Paul Wong Is Queering Chinatown

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This article is part of Hyperallergics 2024 Pride Month series, featuring interviews with art-world queer and trans elders throughout June.

Paul Wong seems to always be in motion. The 69-year-old artist, curator, and organizer co-founded the Satellite Video Exchange Society, now VIVO Media Arts Center, which celebrates its 51st anniversary this year. But he’s not resting on his laurels: As he spoke over Zoom from his spacious Vancouver studio, he picked up his laptop and panned to black-and-white photographs and sheets of printed text pinned to his wall, a glimpse into the preparation of a Vancouver Art Gallery show he’s curating on the Japanese-Canadian photographer Tamio Wakayama. 

Wong has also developed Pride in Chinatown, an annual series of exhibitions and performances rooted in a 2018 residency at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in Vancouver. While telling me this, he flung his distressed jean jacket open like a superhero, baring a black t-shirt with “Pride in Chinatown” printed in hot pink. He recently premiered his first sound installation, “Be Like Sound” (2022) — a riff on Bruce Lee’s famous quote, “Be like water.” Indeed, our conversation flowed freely with a fluidity that permeates his work at large, blurring the boundaries between categories and experimenting with methods of moving through the world. 

* * *

Hyperallergic: Tell me about your practice. 

Paul Wong: I am a lens-based artist; I frame the world through my lenses. I picked up a video camera in high school, and that was my primary medium for decades. That’s how I thought, you know? That is what really introduced me to interdisciplinary performance, installation, photography, sound — working with all kinds of artists in front of, behind, and around the lens. 

In fact, I currently have my first sound-only installation called “Be Like Sound,” you know, spinning off of Bruce Lee’s “Be like water” quote. I recorded different kinds of waters, from creeks to oceans to waves to rapids. I was thinking that sound can also take many kinds of shapes, can go around and through things. It was configured in this half circle of large round screens in a public plaza with 16 speakers. You can walk through it, and all the sounds and visuals play together in short, non-synchronous loops, so it’s ever-changing. 

You could stay, become absorbed, or you could just walk through it and by it. The inspiration was the disappearing sounds of Chinatown. 

H: Speaking of famous quotes about water, I’m thinking about that Heraclitus quote: “No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

PW: Yes — I think of my work kind of like jazz. A free-form, improvisational conversation. I did a site-specific public art project recently for the Vancouver Opera. I cast opera singers. Three of the four identify as queer, and one performed his own material in drag. There was no storyboard, no beginning, no middle. It was about giving the performers the space to be themselves outside of the opera. It was about the instruments and voices, without the trappings of the opera stage. So what you hear is not necessarily what you see.

H: Can you tell me about how Vancouver’s annual Pride in Chinatown series of exhibitions and performances began? 

PW: It started with a year-long residency I did at the Dr. Sun Yat-Sen Classical Chinese Garden in 2018. It was transformative, both for myself and for the garden, to shift from being solely a tourist destination to creating programming that was for the locals. I saw it as an opportunity to experiment with what it could be besides a passive garden.

H: That makes me think of water, too: its shiftiness, its capacity to change dynamically. An issue often discussed in Asian diasporic circles is that “authenticity” is conflated with tradition, things that are legibly “Asian.” How did that influence your programming?

PW: It was about shifting away from the usual exhibitions of scrolls and brush painting to more performance and contemporary forms of art. I invited queer drag artists to collaborate with traditional Chinese opera singers. In Chinese opera, men traditionally played the role of women. Now, women have also been playing men’s roles. That was the beginning of this idea of queering Chinatown and claiming a space where we were never welcome or visible.

H: It sounds like collaboration is key to your practice — much of your work seems to be about inviting others in.

PW: Part of being a mentor is inviting collaboration: featuring pan-Asian artists, fostering new art forms, new kinds of collaborations. Creating incubators that don’t just allow for queer Asian artists to make conventional art forms with some queer imagery, but really to try to be something else.

H: What strategies have you used to queer spaces throughout your career? 

PW: You know, I’m often called blunt. Being an elder and having that experience now — it’s hard to say “no” when I ask because I won’t take no for an answer. I have always tried to create a space that’s about yeses.

I think that goes back to my beginnings, to picking up the video camera when it was marginalized in the art world. We were forced to be outsiders, so we created our own stuff in our own ways and developed our own audiences. We were forced to play outside, so we created our own sandbox. I look back and I thank those gatekeepers. We networked with lots of people in New York and around the world who were doing the same thing: work that was radical, experimental, gender-bending. Work that was radically queer. That’s been the foundation for everything I do. Queers created extended families for survival.

I was involved in collectives and groups, and starting artist’s spaces — there was a lot of support and funding in Canada. It allowed us to create a different kind of art production that is not market-driven or based on art fairs. There was ephemeral performance and work about politicized identities; these were safe spaces for us to play, experiment, and evolve as artists, administrators, and facilitators. You were looking at my stuff, and I was looking at yours.

Within spaces like Video-Inn, there were always incredible queer voices. We had a library where anybody could come in and watch this work, some of which was interviews with trans people or performance artists who were doing extremely queer performances. Our mandate was always to provide equipment, access, and training for marginalized voices. Satellite Video Exchange Society was an incredible playground. I also hung out at Western Front, which was more into conceptual performance and experimental art. These were serious breeding grounds for mentorship. People came and went as visiting artists who allowed me to observe, listen to, and play with others.

H: Who were some of the people whose work attracted you? 

PW: I was attracted to the freaks in the art world. In the early ’70s, when I was a teenager, it was the New York Dolls, the Velvet Underground, David Bowie, Lou Reed. Andy Warhol’s Factory. They all seemed like, wow — this is not polite society. The Dalessandros, the Taylor Meads, the Vivas. People who had turned their back on the White middle class. These were nonbinary people, pansexuals, people who seemed to be having a lot of fun, people who were beautiful. And in the ’80s, the AIDS crisis was foundational. That’s a period that I lived through, fearfully, and came out the other end. I think about what was lost during that period — and what was made. People like General Idea, and Gran Fury. The work of ACT UP. 

And now, Kent Monkman. He’s someone who I’ve known for many years. He’s a painter, a multidisciplinary, Indigenous artist, who’s mischievous and doing these levels of critique around colonialism and postcolonialism, gender and queerness. 

H: When did you yourself come out?

PW: There was no great big “YouTube” moment — that seems to be the thing these days. I was attracted to being an artist very early on. The making of art, be it drawing or video, was an early escape. It allowed me to focus, and the rest just … disappeared. It represented a certain kind of freedom and within that freedom was self-expression: being whatever you might want to be.


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