” Ada asks, explaining the inspiration to me. “What if other people wanted Asian features?”
The question of “what if” — pointing a finger at a common, shared experience and saying, “What if we embraced this and claimed it loudly as ours?” — has served as prologue to several of her creations. She tells me of new pieces she wants to make: earrings of mobile-esque clothes hangers, (the cheeky message behind the piece being how Chinese American families don’t like to air their dirty laundry), and a dumpling-shaped locket that will secretly store bang snap poppers, a nostalgic artifact from her childhood. For her, these items will all “work towards building culture while also speaking about social issues” — a task of immense proportions, but one that feels infinitely admirable whether possible or not.
How did you start making jewelry?
I was always very artsy. I went to an arts high school that kind of exhausted my joy in painting and traditional arts because that's all we did, so I just became more interested in design. I used to make myself dumb, wire-wrapped beaded jewelry. I actually applied to every college as a fashion [major] but I decided that I didn't really like that industry, so the closest thing was jewelry. It's smaller scale — less pressure is what it seemed like. It was also something that I hadn't learned before, because you don't [usually] have pieces of metal and learn to solder by yourself. It's mostly the design aspect, the functionality of jewelry, that I'm very interested in. It's very satisfying to have a product that you can wear.
That’s very true. In the context of the pieces you did for your senior thesis, which explored identity, do you think that functionality lent something unique that more traditional mediums would not have?
I think because it has so much relation to your body, I can use that to my advantage, because you feel things with your body, you move through space with your body. So the interaction between your [body and the] space is the same as the color of your skin in the space. But other than that, I didn't really see the connection at first because I was super struggling with how to incorporate my interest in social issues with making an impact with my love of craft, because they seemed so disconnected.
Was there a moment when everything clicked for you?
It was my junior year when [my work] was super technique-based, it wasn't really conceptual. There was this take-out box that I made for a chasing and repoussé project and I was like: Actually, this box represents so much in Chinese American culture. Like, it kind of represents my identity in a way — this fake Chinese box for fake Chinese food. It's American but it's the thing most commonly associated with Chinese culture, so I kind of went in the route of literal objects that Chinese Americans have connections to, [in the realm of] childhood, nostalgia and stuff like that. That was the moment that it clicked, like, Why don't I do more with significant objects in [Chinese American] households?
I like the idea of you making Chinese takeaway box out of metal so it’s something more indestructible than paper.
Jewelry in itself has an intrinsic value so I guess putting art in that context elevates it automatically.
Your text message earrings — what was the inspiration behind that?
It really wasn't even that deep. I wanted to explore identity in my thesis and I just remembered having posted that screenshot onto Twitter. It was funny and super representative of how fetishized Asian women are, and how confused people are when it comes to different types of Asian. I was like: How can I put it into a jewelry context, more permanent, with higher value? I think the permanence in the earrings makes it more impactful than just a screenshot because that is so fleeting in social media, [where you] look at a picture and go.
One of my favorite pieces is your Good ABC Behavior brooches engraved with compliments written in Mandarin. Can you tell me the story behind that piece?
Honestly, I didn't even know most of those [Chinese] characters until I asked my mom, “How do you say this, how do you say that?" I think the most important moment is when I go home after college during break and then my aunt or someone else would be like, "Oh, you got paler this time," or "You got darker this time." It's like, every time! So it made me think: OK, what are the standards of being Chinese in this country, since it's so different from where our parents came from? Going back to the language thing, being able to speak Chinese, my mom would always have to say: "Oh yeah, she can speak Cantonese and Taishanese [a village dialect of Cantonese]." That was such a thing to brag about because most children who are like me, first generation, lost that village dialect and they only know Cantonese or none at all.
Do you see people who aren’t Asian as part of your audience?
I don't intend for non-Asians to enjoy [the art] but if they do I'm not going to stop them. I do welcome the learning process of understanding culture, I guess. I'm still figuring out the identity thing, I don't even have everything thought through and I honestly feel like I have to go back to school to study Asian culture or something. Like, I often [ask the] question: What makes my voice valid as one Asian American, Chinese American person? Sometimes I'm even like: Why do people like my jewelry? Is it [because it's] jewelry?
I feel like jewelry is such a specific craft, I guess [people] appreciate [my pieces] for the message. I've been struggling with two sides of people liking my work: the jewelers who appreciate it for the craft, and then the people who appreciate it for the message. It's never a combination.
I definitely think on the consumer side, wearable declarations of politics have become a trend.
That's another thing I keep thinking about. Am I just making trendy art? I question my validity as an artist, but also I'm like, I like memes! Memes are all about trends and I think people who make memes are so freaking smart.
One of my liberal arts professors at Pratt went to my thesis show and saw that. He's white but I respect his opinions and stuff like that. He was like, ”The only piece I didn't like was the eyelid piece. C’mon. So obvious." I guess I see what [he] means but maybe [it’s] because [he’s] a part of the culture that makes fun of them...
Maybe he doesn't understand the weight of it. As a Chinese American you grow up with people telling you that double eyelids are desirable.
And [with] other people pulling their eyes back.
A lot of your pieces seem observational, and documenting what it's like to be Chinese American in America.
Yeah! ‘Cause I don't want it to be all politics, you know? Going back to [what I was saying about] memes for Asian Americans and creating a pop culture that we can relate to; Even having a musical artist who is Asian is crazy mind blowing. Because growing up I was super into hip-hop and stuff like that, but that's not my personal culture, even though I enjoy it. But it's hard to create an Asian American pop culture because there are so many Asian ethnicities. Our parents don't all come from the same country and there's the language barrier, and there's colorism in Asia, and South East Asians don't get as much representation in this country. It's just super complicated, but I wanted to work towards building culture while also speaking about social issues — it doesn't all have to be negative.