Tuesday Night Café Showcases Asian American Talent

Tuesday Night Café in the Aratani Courtyard of Union Center for the Arts. Photo: Fiona Potter for Discover Nikkei.
Tuesday Night Café in the Aratani Courtyard of Union Center
for the Arts. Photo: Fiona Potter for Discover Nikkei.

 

Recently a friend took me to experience Tuesday Night Café, an Asian American grassroots entertainment event held in the Aratani Courtyard of the Union Center for the Arts. I didn’t think I’d last through the three-hour-long evening of amateur and open mic acts, but much to my surprise, I found myself riveted to the very end by the event’s quality and variety. There were slam poets, folk singers, dancers, and even a female rap artist, and every one was excellent and had something unique to offer.

I was amazed that such a thing existed right under my nose here in Little Tokyo without my knowledge, so I did some research. Tuesday Night Café is actually the oldest currently running Asian American open mic event in the country. Launched in 1999, it is the flagship program of Tuesday Night Project, an Asian-American volunteer-based organization. Each Café begins with three open mic slots, followed by a curated program. TNC has been named to several Top Ten lists by such publications as USA Today and LA Weekly.

TNC is currently organized by Sean Miura, Producer and Lead Curator, and Quincy Surasmith, Communications Manager and Associate Producer. Quincy graciously agreed to answer a few questions via email so we could learn more about the project.

JANM: I was truly impressed by both the quantity and the quality of talent that I saw on display at the last TNC. How do you find so many amazing acts?

QS: I think it’s a mix of people (artists, organizers, and other community members) connecting folks to our space and us making sure we build the kind of space where these amazing performers feel encouraged and safe and have the opportunity to really shine. We also do our best to get out to other spaces and events in the city, such as Sunday Jump in Historic Filipinotown, Common Ground in Santa Ana, and Kollaboration, to name just a few—supporting them and building bridges with their organizers and artists.

Tuesday Night Café. Photo: Fiona Potter for Discover Nikkei.
Tuesday Night Café. Photo: Fiona Potter for Discover Nikkei.

 

JANM: When curating the Tuesday Night Café, what are the criteria that you use?

QS: We look at each show holistically; each program is a careful balance of people with different disciplines, experience levels, artistic content, and identities/backgrounds. We also want to set a tone that Tuesday Night Café isn’t just a handful of open mic slots nor an “established stars only” showcase, but a place where everyone can experience those beautiful fleeting moments of raw, outside-your-comfort-zone, heart-palpitatingly earnest connection with someone’s words, voice, movement, emotion, sound, and story. Creating a positive space for the performers helps both emerging and seasoned artists feel comfortable taking risks, trying new things, and using our space to grow.

JANM: I imagine many TNC performers go on to successful careers in show business. Any famous alumni you care to name?

QS: Artists like Connie Lim and Mista Cookie Jar continue to amaze audiences with their music, while folks like Dawen and David Tran aka Applesauce are sharing their music abroad (in Taiwan and Vietnam, respectively). Jenny Yang is a rising dynamo producing Disoriented Comedy shows and showing up all over the place (notably on Buzzfeed). Greg Watanabe of the 18 Mighty Mountain Warriors is making his Broadway debut this fall in the musical Allegiance.

While those are a few of the successes we celebrate, it’s important to note that Tuesday Night Project is less about celebrity and more about artists in process, trying things, collaborating, and creating their own respective paths. We want to celebrate each career as each person finds their own understanding of success, famous or otherwise!

Priska Neely mesmerizes the audience with her funny, mellow songs. Photo: Audrey Chan.
Priska Neely mesmerizes the audience
with her funny, mellow songs.
Photo: Audrey Chan.

JANM: TNC is 17 years old this year. Can you reflect on some of the changes and accomplishments that have occurred over the years?

QS: I’ve only been in the space since 2009, but in that time, I’ve seen a noticeable shift from a word-of-mouth, come-because-you’re-connected-to-someone, heard-about-it-through-the-community-grapevine project to a known-entity, internet-searchable, come-for-the-opportunities-to-perform kind of audience and space. This means a lot more people are coming in fresh; a significant portion of the crowd are first-timers at each show! But it also means that people are coming who don’t yet understanding who we are and what we’re about, so it’s even more important that we’re really clear about what we’re doing and why we’re doing it.

JANM: What is your vision for TNC going forward?

QS: I’d love to sort through our archive footage and photos to reconnect with and share our history, build more partnerships, and strengthen our online presence. Ultimately though, it’s not about growing Tuesday Night Project into some huge expansive brand for its own sake. We share art to build and bridge communities; validate and highlight diverse Asian American voices and stories; create safe, positive space; and at our core (as our Director/Co-Founder traci kato-kiriyama will gladly remind us), cherish people as each others’ greatest resource. Everything we’ve done and continue to do is with constant mindful consideration of those intentions.

Tuesday Night Café runs from April through October each year, taking place on the first and third Tuesday nights from 7 to 10 p.m. The last two Cafés of 2015 will take place on October 6 and 20. If you can’t attend in person, you can watch their live feed.

Minha Park Searches for “Elusive Snow”

First & Central’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month concludes with this post. It has been a pleasure to spotlight diverse, Los Angeles–based, Asian-American artists who deal with themes of history, language, and identity in their work. We hope you’ve enjoyed this series as much as we have.

Minha Park, A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), still from HD video
Minha Park, A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), still from HD video

 

Born in Seoul, South Korea, artist and filmmaker Minha Park moved to Los Angeles to attend graduate school at California Institute of the Arts (CalArts). She now divides her time between L.A. and Seoul.

In A Story of Elusive Snow (2013), completed the year she graduated from CalArts, Park explores her new life in L.A. and her longing for South Korea, or what she calls her “motherland.” She particularly misses the phenomenon of snow, which she refers to as if it were a friend—“Not her voice, or her image. I miss her physical presence.” She finds however that L.A., being the land of special effects magic and wish fulfillment, offers many unique opportunities for conjuring an experience of snow.

A Story Of Elusive Snow ( 2013 ) 9min excerpts from Minha Park on Vimeo.

This delightful video work tracks Park’s wistful journey to find snow, incorporating vintage Hollywood movie scenes and well-known L.A. landmarks along the way. In addition to evoking longing, nostalgia, and playfulness, A Story of Elusive Snow also expresses Park’s feeling of being a stranger in Southern California—a feeling symbolized by the incongruence of snow on Hollywood Boulevard.

The video ends with manufactured snow overflowing from a Hollywood souvenir mug, a moment that is both joyful and absurd. In the artist’s own words, “Could [the protagonist] ever get her snow? In the last scene, the souvenir cup with the Hollywood logo can’t contain the snow that she made. Her personal longing for snow thus collides with a fundamental human desire for elusive magic and illusion.”

Terry Chatkupt Revisits His Parents’ Past

First & Central’s celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month continues, as we spotlight diverse, Los Angeles–based Asian-American artists who deal with themes of history, language, and identity in their work.

Terry Chatkupt, Post, 2011, HD digital video.
Terry Chatkupt, still from Post, 2011, HD digital video.

 

Thai-American artist Terry Chatkupt makes highly visual and evocative video works, often reveling in landscapes and their effects on individual psyches. Abstract pieces like Wayfinding and Post traverse iconic sites like the Los Angeles River and Southern California’s freeway interchanges, setting them into motion like extended dreams. Videos with narratives like Haunt, Lost and Found, and Transferase are also firmly embedded into specific landscapes, whose mysterious qualities help the artist tell psychologically loaded stories.

Early in his career, Chatkupt made several works that explored his family’s immigrant history. Among these is the short 2007 video Untitled (Conversation), featured below. In it, a slideshow of vintage photographs taken by his parents shortly after they immigrated to the Midwestern United States is accompanied by a recorded telephone conversation between Chatkupt and his father. Chatkupt asks his father about the Vietnam War and how it informed their decision to settle in Missouri in the early 1970s.

Untitled (Conversation) from Terry Chatkupt on Vimeo.

The images we see are of a young Thai couple and their child, adrift in a new environment that is no doubt markedly different from their native country. Chatkupt’s mother is often seen standing alone in the midst of a stark plain or plaza, dressed in the styles of another era. Meanwhile, his father’s description of the spotty nature of government communications regarding the war heightens the sense of displacement evoked by the photographs. The anxiety of the historical events that he talks about adds a certain tension to the anticipatory faces of the young couple, even as they attend eagerly to their new baby and their new lives.

Explore more of Chatkupt’s work—which also includes photography, installation, and public projects—on his website or on his Vimeo page.

Audrey Chan Deconstructs Chinatown’s History and Culture

May is Asian Pacific American Heritage Month! To celebrate, First & Central will spend the next few weeks spotlighting works by diverse, Los Angeles–based Asian-American artists who deal with themes of history, language, and identity.

Audrey Chan, Chinatown Abecedario: A Folk Taxonomy of L.A.’s Chinatown (2012), HD video with voiceovers in English, Cantonese, Spanish, and Mandarin, TRT: 14 min.
Audrey Chan, Chinatown Abecedario: A Folk Taxonomy
of L.A.’s Chinatown
(2012), animation still.

 

To kick things off, we are pleased to present a video work by Audrey Chan, a Chinese-American artist and writer. Through playful animation and witty word play, Chinatown Abecedario (2012) sketches out what Chan calls a “folk taxonomy” of the old L.A. neighborhood, in which each letter of the alphabet inspires a miniature historical vignette:

Anna May Wong ate abalone with artists on Alameda.
The punk plucked pipa under the pagoda.
Utensils of an underclass utopia were unearthed from under Union Station.

These vignettes whimsically weave together the multifaceted elements that make up Chinatown’s history and character—early Hollywood stars, the first Asian American art gallery, the restaurant scene, the 1970s/80s punk rock scene, and the razing of the first Chinatown, located at the present-day site of Union Station. Through free association, they conjure a complex ecosystem that is sometimes at odds with itself. The words are recited in four of the most commonly spoken languages of L.A. (English, Cantonese, Spanish, and Mandarin), reflecting the many cultural influences that seep into any immigrant community.

Chinatown Abecedario: A Folk Taxonomy of L.A.’s Chinatown from Audrey Chan on Vimeo.

Chinatown Abecedario was commissioned by the Chinese American Museum as part of its 2012 group exhibition, (de)Constructing Chinatown. As curator Steve Wong wrote in the exhibition’s catalogue: “Chan’s perspective is influenced by Émile Durkheim and Claude Lévi-Strauss, who propose that the process of learning draws upon the knowledge and beliefs within a local culture, thereby creating a set of ideas that are passed on within a community.”

Author Lisa See’s Unexpected Connections to Japanese American History

ChinaDollsCover.final Lisa See’s bestselling novels—which have included Shanghai Girls, Dreams of Joy, and Snow Flower and the Secret Fan—are known for telling compelling stories of human relationships set against the rich backdrop of Chinese and Chinese American history. Her latest novel, released last June, is no different.

Set in San Francisco on the eve of World War II, China Dolls follows three independent young women as they revel in the city’s exciting and glamorous Chinatown nightclub scene. The women become close friends, sharing secrets and supporting one another through struggles and triumphs. When the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbor however, it sets in motion a chain of events that threatens to change their lives forever.

One of the remarkable things about China Dolls is that it captures some key connections between Chinese American and Japanese American experiences. As in much of her work, See draws on her own family’s history to weave some of China Dolls’ narrative. During World War II, See’s grandparents lived in and took care of the home of the Oki family while they were imprisoned in camp. While many Japanese Americans lost everything after the war, the Oki family was able to return to their home and their belongings. In China Dolls, the incarceration of Japanese Americans plays a major role in the book, with vivid passages describing life in the camps.

Hideo Date Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum, gift of Hideo Date.
Hideo Date, Where South and North Winds Meet, ca. 1940, watercolor and gouache on paper. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Hideo Date.

 

See’s family history intersected with Japanese American history in other significant ways. In 1935, Eddy and Stella See (Lisa’s grandparents) opened the Dragon’s Den restaurant in the basement of the F. Suie One Company, located in Los Angeles’ original Chinatown. Eddy See commissioned three artists, including his good friend Benji Okubo, to paint murals of mythical Asian figures like the Eight Immortals on the restaurant’s exposed brick walls. See had already been selling artworks by all his friends in a small gallery in the mezzanine. These included works by Okubo, Hideo Date, and Tyrus Wong, who went on to become an influential graphic artist after creating the signature look for Disney’s Bambi movie.

Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum. Gift of Chisato Okubo.
Benji Okubo, Portrait of Sissee See, c. 1927–45. Japanese American National Museum.
Gift of Chisato Okubo.

The Dragon’s Den became a popular gathering spot for artists and actors, and See’s gallery now stands as an important early effort to show the work of Asian American artists. Many of these artists continued to exhibit together, earning a few different nicknames as a group, such as “the Orientalists.” Today, many works by Date and Okubo—along with those of the latter’s sister, Mine Okubo—are proudly featured in JANM’s permanent collection. (Pictured at right is Benji Okubo’s portrait of Lisa See’s great-aunt Florence See Leong, nicknamed “Sissee.”)

This Saturday, January 31, Lisa See will be at JANM to discuss China Dolls and her family’s connections to Japanese American history. She will also take questions from the audience.

China Dolls can be purchased from the JANM Store and online at janmstore.com. For a more in-depth profile of the author, check out this new feature story on Discover Nikkei.