Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 84: Queering Diasporic Narratives — with Jen Sungshine

Speakers: Melissa Roach, Am Johal, Jen Sungshine


Melissa Roach  0:06  
Hi, I'm Melissa Roach and you're listening to Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of the Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples.


Melissa Roach  0:23 
For this episode of Below the Radar, our guest is Jen Sungshine, a queer, Taiwanese interdisciplinary artist, activist, facilitator, and community mentor, who's also a founder of Love Intersections. A Media Arts Collective made up of queer artists of color Jen's in conversation with our host Am Johal about using love and art to bust apart racist and queerphobic narratives. I hope you enjoy.

Am Johal  0:53  
Welcome to Below the Radar today. Joining us is special guest Jen Sungshine. Welcome, Jen. 

Jen Sungshine  1:00
Hello, thanks for having me. 

Am Johal  1:02  
Really great to be able to chat with you on Below the Radar. I know we were also going to be having your collaborator David Ng here but there seems to be a key issue. 

Jen Sungshine  1:13
Yeah, the key issue is literally a key. He is outside his apartment as we are speaking right now. His key got jammed in the lock. So he's stuck there ostensibly. So he's got a locksmith going and it's hopefully gonna resolve itself. 

Am Johal  1:30 
It's a phenomenon and I think it's really important that we document it on Below the Radar just so listeners at home do not lock yourself in your suite. It's very dangerous. But we wish the best for David.

Jen Sungshine  1:44  
Thank you. He wants to be here. I can assure you.

Am Johal  1:48  
Now, you two have been collaborating on Love Intersections for the past six years, and our audience might not be aware of what Love Intersections is. So if you could walk us through the history of this project and what it is. 

Jen Sungshine  2:03  
Sure, yeah, so I met David Ng six years ago. And the story kind of roughly goes that I picked him up at Media Democracy Day at the Vancouver Public Library. I just saw him from afar and I knew right away that we were going to embark on a, you know, a beautiful journey of a relationship together, that means that we are not a couple, we have to stress that every time. And so at the time, we quickly became friends and had a lot of crossing over in terms of, you know, our shared activism and sharing degrees of women's studies. So we already had a lot of shared interests. And at the time, I was sitting on the Vancouver School Board's Pride Advisory Committee. And I don't know if you remember, but it was like 2013, or 2014. And the the Vancouver School Board was updating a 10 year policy that was to make schools safer for transgender students. And I remember that it was super heavily protested, and we're very careful, but intentional around the demographic of people who protested us and they were Chinese, Evangelical, conservative parents, Christian parents, and they were predominantly of Chinese descent. So it was heavily protested, these school board meetings were super long, because so many people signed up to speak either for or against this policy update. And I remember one evening, you know, I'm sitting with, you know, my supposid community we've got, like rainbow placards and everything, however, sitting directly across from me where, you know, people that look like me, or they look like my parents age, you know, and what we found out much later, in terms of how the white media reported on this controversy, and the protest was super racist, in that they painted this very monolithic picture of Chinese people. And I even remember one evening after a meeting, this older white lesbian, just like turned to me and was like, so what is it about your culture that is more homophobic, right? So we get a lot of this like one dimensional kind of perspective, or viewpoint around Chinese or people of color and the culture and the ways in which they deal with and talk about gender and sexuality specifically. So that's kind of the origin story. And I told the story with David and we met and after several bottles of wine, we decided we wanted to write about our experiences. So he is from actually that community of evangelical Christian community. And I was raised Buddhist. So we were both kind of talking about our very specific cultural perspective and point of views as it relates to both of our own queerness. And one of the main things that we kind of, well, what I noticed was that actually what was missing from this us versus them picture was that actually the love was the common denominator, between those parents and us, right, so that they were protesting because they also had love for their children. And also we did as well. So there was just that point of connection that we wanted to raise. So we came up with Love Intersections as a way to talk about the intersections really, of race and class and gender and sexuality. 

Am Johal  5:19  
And when you're walking that sort of line of nuance on charged issues like that, how did you find establishing conversations and connections with people who were on, let's say, the other side of the issue, or that, were their points of conversation that were really meaningful or productive? In terms of changing the channel on what was the kind of media, superficial media portrayal of it? 

Jen Sungshine  5:45  
Well, again, I think we, I think at the time, there was a lot of kind of calling out. And we were very much wanting to incorporate this kind of philosophy of calling in. Which, now six years later, we're finding it's not that it's no longer effective. It's just a little bit more simplistic. Now, six years later, but six years ago, we found that calling in and having and building relationships with people is the first and most important thing that we were prioritizing, right? And so really, it was about what is the common denominator? What is it that connects you and I together? Despite our differences, despite our beliefs, and we could say, that goes for political beliefs that goes for kind of religious or cultural beliefs, like those kinds of things. So it was just really establishing that social trust from the beginning. That was what we were thinking through, really. 

Am Johal  6:37  
And I think beyond the maybe specific issues that you guys were working with, I think that kind of general sentiment of racist tropes, that function in the media, be it related to real estate or other kinds of issues, where all of a sudden, a kind of racial lens get placed on it. And given the history in Vancouver of colonialism of past series of racisms. It's very troubling to see these things land down in particular ways. 

Jen Sungshine  7:06  

Am Johal  7:07  
Yeah. I'm wondering, so as you got started as a project around these specific issues, what were parts that you took on, I know you both had a really strong relationship with arts and culture and different things. But wondering if you can talk a little bit about the different projects you've taken on over time? 

Jen Sungshine  7:24  
Yeah. So it's fascinating how the evolution of live intersections has come to be because it started as a blog. Remember, blogs? I suppose they still exist. But yeah, so we started as a blog, but then we realized, well, what makes more sense in terms of, we really wanted to take advantage of you know, social media and the power of digital, you know, activism, right? Because there is so much value to visibility in the ways that the very quickness of social media, which one could be annoyed by, but also there is an effect to it. So we wanted to create these short videos that were super digestible, super accessible, everything is captioned. And they're like three to five minutes to capture stories that are really at the heart of love. These are stories from and by queer people of color. So that was that very specific focus at that intersection, if you will. And so, you know, David and I pooled in, I think, like $50, each from our own pockets. And that's just like, wow, unheard of now, to make one of like, the first videos that we ever, you know, and David also has an editing background. So we both were able to create very short. Oh!

Jen Sungshine  8:35  
Some coats just fell, for our listeners.

Am Johal  8:36  
Yeah. Just gravity. Just a little bit of gravity.

Jen Sungshine  8:38  
Chaos happening. 

Am Johal  8:39
We're gonna abolish the law of gravity.

Jen Sungshine  8:43  
Yeah, so we created these videos, and they started to gain traction and shared and some went viral, and some didn't. And we just, that was kind of just how we started with these short films. 

Am Johal  8:54  
And as the project has developed and evolved over time, what are some new projects you're taking on now? 

Jen Sungshine  9:00  
Yeah, so our most successful film to date is Yellow Peril; Queer Destiny, which is a 20 minute documentary, and thanks to funding by TELUS Story Hive, and it's an experimental documentary that follows the life of Made in China, the local drag artist, and aka Kendell Yan. And the kind of this artistic experimental, like I would say, like theoretical framework that we're placing onto this film is through a division of five chapters in 20 minutes, and each chapter corresponds to the Chinese five elements. So starting with wood, which feeds into fire, which leads into Earth, and then it goes into metal and then water and each of these elements have like a synergetic, or synergistic and relational relationship with one another. And that was our first time kind of thinking outside of this traditional documentary style of filming, but really making it experimental. And yeah, following the life of Made in China. So the film, what took us by surprise, was that it was really successful. And lots of people responded well. In the sense that they were relating to not just, you know, made in China's family, and his relationship to his half Chinese family, but also to, you know, his relationship to drag and to art, he really like, breaks apart those categories of art and drag that they're, in fact, you know, interchangeable in the same thing. And so, the current project that we're working on is a visual art exhibit that was inspired by Yellow Peril; Queer Destiny, and this exhibit is called Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements. So again, taking the source material of this film, but also expanding through the Chinese five elements as this kind of metaphorical lens of talking about Chinese-ness, Asian-ness and the diaspora and like sexuality, and what those things mean to us. For those of us who are curating this exhibit. 

Am Johal  11:08  
Mhmm. Fascinating. I had just recently, earlier in January met Michael Robertson, who's with a group called Ultra Red and was involved in the, is still involved in the ballroom scene in New York, and sort of coming out of that HIV AIDS activism in the 80s. And taking on as well critically, particularly amongst the African American community, the black church, and its role in stigmatizing groups of people. And it's a fascinating history, because it does start as a sort of ballroom and drag, but just completely loaded with politics. 

Jen Sungshine  11:42  
Yes. I also just love you know, I call the Gen Z, like the new generation. And I think one of the things that for me as like an older millennial, there is a sense of being in between generations that have a very particular and set way of being and living in the world and navigating the world. What I love about like, Generation Z, and the ways in which they incorporate like history, and like, for example, like the history of ballroom right, incorporating that into like art forms, but then like, kind of re imagining them in this like politicized, like very potent way, it's super creative and innovative. And we can see that I think in like meme culture, right, where like, just something will happen in kind of the mainstream, and then it will just spark like, in a million directions, ways of, you know, commenting about politics, ways of commenting about, just social commentary in general about the world, right? That's something that I really like aspire to and I'm inspired by, like, just the new generation's way of navigating art and embodying art specifically. 

Am Johal  12:52  
Now you have this show up right now and at SUM Gallery. I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about this interdisciplinary collaborative group show? 

Jen Sungshine  13:00  
Yeah, so thank you. It's really exciting because I am not trained as an artist. That's like not my background. And so this was our, David and I's both first foray into exhibiting at an art gallery. So SUM Gallery is part of the Pride in Arts Festival, The Queer Arts Festival, and it's located in the heart of Chinatown at the BC Art Scapes Sun Wah building on Keefer. And so the four artists involved in putting on this exhibit Yellow Peril; The Celestial Elements are myself, David Ng, Kendell Yan, aka Made in China, as well as Jay Cabalu. So all four of us are kind of weirdos, queerdos, you know, and outsiders in so many ways, because we really don't fit the mold of what the mainstream narrative puts us, you know, through and in. But this exhibit specifically we have four installations by the four of us. And two walls, it's a four channel installation, which uses footage from Yellow Peril; Queer Destiny, as well as footage from the natural landscape as we found through the Chinese five elements. So again, using the elemental forces as this kind of artistic approach and then the other wall, we have the wall of healing, a race towards a cosmic future and in front of it, we have this altar that we have kind of, you know, set up with these traditional Chinese medicines. So these herbs that stimulate you know, energy and stimulate like health and medicine. And then directly underneath this altar has this, we just bought this like laser projector from Amazon. And it's just like this like projection image of this like cosmic space and it's just like very glittery, but it's just very, very it's gorgeous, and it's kind of overlaying this projection onto this

Jen Sungshine  14:59  
Like spread of calligraphy paper, of text of calligraphy that my father had just accumulated over the past like three years. As a kid, he grew up teaching calligraphy, to like my neighborhood in Port Moody and to like white kids, right? And so I was just kind of always like, ah, like, Why do you have to teach this stuff? Like I just didn't, I didn't care for it. But now, you know, in my 30s, I'm just like, wow, that is such an amazing piece of who I am. But what's interesting about my father's calligraphy that is spread underneath this altar is that it features three different, it's all in Chinese calligraphy, but it has three different typefaces. So you can see the evolvement of like the Chinese language, which has, you know, its pictograph roots, right? Like the character for a house or a character for a turtle looks like a turtle and looks like a house. And then you can see the evolvement of this language as it evolves. So it's super beautiful. And then we have this celestial figuration, which is this kind of sculptural piece, David and I made deliberately illegible words that we laser cut in wood, and have it like emerging from this like mound of rice. And kind of above it, we dangled a headpiece from Made in China that she uses in her drag performances, and then other kind of adorn artifacts around it, which creates this kind of illusion of a literal character. And we really wanted to imagine what would this character be in this like, reimagination of this illegible like Chinese character we've made up, right? What does queerness mean to us in the Chinese language? Now feel like I'm rambling, but there is no equivalent word to queer in Chinese. There is Kù er. So coo-er, which is this kind of double entendre. It's derived from the word queer and English, but it also phonetically sounds like cool. So queer folks in kind of East Asia, like China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, have taken up this word Kù er to identify as a queer, you know, identity. But it's not like it's not a word. It's a derivative, right, of a Western derivative. So we wanted to think about what are some ways we can come up with an actual word, which is totally illegible, and not, you know, following any kind of linguistic rules or like traditional kind of whatever. Yeah, so we just did that. Yeah.

Am Johal  17:34 
I'm really looking forward to seeing it. It's just a few blocks from here. Do you have future projects that are coming up that you're planning or thinking about now? 

Jen Sungshine  17:43  
Yes, we do. I just want to mention that just the last fourth piece, which is by Jay Cabalu, who's a Filipino artist, he's a collage artist. So he bought these like two IKEA, you know, those super recognizable like IKEA Audrey Hepburn pieces on canvas, which like, I think every like 20 year old had in their apartment back in the day. So he just bought two of these canvases. And then just like made these collage art over top of all of the kind of Asian actors, background actors, anyone he could find from magazines to like, overlay onto this Audrey Hepburn so he calls it Audrey one and Andre two. Because as we know, despite Breakfast at Tiffany's being a classic, it also features a yellow face character, right? So he's making kind of remark social commentary there. Yeah. So I just don't want to forget Jay.

Jen Sungshine  18:42  
Yeah. And so in terms of future projects, you know, we're so super busy with this exhibit. We have a few projects lined up, but I think the one that we are really excited about is so we're working with calcium to make the first ever documentary that is done entirely in Squamish and that project got pushed because we weren't able to secure any funding in time. And then of course, we are, you know, doing this exhibit. So we are still committed to doing this film. And in fact, we shot one particular scene that I hope listeners will be excited, as excited as I am. When we were shooting up in Squamish, the Maori delegates just so happened to be doing this like tour. So they came up to Squamish and I am like, "Okay, we have to capture this moment", right, like if it's about this cultural, like learning exchange, because a huge focus of this film with Kelsey alone is capturing the Squamish language revival process. So we want it to also capture another, you know, with the Maori's that they've had so many years now of reviving their language. And it was super fascinating when I was interviewing these Maori folks, you know, the way that they were speaking Maori was so fluent, and there is a fluidity to how they're speaking, that they're embodying it in their language. And I just felt this sense of like loss even within myself. Not to mention with just in terms of like Indigenous languages here on Coast Salish lands, but even with myself, like my Mandarin is awful. It's probably at the level of like a two year old, you know.

Am Johal  20:18  
That's as good as my Punjabi. 

Jen Sungshine  20:19  
Right? It's just but you know, there's something potent there that you're missing when you're able to speak so fluently with somebody like, I will never get that experience in terms of speaking to my parents in fluent Mandarin, because I speak Mandarin with them. But like, there's just this sense of like, the translation is lost, you know? So I'm excited about that project. That is coming up. 

Am Johal  20:42
Cool. Jen, thank you so much for joining us on Below the Radar. 

Jen Sungshine  20:45  
Thank you so much for having me and David in spirit.

 [both laugh]

Am Johal  20:51  
He's going to get his key back. 

Jen Sungshine  20:52  
Yeah, I hope so. 



Melissa Roach  21:00  
Thanks for listening to our conversation with interdisciplinary artist and self professed queerdo Jen Sungshine. Head to the links in the show notes to learn more about her work with Love Intersections. Keep up with Below the Radar by following us on Twitter at BTR_pod and of course by subscribing to our show, wherever you listen to podcasts. Thanks again for tuning in.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
October 27, 2020

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