SOMArts graphic design intern Corinna Karg caught up with exhibiting artist Flo Oy Wong to talk about family history, creative expression and achieving artistic success later in life. See more of Wong’s work online at www.flo-oy-wongartist.com and in The Future Is NOW: Asian America on its Own Terms, now through May 25.
You often use the American Flag in your artwork. How does your Chinese background influence your view on American culture?
Yes, I use the flag of the United States in my artwork to talk about Chinese immigrants like my parents who wanted to become Americans. Because of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Law the opportunity to emigrate to this country was denied to Chinese laborers, their wives, and families. My parents (they came to the U. S. at different times) became paper people, immigrants who adopted false identities. Well, my father was a laborer but he found and used a loophole in the immigration laws of the time. He was able to enter the U. S. in 1912. My mother, his second wife, came to the U. S. with my three older sisters in 1933. My father changed her identity to that of a sister because men like him were forbidden to bring their wives. Therefore, he declared my mother to be his sister. That was a falsehood but it allowed my mother to join my father then residing in Oakland. So, I view American culture through the lens of my parents’ immigrant experiences as well as through the lens of a contemporary American born and raised in this country.
What is the story behind the rice bags that you use in your art?
I use cloth rice bags in my art because of a near tragic experience my family went through in 1940. In April of 1940 my father was near fatally-shot by a relative. My father was suspected of being an embezzler in the village lottery business located in Oakland that he and other villagers (from Goon Do Haung in China) operated. The men who operated the lottery business was upset that my father allegedly embezzled money from the organization. The organizational leaders decided that my father needed to be killed. They appointed a village uncle (he came to the U. S. as a paper brother to my father) was chosen to be the executioner. One day this village uncle came to our house with a gun. After eating a lunch of chicken and rice he shot my father when my mother was in the kitchen cleaning up. The assailant ran after the shooting. My mother ran out of the house, chasing him. She did not tend to my father who was bleeding from the four bullets shot (one was stopped by a stopwatch he was wearing). At that time we were very poor and did not have rice to eat. Village relatives, one of whom ran a grocery store in Oakland Chinatown, brought us sacks of rice so that we would have food.
As an adult who had moved from Oakland to Sunnyvale I found myself collecting cloth rice sacks without knowing consciously what I was doing. It took me four years (beginning in 1986) to sew on cloth rice sacks for an eventual piece about my father’s shooting before I realized why I had chosen rice sacks for my canvas. I started experimenting with the use of rice sacks in 1978 after I saw that one of my de Anza College (Cupertino, CA) instructors of Filipino descent used rice sacks in his work. That gave me courage to start using rice sacks. I showed “Eye of the Rice: Yu Mai Gee Fon” at SOMarts in 2008 when I had my solo show in honor of my 70th birthday.
Do you remember the first experience that triggered your need to express yourself artistically?
Yes, in my late 30s I started to take art classes at two local community colleges, de Anza and Foothill, to see if I could make art. I needed to breathe and knew that I could if I was able to create artwork. I was a typical suburban wife and housewife. While I loved being married and being a mother I needed something of my own. That something of my own turned out to be a career in art. I could speak clearly in a visual way. I could address personal, familial, and cultural issues of the past to express a need to rectify social injustice.
What was the moment when you first felt like an artist?
I think that came in 1993 when I was accepted an artist in residence at the Headlands Center for the Arts. What a way to be a 54 year old woman!!! Being an artist gave me an identity beyond the domestic front.
Pictured above: “made in usa: Paul Fong, Bong Slin” and “Eye of the Rice: Yu Mai Gee Fonby” by Flo Oy Wong, photos by Corinna Karg and Bob Hsiang