SAN FRANCISCO — Yao Hong’s mixed media installation, “Erotic Wallpaper,” hangs at the entryway to the Chinese Culture Center (CCC), and curator Hoi Leung says the work of the transgender artist, one of three from Taiwan in the show, sets the tone for the exhibition WOMEN我們: From Her to Here.
“We wanted to almost confront the audience into her identity before they even come in, so queerness becomes something you cannot ignore,” Leung said. “They’re very intimate and they’re very tender, but they’re also radical and loud,” she elaborated on the wallpapers’ designs. “They have these dichotomies and this in betweenness that I try to hold the feeling of this exhibition in.”
The show features the art collective Queer Reads Library, and 10 LGBTQ+ and feminist contemporary artists from New York, the Bay Area, Beijing, and Hong Kong, as well as Taiwan.
A 1997 short documentary by Madeleine Lim, founder of the Queer Women of Color Media Arts Project, plays in the gallery. The film, “Sambal Belacan in San Francisco,” which was banned in Singapore, traces three first-generation immigrant lesbians from Singapore trying to create a home in San Francisco. Chelsea Ryoko Wong’s brightly colored paintings show places in San Francisco’s Chinatown, including the Li Po Cocktail Lounge (still standing), which is considered a haven for gay servicemen.
“This was 1940s in Chinatown, and there were a lot of night clubs, theaters, bands,” Leung said. “So I wanted to put in some of that culture and energy.”
Another filmmaker, Tina Takemoto, has a movie about Margaret Chung, the first Chinese American doctor in the United States. Takemoto heard about Chung from their partner, Amy Sueyoshi, a queer historian, and their imagination was caught by the emergency surgeon who founded a medical clinic in San Francisco’s Chinatown.
“[Chung] would drive around with celebrities like Sophie Tucker,” Takemoto said. “It was exciting to think about an Asian American lesbian lighting up the town.”
Takemoto says the more they learned about Chung, the more complicated her life seemed. Infatuated with the military and pilots, Chung was involved with poet Elsa Gidlow and the opera singer Lily Pons, along with Tucker. She was friends with Virginia Hill, Bugsy Siegal’s ex-girlfriend, and Takemoto says that their research revealed that Chung probably moved money and drugs for large crime syndicates.
Ambitious and driven by the desire for belonging and fame, Chung never quite got what she wanted, Takemoto thinks. They tried to capture that in the 2021 short film, “Ever Wanting (for Margaret Chung),” using archival and handmade footage that shows a cycle of desire, with birds flying to reflect Chung’s love of aviation, and then escalating the tempo and intensity with images of parachutes coming down to represent coming off a high.
Taiwanese artist Chen Han-Sheng combines twined flowers (used in brides’ wedding headdresses in Taiwan) with a print of a plant in his 2020 work “When I Was a Child,” reflecting on a boy found dead in his school bathroom, who was known to be bullied for “feminine” behavior. His death led to the Gender Equality Education Act in Taiwan. Through an email, translated by Leung, Han-Sheng said the boy’s mother kept a plant, a Rohdea japonica, which was her son’s, like the one depicted in his work.
“I’m hearing from queer Asian folks it’s been so liberating and healing,” Leung said. “I know with the Atlanta incident, people come to this space knowing there’s a whole world outside of narrow narratives that we’re being presented with right now. We always want to express our whole selves.”
WOMEN我們: From Her to Here continues at the Chinese Culture Center (750 Kearny St 3rd Floor, San Francisco) through August 28. The exhibition was curated by Hoi Leung.