Hong Kong

It’s already been a couple of months since my 3 week stay in Hong Kong earlier this summer, but it actually took me quite a while to slog through an overload of thoughts and impressions in order to come to some useful, simplified observations.

First off: I grew up in Hong Kong. I lived here from ages 2 to 7, and my sister was born there. Despite my many trips to Asia, I’d never managed to get around to returning here, though.

When Herb and I passed through the city for a few days in 2015, it was the first time I’d been back as an adult. I was immediately struck by how intensely familiar it felt, despite how dramatically different it now was. The air just felt right on my skin; the smells and sounds felt true–like…home, somehow. Given my peripatetic childhood, “home” is always a loose concept, at best–nothing I expect to feel like permanence, but familiar is always nice. I finally identified Hong Kong as the place that anchored my deepest formative memories, and determined that I’d be back for a longer stay in the future.

HK from TST on the Star Ferry
HK from TST on the Star Ferry
Admiralty sunset mirage
Admiralty sunset mirage

In the past couple of years since that first taste, it became very clear that spending time here just made sense professionally, too.  Since Hong Kong is rapidly becoming the epicenter of the globalized art world, I had an interest in learning more about what that really looked like and how it functioned, in order to better serve my teaching and studio practice.

the venerable Pedder Building, ground zero for fancy art galleries
the venerable Pedder Building, ground zero for international art galleries like Pearl Lam and Lehmann Maupin

While I spent a decent amount of time investigating local galleries and art spaces,  it felt like I barely scratched the surface of the array of venues and events here. I was disappointed to miss out on the M+ Pavilion (its show closed right before I arrived) and a few other interesting spots seemed to be entering something like a summer hiatus, but I was exceptionally glad to finally experience established arts venues like Asia Art Archive, Asia Society, Osage and Para/Site, after many years of curiosity.

installation from artist project at Para/Site addressing local agriculture politics
detail of Chloe Cheuk’s sculpture at Asia Society

I was also particularly glad to see a lot of smaller initiatives promoting art and art education at a more local community level, like Comix Zone and Oi!. Some local friends of mine also turned me on to more underground projects involving community kitchens and comics workshops with migrant domestic helpers, which were really inspiring and ultimately more compelling than the commercial galleries.

catching up with Old Master Q in the Comix Zone reading library
‘So Boring’ pay-what-you-can community cafe and activist library, Yau Ma Tei

That said, the commercial gallery scene was still fascinating in its own way, if a very glossy, moneyed way . While a couple of elite club venues felt more like vanity projects for the banking class, many legit spaces were intent on presenting serious, smart, blue chip-calibre shows that I was really impressed by.

Lee Kit at Massimo De Carlo

As a way to give my days some kind of structure and as a reason to dig into culture a little deeper, I enrolled in Mandarin language lessons for 2 weeks. I felt conflicted about not studying Cantonese, since it’s really the primary language of HK (and SF, really), but the reality is that Mandarin is more broadly useful, especially with many of my international students. Still, I love the sound of Cantonese: it’s more familiar to my ears, having grown up with it. And I do already speak a tiny bit of it, so now that I’ve got some grammar basics under my belt, hopefully I’ll continue to build up both languages, if slowly and clumsily. Baby steps.

Two weeks of Mandarin is barely enough time to get past pronunciation and some basic pleasantries, but it was still well worthwhile: my instructor was fantastic about providing cultural context for the language, and we’d often veer productively off-course from the lesson when I had questions about other phrases I wanted to understand.

(this is actually Ko Sin Tung’s piece in the Asia Society show entitled “Spectacular Seaview”, which is more of an ironic commentary on luxury real estate than an illustration of my new language skills)

But back to the initial premise of this extended stay. There’s really something to be said for addressing one’s formative experiences, which is something that had never interested me directly before now. It’s been a strange and fascinating thing to realize that all of my earliest conscious memories and impressions are HK. Some of these are dream-like: the hallucinatory images of a small child, colors, patterns and smells that are stuck to me for the rest of my life. And some of these are truly weird: for instance, while I’ve always told people I grew up in Hong Kong, I didn’t notice how odd it was that my experience of this involved growing up in a haunted house at the back of a Tsuen Wan oil terminal, wedged between all of the oil tanks, pipelines, an abattoir AND a massive cemetery.

Oil terminal, house on hill, cemetery, from a family album (abattoir behind house/below cemetery)

And so, even though the terminal was torn down years ago, I made it a personal mission to trek out to the remaining cemetery to see what I could see. This turned out to be an excellent use of an afternoon (and a lovely view, to boot).

Tsuen Wan cemetery view towards Rambler Channel, Gin Drinkers Bay and Tsing Yi

And given Hong Kong’s subtropical climate, after various sweltering adventures to cemeteries and the like, I also found it deeply satisfying to go cool off by swimming at as many beaches as I could. This is something our family did constantly when we lived here, as do many locals and expats. My childhood revolved around the water here, so I reveled in any grown-up opportunity I could squeeze in to retreat to a neighboring island or beach.

cheung chau
Cheung Chau
cheung sha
Cheung Sha
deepwater bay 2017
Deepwater Bay

I started keeping a new art journal during this trip that many of these impressions and images are making their way into: it seems a new body of work is on the way in response to all of this, so consider this post a brief introduction into what will probably be some sort of exhibition or project in the near future. Until then, I’ll leave you with this favorite image of 2 Woffords, many years ago, having a fine father-daughter moment at the very same beach you see above.

Deepwater Bay, earlier
Deepwater Bay, version 1.0




Madonna Inn

A few pics from last weekend’s M.O.B. retreat at the ancestral palace.

m inn m inn 1 m inn 2
We’ve been coming here on our M.O.B. retreats for 15 years, but it’s been 5 long years since our last visit.

mob retreat 2005
M.O.B. planning retreat for AABNAB, 2005


M.O.B. visit, 2012

Sometimes we’ve come on a mission to shoot photo/video for a specific project, but often the images have simply evolved out of whatever we were actually meeting/retreating about, as more of a serendipitous afterthought. This serendipity is not purely spontaneous, of course: I’ll refer you back to that Louis Pasteur quote I like about “chance favoring the prepared”. With this in mind, some costumes and lights usually find their way into the trunk of someone’s car in advance of the drive there in a “just in case the spirit moves us” capacity.

But of course, the spirit usually moves us. And, after all, it just feels wrong to be in staying such splendor and to not bestow our own magnificence upon these fair environs in return. (see: piazza)


m inn 4


Some more nice recent news I can now make public: “SF Bay Guardians“, my storm drain murals project with the San Francisco Arts Commission, was selected for inclusion in the  Americans for the Arts 2017 Public Art Network (PAN) Year in Review! This is national recognition for the best in public art projects, given annually. It was announced at the Public Art Pre-conference of the Americans for the Arts Annual Convention.

I honestly didn’t even know that this award existed, but Jennifer Lovvorn (my project’s program manager at SFAC) submitted it for consideration earlier this year: she then gave me the good news last month. I’ve since learned that only a small percentage of the submitted projects are selected for inclusion, so it’s actually a fairly big deal in the public art field.  I am grateful to Jenn for submitting it, and to the jurors for selecting it. Hooray!

Here’s the official PAN Year In Review listing, on the Americans for the Arts website.


M.O.B. is in a big group show at SJ ICA on a subject near and dear to my packrat heart: the unseen scraps and ephemera that are part of every artist’s process. Rather than showing finished objects, Kevin Chen, Lisa Ellsworth and Lordy Rodriguez curated this behemoth of odds and ends, corralling more than 100 artists into it. It opened on June 25.

Below, a few of the process screenshots in Detritus, taken during the development and making of 2010’s Chatsilog, recorded via chat when I was in Prague, Reanne was in LA, Eliza and Carlos Villa were in SF, for Green Papaya Art Projects in Quezon City:

chatsi 5 chatsi 9 chatsi 12 chatsi 16

San Jose Institute of Contemporary Art
June 25 – September 10
Curators’ Walk-through: 3 pm, August 6


I was recently awarded a 2017-2018 Individual Artist Commission Grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission. On top of a couple of other recent wins AND losses and with finances a little more uncertain this year, it feels exceptionally good, and timely, to have this support.

That said, it’s always important to retain perspective on the nature of these odds, and how inconsistent they can be. Lately, I’ve had a nice string of wins, but I never expect it to stay that way. It’s not for lack of confidence. Being confident is one thing; feeling entitled is another.

I recently ran into a friend who was up for a different opportunity that I’d also applied for. Even though neither of us got it, I’d made it further down the process than him, and had been a finalist for the opp. He opined that he “knew it was going to go to a woman” (which it had, although the finalists were evenly split, gender-wise.) In my irritation with his perspective, I asserted to him that the job went to the person that was the best candidate, end of story. (Personally, I thought that I was the strongest applicant, but I wasn’t the right fit for what the committee ultimately decided that they needed. Missing out didn’t diminish my sense of self, and didn’t lead to me blaming an imaginary quota system as it did for my friend.)

Competitive opportunities are not about awarding some universally-agreed-upon notion of “quality”. There’s no such thing. They’re really about whether your agenda and experience as an artist meshes well with the agenda of the committee considering your materials. Contending with regular rejections for awards, gigs and other opportunities can be daunting, but it’s 100% the reality of being a professional artist. As someone who not only applies for grants but often sits on grant committees and juries for these things, I’ve accumulated some perspective on the matter.

First: be real about the terms of the applications you intend to submit for. Do your homework and assess whether your experience or proposal seems like a truly good potential match for the opportunity: like any budding relationship, attraction and compatibility have to be mutual to work out successfully in the long run.

In my time on these committees, I’ve observed that while the decision-making process is reasonably fair, it’s never purely objective. Jurors are often bleary-eyed after reviewing piles and piles of artist proposals, and often become justifiably impatient with meandering applications that waste their time. One juror may have preference for a certain style/concept that is a mismatch with an applicant’s proposal. Another juror might forget protocol: I’ve personally intervened when I’ve seen committee members start bending rules to offer personal extra information about a candidate, or when they’ve veered away from the established rubric/criteria for assessment. Jurying can be tiring; people forget themselves.

On the other side, I’ve seen artists sabotage their own applications by willfully ignoring the guidelines, exceeding word-count limits, making poor choices about portfolio samples, or flat-out lying about their eligibility/history. I’ve also listened to artists express frustration about not getting awards when  they had limited experience with applications and had only applied to a couple of things, ever. Worst of all, I’ve watched artists simply give up after a rejection or two.

Understanding that an application is a separate craft that needs to be honed like any other skill—with practice, repetition, trial and error—is crucial. It gets better and easier the more you apply. If there is an option to take an application or grant-writing workshop, do so. Have a trusted/experienced friend review your application honestly and critically.  Give yourself time to muddle through your proposal ideas: it might not come together until the last minute, but drafts and scribbles well in advance will make the difference in the final push. If you need recommendation letters, ask at least a month in advance, and provide your recommender with a skeleton list of salient points they should address in their letter. Make sure to profusely thank anyone who helps you.

Healthy perspective is important. As a reality check, even artists who are highly experienced grant-writers, with strong portfolios and experience, receive maybe 15% of the opportunities that they apply for. 5-10% is common. It can help to look at one rejection as simply one necessary step on the path to improving your percentages. Knowing the odds can be helpful: are you competing against 20 people, or 200? These odds are why it’s all the more important to keep applying for a variety of competitive opportunities.

Feeling disappointment is real, but getting disheartened is kind of pointless. I’ve been both accepted and rejected for applications many times. You win some, you lose some. Learn what you can from the process. Over time, I learned what kinds of opportunities I tend to do well on, and which ones might not favor my work. I figured out my shortcomings and my strengths in applications, and what works best. But I’ve also learned that after a point it’s out of my control, and in the hands of a jury that may or may not like what I do. And that’s OK.

External validations and competitions are part of a system that has only as much power over your sense of self as you allow. If it’s a system that doesn’t work for you, come up with one that does. If it’s a system you need, then learn how to flex your practice and your application abilities to respond to its realities. Know that your creativity and your art practice are always a separate thing of joy, and that you can and will keep making and sharing things, regardless.