What Is Chinese American Art?

Article excerpt


Our current exhibition "Remembering C. C. Wang" sparked the question for the panel--"What Is Chinese American Art?" Is C. C. Wang, who was a naturalized U.S. citizen living and working in New York for many decades, a Chinese American artist, or is he a Chinese artist living in America? This was the question posed to the three panelists, Mark Johnson, Jade Snow Wong, and Lo Ch'ingche.


Professor and University Art Gallery Director, San Francisco State University

The question for today's panel, "What is Chinese American art," was raised by Lorraine Dong during a conversation with Irene Poon. It was posed in relation to the exhibition of C. C. Wang, being planned for the Frank H. Yick Gallery at the Chinese Historical Society of America Museum and Learning Center. Although C. C. Wang spent virtually his entire professional artistic career in New York and studied at the Art Students' League there, his work is often discussed and appreciated within the context of "Chinese literati painting" or "Chinese Diasporic art"--and not Chinese American art. At the opening of the exhibition of his work, Wang's friend and student Arnold Chang wondered if anyone had ever asked Wang if he perhaps considered himself a "Chinese American."

Rather than comment on possible subtleties that these definitions imply, I would like to comment more generally about the long history of art produced by persons of Chinese ancestry in the United Stales. For the past fifteen years, I have been part of a community of scholars that have researched Asian American art in California from the Gold Rush until 1965. That community has included faculty, staff, and students from diverse institutions including San Francisco State University, the University of California in Los Angeles, Stanford University, and the Smithsonian Institution Archives of American Art. In California alone, we have identified more than one thousand artists active during this time period, and a significant number were of Chinese ancestry. However, as citizenship was not available to these immigrant artists in early periods, the words "Chinese American" must be qualified. They are here meant to imply simply that artists of Chinese ancestry were working in the United States even in the mid-nineteenth century.

Two important figures from that period were Lai Yong and Mary Tape. Yong was a successful portrait painter and photographer who was active in the 1860s and 1870s. Today, his works appear as very skilled, displaying photographic verisimilitude and fine glazing techniques. His portraits of Caucasian subjects do not hint that the artist was Chinese. Yet, we know from historical documents that Yong was a coauthor of an important 1873 statement that was read before the San Francisco Board of Supervisors that protested U.S. policies toward China and the treatment of the Chinese in America. This points to Yong's community engagement at the same time he was working as an artist. Similarly, Mary Tape was an "amateur" artist in the 1880s and 1890s, working in media including oil painting, china painting, and photography. Her paintings sometimes integrate Chinese decorative motifs with oil paint on wood or canvas. Yet Tape is best remembered for her 1884 appeal to allow her children to attend public school in San Francisco that was allowed by courts in San Francisco but overturned the following year by California's superior court. Again, for these artists, art and community engagement goes hand in hand.

The decades of the 1920s and 1930s were a rich time for Chinese American artists. Several art clubs and associations were founded in California, including the Chinese Revolutionary Artists' Club in San Francisco and the Chinese Art Associations that appeared in cities including New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. In addition, several groups were multiethnic in membership, such as the East West Art Society in San Francisco and the Oriental Artists Group in Los Angeles. …