Artist Profile: Shirley Chen on History, Identity and “Chinatown, My Chinatown” | Arts
Shirley L. Chen ’22 tells a creative story rooted in a complex story.
On October 21 and 22, Chen’s main thesis “Chinatown, My Chinatown” will come to life in two parts: first, a 25-minute “living museum” installation, followed by a one-act performance by a 60-year-old woman. minutes. Pursuing a joint concentration in History and Literature and Drama, Dance and Media, Chen’s play follows four characters as they compete in the 1966 Miss Chinatown USA pageant.
Chen worked for nine months to develop these characters by doing primary and secondary research, including archival work and collecting oral histories of real pageant contestants from the sixties. With so many possibilities, why tell a story about pageants?
“I thought a lot about competition within marginalized communities,” Chen said. “If you’re put in a room full of girls who fit the same framed categories, how does that completely shatter your perception of yourself? And then how do you build that backup? And how do you love yourself and learn who you are within these categories and outside of them? »
Chen chose this creative format for his thesis to convey the messages of his project as effectively as possible.
“There is a connection between story and theatrical creation,” Chen said. “I think the most effective art is putting yourself in an environment and then building a world around it. That’s why it’s this one-woman show format.
Chen’s piece really fell into place when she realized that her friend’s grandmother, Connie Young Yu, had an intimate connection to the subject. Connie’s father was the president of the Miss Chinatown pageant in the late 1960s, and she had kept an extensive collection of newspaper articles, photos, and pageant programs from the period that she was willing to share with Chen. .
Through Connie’s connections, Chen was also able to approach community members in 1960s San Francisco’s Chinatown with three simple questions: “What is the Miss Chinatown Pageant?” What was your involvement in this? And what were the sixties like for you as a Chinese-American? These questions guided Chen, ultimately allowing her to form the four distinct characters she portrays in her one-woman show.
Chen’s characters do not reflect any specific real-life individual – instead, she has created fictional amalgamations of various aspects of her own personality. In doing so, she asks, “If I put four versions of myself in a room in a contest, each with different elements of my worst traits and my best traits, would they learn to like each other?”
This piece was not easy for Chen to perfect. She remembers struggling with endless questions: “How can I respect these real people? How can I honor them? How to give them a voice without making caricatures of them? Will they think this is an accurate representation? Am I doing Chinatown justice? Will they like it? Then, Chen asked, more calmly, “Are they going to hate this?”
Part of why the success of this project is so important to her is because of her various connections and divergences to her own identity.
“My parents emigrated from mainland China, and I grew up speaking Mandarin,” Chen said. “And even though this Miss Chinatown story is part of Asian American history, it’s not part of the history that my family is part of, or the bloodline that our family belongs to.” Despite this, Chen still feels deeply connected to the story and its characters, stating, “I always found it very difficult to ask my parents or grandparents about this time in their lives. So it was really special to connect with people who are also grandparents, but to get to know them as friends and to see those parallels in our lives.
In “Chinatown, My Chinatown”, Chen reveals how the contestants negotiated their own Chinese identity and femininity during their competitions.
“I asked some of the former contestants this question and often they didn’t get a straight answer: What does it mean to be Miss Chinatown? What makes you think you could to be Miss Chinatown? For me, this pageant was really a way of showing “we’re sweet, and we’re feminine, and we’re stylish” while dealing with a wave of negative assumptions about Chinatown as a place of gang violence and of money games.
Chen takes a nuanced approach to these complex issues of identity on her show.
“Competition and jealousy within a uniform community often goes unaddressed, simply because people rightly want to project an image of happiness and togetherness, love and support.” Chen paused. “But sometimes that’s not the internal reality.”
After working on it for so long, Chen is thrilled to present her creative thesis. “It’s a slice of my brain and a slice of my biggest fears and dreams. I think that’s reason enough to see it.