Curator Interview: Candace Huey on “Neon Was Never Brighter”

Candace Huey is the curator of  Neon Was Never Brighter,  being staged on October 23, 2021 from 7pm-10pm.

Presented by Chinatown Media and Arts Collaborative (CMAC), the event harnesses the power of art and culture to contribute to the social and economic recovery of Chinatown as well as the shaping of a more inclusive and just America. CMAC is a unique art nonprofit established by 6 AAPI organizations including Chinese for Affirmative Action, Center for Asian American Media, Chinatown Community Development Center, Chinese Culture Center & Foundation of San Francisco, Chinese Historical Society of America and Angel Island Immigration Station Foundation.

In this exclusive interview, we learn more about the complexity of this arresting and timely event.

Cultural Currents: Why is the timing of this event so crucial?

Candace Huey: The ongoing global pandemic, financial hardship and anti-Asian sentiment has angled the API community in the San Francisco Bay Area towards more critical awareness. The racially motivated violence and rhetoric against Asians remains pervasive, necessitating a call for action. Neon Was Never Brighter was conceptualized during this crucial time to utilize art and culture not only as means to spur social and economic recovery in Chinatown but also to uplift and bring together the larger, diverse communities in the San Francisco Bay Area. By highlighting the personal expressions, stories and voices of the neighborhood and related communities, this event presented by Chinatown Media and Arts Collaborative aims to contribute new narratives in the shaping of a more inclusive and just America.

CC: How will this generate more tourism to our neighborhood?

Huey: Through multimedia, interactive art installations and activations, we hope to create an experience for visitors that will extend beyond and expand their expectations of ‘tourism’ in Chinatown. Whilst the history and legacy of the Chinatown will undoubtedly lend itself to the interpretation of the artworks, the event aspires to simultaneously construct and present contemporary narratives and imaging of Chinatown that are more nuanced, diverse and layered –  more accurately representing its past and present.

CC: Our readers ride the ferry. They know about the Angel Island story. Any fresh perspective on this narrative?

Huey: The artists featured in Neon Was Never Brighter honor and fold in the histories and stories of the Angel Island detainees and incarcerated together with contemporary definitions of their “immigrant” journey in the 21st century. What this means is embracing the past (and its metaphoric shadows) and interweave them into their work, folding in an initiative of hope, inclusion and agency. For instance, Bijun Liang’s Fäcępåłm, “a neo-deity for facepalm days,” presents an interactive shrine in reference to Guanyin with a thousand hands and a thousand eyes. By crowdsourcing from the people of Chinatown, a mass of “helping hands” surround an inflatable center sculpture to create Fäcępåłm.

CC: Can you expand on this concept?

Huey: Chinese culture has deep roots in Buddhism and superstition. Storefronts showcase beckoning cats and small money trees that call forth good luck and fortune. Spiritual beings and great figures are believed to be the guardians that protect us and ward away evil. Guanyin, short for Guanshiyin, translates to “Observing the Sounds (or Cries) of the World” is also known as the Bodhisattva of Compassion. Guanyin is often prayed to during times of challenges and dangers. Guanyin was then given thousands of hands so that anyone who asked could receive help. Each of the thousand hands are given eyes – which allowed Guanyin to observe all that happens in the world. This bodhisattva appears not only in the image of a woman (or originally, a man), but has many faces and can be transformed to the appearance desired by whoever sees them.

Fäcępåłm, a figure created through a gathering of blowup rubber hands, acts as reference to the latex gloves that became common uniform during the pandemic, the ‘breath’ that now invokes fear of illness, as well as a personification of Chinatown helping itself during times of crisis. Each hand is a blown up glove animated through drawn-on eyes and messages. The sculpture stands upright and each hand glows a warm light. Materials will be provided so that visitors can also add to the sculpture by drawing eyes onto the gloves and bestowing the hand with a purpose. Many individuals in Chinatown have found mental empowerment through prayers, while equally many found ways to look out for their neighbors and friends. Each person was a “helping hand” for one another.