ada chen's jewelry confronts asian stereotypes

Chen's college thesis collection, 'Made in Chinese America,' includes monolid-accentuating eyepieces and assimilation grillz.

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Jun 20 2018, 4:32pm

Ada Chen approached her thesis project as an artist rather than a jeweler. But one of her pieces in particular has already spawned a number of order requests. Chen’s “Text Message Earrings” are based on “a conversation I had with a boy from Jersey, who I met at a party and who once sold a t-shirt to Soulja Boy,” she explained on Instagram. The dangly earring features a string of plastic text bubbles taken from the artist’s iPhone convo with said boy: “Are you Asian or Chinese?” / “Im chinese but chinese is a typa asian so” / “So you just came from China?” / “No I was born in sf” / “Dope dope.” It’s paired with a sibling earring based on an equally depressing chat, “a conversation with a Wall Street man, in whose apartment I left my essential, $5.99 hoop earrings.”

The collection, titled "Made in Chinese America,” is a sarcastic but serious exploration of Asian-American stereotypes. A delicate gold "Chink Eyepiece" is bookended with heart-shaped crystals that sit at the corner of the outer eye, giving the appearance they are pulling the wearer’s eyes into slits, the antithesis of those disconcertingly Eurocentric devices popular on Amazon. Chen’s household slippers are more exquisite than those seen on Balenciaga’s spring/summer 16 runway, crafted from sterling silver and garnished with tiny precious metal beads, but she notes that the iconic designs don't even originate from China. She has even bottled up a lock of smooth, straight “Instant Asian Hair.” “But don’t forget to thank colonialism for creating such demand for once sacred hair!” she writes. “So trendy!!” i-D talked to Chen about confronting beauty standards and what it means to be Made in Chinese-America.

What was the inspiration for this collection?
My collection was about giving Asian-Americans a voice. It actually came about because I moved to Brooklyn from San Francisco, which has a very large Chinese community. Brooklyn and Pratt institute are very white and black. I met friends here who are black and very proud of who they are, and I was like, ‘How come I don’t feel that way about being Asian or Chinese?’ Coming to terms with my identity, over the years, and finding things to be proud of, it made me want to talk about it. Jewelry was just a craft that I like, so why not integrate my interest in social issues and my love of craft?

Are the text earrings based on real conversations you have had?
Yeah. I have screenshots of the green ones, and the blue ones are real life conversations that I just put into text. But yeah, they’re real!

How do you feel about European designers riffing on or replicating Chinese design? I’m specifically thinking about Balenciaga’s Chinese slippers.
I really don’t even know. Sometimes I feel uneasy about it because it’s just the same shoe, but at the same time, it’s elevating a cheap shoe to respect it. There’s no way to define how I feel about it.

Tell me about the eye jewelry you created. Why did you decide to model it on girls of all different races?
It was supposed to go with another piece that was also about monolids. Asians in other countries, and in this country, want surgery to get double eyelids. It made me think about why Asians are so embarrassed to have the eyes they were born with. This piece was trying to [convey] that our eyes are beautiful. What if other races wanted our eyes? What if we ourselves wanted our eyes? This piece elevates the slanted eye to beauty. Some other races have slanted eyes, but it’s not seen as “chinky” — it’s seen as “exotic.” The double lid also plays a big part in that exoticism. Most of my stuff is super sarcastic, so this is also a sarcastic piece, but it has another side to it — to make the slanted eye beautiful.

Did you intend for this collection to be worn or did you approach it more as an art project?
I approached them as art pieces. But the text earrings have blown up and people want them. That wasn’t my intention, I just thought it was a funny conversation and I wanted to put it on earrings.

I’m looking at a picture of your “Shrimp Dick / Asian Pussy” rattle drums. In what way did you consider gender stereotypes when designing these pieces?
That was just one part of the perspective I wanted to address — how people feel about themselves in relation to other races, especially in terms of attraction and sexuality. I’ve heard that Asian men aren’t as outgoing because they feel like they’re not as good as other races because of the stereotype of them having small dicks. It’s kind of flipped for Asian women because they’re so objectified for being “oriental” or submissive. It’s a contrast that I wanted to show on a piece that has two sides. The drum also holds a nostalgic place in my childhood because it’s a common toy that children play with. Why not instill it in children to not have these ideas about gender?

You said the phrase “Speak English We’re in America” — which appears in your collection on a set of grillz — is based on a memory of talking to your Cantonese friends. How do you feel looking back on this memory?
I don’t know how I remember this so clearly. I think it was because I was embarrassed about it years later. We were in a park — it was at summer school — and my cousin and a friend were speaking Cantonese. I somehow got frustrated and was like, “Speak English we’re in America!” just to be assertive and cool. Then I thought about it and how I shouldn’t have said that. Why would I be embarrassed about my friends who speak this language that I speak at home? I was kind of horrified when I looked back on it.

Were there other ways in which this sense of shame, or desire to assimilate, played out in during adolescence?
Definitely. This is a story I hear a lot: for Chinese people, you bring lunch in a tupperware and it’s one whole meal. Americans tend to have separate, snack-like lunch items like chips, a sandwich, and an orange. I had my vegetables, my meat, and my rice all packed in one, and sometimes I didn’t even finish it because I didn’t want to be seen with it for too long. My mom would be like, “Why didn’t you finish your lunch? Why didn’t you eat?” She’d put so much care into feeding me but she just didn’t understand.

What does “Made in Chinese America” mean to you?
It’s just a play on words like Made in China, because everything is made in China. There’s that sense of cheap quality from being made in China. It also addresses the difference between a Chinese person from China and a Chinese person from America, because we don’t really identify with each other. There were a lot of international kids from my school that I couldn’t connect with because we didn’t have the same childhood experiences.

Who would you love to see wearing your designs?
Anyone who is Asian-American and feels represented by my art.