A Q+A with Esther Fan & Olivia Park of the Sad Asian Girls Club
It’d be cool if you guys could start off talking about your backgrounds? Where you grew up, what was that like, and all that stuff
Esther: I was born and raised in Vancouver, Canada and the city I lived in was predominantly Chinese. Recently there’s been an increase in the number of Chinese immigrants and so I grew up in this weird environment where it was partly western, but still exposed to a lot of Chinese culture so I was sort of in between. We both go to RISD, and we’re both seniors in graphic design.
Olivia: I grew up in a suburban neighbourhood in metro-Atlanta. My public high school consisted of mostly white and Asian people, Asian consisting mostly of Indian, Chinese and Korean folks. Students here were very into science and the medical field. I think I was the only one in my graduating class that ended up going to an art school. My family was pretty supportive of me heading into the arts, though my neighbourhood really wasn’t. Most people thought my decision was going to be a waste of my four years but I’ve learned so much and I don’t regret it at all. But even now, when I go home, it’s really difficult because I have to face my community. The younger people do understand, mostly because of the internet, but I think where I have a lot of trouble is when I talk to the older community members and try to explain myself. What’s more important for me though is the attitude of our generation. I think that’s what Esther and my work with SAF (Sad Asian Femmes) is all about.
Esther: My dad was actually an art teacher so I’m here [at RISD] because being the teacher’s daughter it was expected that I should go to the best art school. In Chinese culture, pride is a huge thing so if you’re going to art school, you should go to the best one, you need to get the best design job to pay your parents back and all that good stuff. But here I am, making activist shit and exposing generational gaps on this viral video, and so my parents were taken aback and they were like, we didn’t pay for you to do that. I don’t regret being here, and all the experiences I’ve had and the things I’ve learned have still affected me a lot and helped shape who I am.
Where I am now in Hawaii, it’s predominantly an Asian culture and when I went to the mainland for school, my grandma would always talk about racism and I never really understood what she was talking about. The majority of my friends, even if they were white, were also part Asian so I never really experienced anything within those lines that I could reference. I just thought she had an old way of thinking but I soon came to understand when I found myself getting "Nihao!" yelled at me while crossing the street.
With the creation of SAF and all the work you've both done thus far, how did you two become friends and how did this all start?
I know much of the rebranding you're working on now is due to the fact that it blew up so fast because it resonated with an unforeseeably significant amount of people.
Olivia: We think SAF would’ve never happened if we stayed in our old neighbourhoods. Art school and having the time and privilege really let us do this. In order to realise where we stood in this western environment, it took us time. We had to step out. After reading, researching, and getting to the core of our history as East-Asian third culture kids, we were like, “Oh shit, this is really fucked up!” We were both going through that realisation before we had met. Esther and I were first introduced in a design class. There, we collaborated on a few small projects that weren’t identity-based. Later, our conversations lead to more identity related content and our “Have You Eaten” video project came out.
Esther: I also think that with the rise of, I guess what’s called social media activism, has given us a certain type of vernacular to work with and that may be why we resonated with a lot of people our age or younger and of course, the rapid spreading of our content helped. Social media does have its pros and cons and people generally only like to see what they already agree with, but nevertheless social media has been a great tool for us.
So you guys basically started with the video and now you’re in the process of re-branding, can you talk about the decision behind that a little? I came across the site while you gals were rebranding so I wasn’t really sure what you guys had going on previously.
Olivia: The original Sad Asian Girls Club name was actually pretty last minute. We needed an account name to upload our YouTube video and we didn’t want to just name it something totally random. We were inspired by internet culture hence the moody “sad” and the cult-y “club.”
Esther: It was a riff off of the “Sad Girls Club” that’s kind of a thing on Tumblr, but eventually the name we chose began to give itself meaning over time.
Olivia: Though, as we started to develop the identity of SAGC, we looked at what colors were often used in a lot of typography used in China and Korea. We found that red was incredibly prominent. We also wanted to give the brand a badass kick, so we decided to use black. Helvetica was accessible for the both of us in whatever program we were using. The design the visual language could be easily replicated after being so specific. Soon, people started to make their own versions of our work such as the Asian Woman Are Not posters. People could easily speak the language of Sad Asian Girls Club.
Esther: I think we later decided to rebrand because we realised that we got bigger than we expected and people started to expect more. I think we also wanted to detach ourselves from the [above mentioned] Tumblr culture and for people to take it more seriously and not think that it was just something.. (Olivia: Like a niche.) yeah, and we just want to expand ourselves and become more accessible to a larger audience outside of Tumblr kids, I guess.
Yeah definitely, and that’s interesting too because I know you gals were saying that the older generations weren’t that fond of art school, but nowadays people are using art to be political. I know Ai Wei Wei is probably a huge figure in all this?
Esther: To me, art is so subjective. I think anything can be called art so I guess maybe the “traditional” idea of art is like painting and shit, but I feel like there is so much activist art out there that people probably don’t consider art. Ai Wei Wei obviously is an example but I also feel like he has gotten so big and so fetishised in Western culture. Like, there’s been other great examples of activism [that I would call art] like the Feminist Five who have protested against misogyny that is rampant in Chinese culture, and they also have been harassed and arrested by the cops but we don’t hear as much news about them. I just feel like the making of protest signs or doing some type of protest as performance is also art, and these are the types of things that inspire me.
Olivia: I think that activist art has always existed and it was just circulation of the work that was lacking. Without circulation, you have a very small audience. Our generation has the internet which includes an accessible audience. From the audience, communities form, branch out, and grow into other groups. I hear about new web-based art groups pretty often now. I love seeing their presence. The more exposure to art groups we have, the richer and more significant activist art is.
Esther: It’s also important to differentiate between political art and activist art, I feel like nothing can be NOT political anymore. I think to make that distinction is to distinguish what’s successful [in terms of activism] and what’s not, and then allow one to make changes where it isn’t successful.
What have been some of the rather racist things you've experienced and how has that affected you both emotionally? Have either of you ever felt ashamed of your culture or identity as a result?
Olivia: I think the moment we start going to school, we have so many issues. All those little stories, all those little moments add up and inform who you are today. For one, when I was a kid, my mom used to pack me Asian lunches because she doesn’t know what the fuck Lunchables were. She would make me a bento box with udon noodles and tempura. Things that don’t smell the same as a pepperoni pizza. Kids thought of my lunch as really wild and exotic. Actually, they didn’t even see it as food. I would hide my lunch under the table and eat it secretly. Even in high school, I had to defend my lunch. I think this is an ongoing motif in my life, where things that are too Asian, too different, aren’t okay and I have to navigate through that identity and culture. Esther and I dropped by at the mall one day just to get a couple of things before work and the kiosk guy kept yelling, “Nihao!” at us.
Esther: Yeah, like can I just have one day, ONE day where somebody doesn’t yell that shit at me? Anyway, my experiences with race has been pretty different because, again, my city was predominantly Chinese. It was weird for us to see a white or black person than it was for them to see us, although you do hear a lot of white people in the city complain about how many Chinese there are and how we should all go back because “this is Canada, not China,” kind of thing. There’s also a huge yellow fever issue in my city because there are so few non-Asian people who go to school there and they see all these Asians, and because they grew up around so many Chinese women, they have this racial preference but also it’s because a lot of the Asian girls there have that ideal, dollish look. They’ve got that long, straight [often dyed brown/blonde] hair and they’re all glamorous. I tried to distance myself from all of that because part of me probably went through some kind of self-hate where I didn't want to look like that or be associated with those kinds of stereotypes. Something else that’s also affected me is how predominant anti-blackness was in my city and Chinese culture, I grew up with that and it became internalised. Over time I started to try to unlearn the mentalities I was taught [especially coming here to RISD].
Olivia: But we noticed that through our audience other minority groups also experience similar dilemmas as us. Our work has allowed for these conversations to happen and that’s what encourages us to continue making.
We have all of these labels, “Asian American,” “African American" etc. What do you think about the word “diversity”? The director of Selma, Ava Duvernay, said it was "unemotional" and “inclusion” is a much better word- we know what it is to be excluded.
Olivia: This a conversation that’s been on-going: the controversy of the term “diversity.” Because the term is really used in the perspective of white folks. I think “inclusion” is also starting to be controversial as well. Because when the word “inclusion” wasn’t applied, were we excluded the whole time? Though, I think vernacular always depends on the context because sometimes there are moments when “diversity” and “inclusion” really does work. We ran into a problem when one audience was like “you’re not being inclusive enough, there’s not enough representation.” We approached this concern by making clear what our intentions are, which was to make work about our experiences as East-Asian femmes in Western environments. Initially, we thought we had the responsibility of representing everyone (Esther: the entire continent of Asia) which is really absurd because how are two East-Asian femmes going to do that? I don’t think we should even attempt to do that because we can only speak for ourselves.
Esther: To go off on Olivia’s point, if you stick to what you know and if you make that clear that’s all you can do and all you want to do then the issue of diversity/inclusion almost becomes blurred. We finally realised that we were super limited in our capability to truly represent every identity, after we tried to respond to critiques about not being inclusive enough. We really tried to cater to all those criticisms but realised that we can’t, so I guess now that we’re trying to make it clear that we can only use our own experiences and use that to make work, and hopefully other people can resonate with it and hope they respect what the work is too. In response to your question, to me the word “diversity” and “inclusion” are so interchangeable and that people really tend to attach a lot of meaning and connotations to certain words once they become “buzzwords,” and those words almost become meaningless or very subjective. Like the word “feminism”, there are so many opinions and differences in what people think feminists are and for me it’s like, if you just do what you think being a feminist is and you stay true to that and it works for you, go for it. People who think being a feminist is being a “femi-nazi” or whatever, their opinion is not relevant because they don’t know what you’re dealing with and they don’t care to know either. I feel like you just need to make clear what your limits are and do that to your best ability.
Are you at gals fighting against the normative and fabled “ignorance is bliss?” Like you said it's easier to not know
Esther: It’s funny because I really believe ignorance is bliss but I guess that’s more of my opinion in other contexts in life.
Olivia: The reason why we want to make work is to set the tone for our generation. That tone does not include ignorance because how are we going to progress if we continue to be comfortable? I think we do have to be vulnerable and we do have to fight against the culture of passivity. We hope that by making our work people might start to converse and think about the position that they stand in. Back at my hometown, we have a lot of Asian-American students who have been in white neighbourhoods all their lives. After seeing my work, some reached out to me and were like “Wow, I didn’t even realise how much bullshit I’ve been absorbing my whole life.” A part of me is hesitantly laughing “Haha, welcome to reality.” Then a part of me is very hopeful because at least now they can stand up for any maltreatment or strange gestures they receive in a more knowledgeable way.
Esther: While it’s easier to not want to be educated, and that’s only if you choose to stay in your bubble, people can choose to be ignorant and I think we make work for people who DO want to be educated. I feel like a mass majority of people, whether they like it or not, will be exposed to certain things and that’s why we make our work, in hopes we can educate people and raise awareness about certain subjects. For the people who want to remain ignorant, I guess we can’t really do anything about that.
And I mean it can also sometimes can feel like such an emotional burden when you have all this hate being thrown at you, or not even hate, but just straight ignorance. How do you stay positive when it’s so easy to retaliate? To perpetuate the same negativity?
Esther: The people who do support us and reach out to show their support, it lifts me up more than people who are negative bring me down...The pros outweigh the cons in this case and also it’s not like when we get hateful messages or people who don't like us we’re going to stop. It's not like they’ll say something to us and we’ll be like, damn you’re right. We just have to know that there are people supporting us and so those are the people we’re going to stick by.
Olivia: I think there was a moment in SAF where Esther and I were so emotionally drained that we really couldn’t take it anymore. The stress built up when we were valuing the opinions of others more than our own. We wondered even if our work even mattered. We decided to take a break for a couple of weeks to meditate and think about what we loved. We were really excited again when we realised that the core of the work was about the stories of our lives. I think everyone deserves to share their story and we came to terms with truly accepting that. When you come from a really earnest place, I think others tend to respond positively.
How has SAG, from beginning to now, changed you both as people?
Esther: Hmm, I’m trying to think, I don’t even remember what kind of person I was before, haha
Olivia: It’s become a big part of you. You once said something about how you don’t know how to think beyond it
Esther: I think before SAG became a thing I already was looking for ways to make my work more related to social issues. I did have a lot of anger, because when you first become “aware”, you just realize there is so much shit you want to be angry about. I think SAG became my channel for venting and to use my frustrations in a more productive way. It’s definitely calmed me down, I don’t think I’m so angry anymore because I feel like I have something to work towards and I know that it’s making an impact. And I guess I’m not so frustrated anymore because I know that there are ways for me to say what I want to say.
Olivia: For me, SAG brought me to great communities and friends. People you reach out to you when you have a large voice or if they know you even exist. I also learned to not take everything so seriously. If you want to work on being strong and having a voice, you have to be able to find light in serious issues.
Esther: I think it’s also important to say that when we first started getting media attention, firstly it shocked us, then we got used to it and it started to dominate the way that we do things, because I guess it went to our heads and we thought we needed to get more attention and please more people. That made us realize that we were trying to do more than we can and so, I think realizing now, that even the media is so controlled and biased that we still need to stick with what we know, and that the media is also just made up of different people doing their jobs and we really just need to do us.
I legit just wrote down a question about media lol. I know you guys got coverage from i-D and Dazed and I feel like those are some of the biggest independent type publications out there, but I also feel like there’s a lot of homogeneity now with those publications in a similar vein that I haven’t really seen before and I feel like it’s kind of getting a little dry. For example, they seem to be asking the same, generic questions to a huge variety of amazing people with so many different backgrounds and then going on to publish it when it feels very much just for the sake of content and name-dropping instead of really telling a story and making use of their access
Esther: Yeah we realized that a lot of the interviews that we had were done by interns and also that even if we’re excited for a little bit to be featured anywhere, it gets buried under all the other content they publish the next day. Again, I think it was important for us to realize that the media attention was nothing, everything is so temporary
Studying journalism, you kind of realise that what the media wants to put out what people want to hear and the kinds of questions asked are going to be more tailored to a broad scope - i.e. how are you inspired, blah blah.
All these overly positive and surface level things that are geared to a wider audience instead of focusing on the story that is being told. From you gals especially, and for me as a journalist on the other end, what do you want to see from the media? What types of publications, what type of coverage, what kind of stories interest you folks?
Olivia: Well so far our attitude with media was “Look, if we can reach out to just one more Asian femme who can look at our work and be like, yo, this is dope, it’s probably worth it.” Many of the readers of the articles written about us are probably white men. But what about the few Asian femmes who might resonate with us? Then it’s so worth the press for us. It’s all about “free” publicity when it comes to big names. We have different reasons for doing interviews different publications and journalists. For a lot of smaller publications and journalists, we have conversations because their audience is actually is who we want to talk to and who we want to reach out to. It’s just two different types of journalisms.
Esther: I think unfortunately, in order for any news media sites to get big, they have to give the people what they want to see and they also have to have a really generalize the way they cater their content. I think for small publications, it would be better to see media sites that have a really specific way of curating their content and they have a really clear goal, what kind of things they want to talk about. Then I guess they will attract a more specific audience and not try to please everybody.
I know we touched on the re-branding a little and you were talking about how you wanted to make it a little more serious, but you’re also graduating! What’s on the horizon for you?
Esther: Part of the rebrand was to hopefully find people to take over SAG and let it actually be a community and not just the two of us doing everything. I think ideally we wanted to look for people who we thought could be like us, I guess.
Olivia: Yeah and also in our rebranding want the design aesthetic to be even more accessible, we’re trying to look for typefaces that will continue to exist for free. We’re going to release a .zip file with all our identity material and work. People can basically make their own SAG at their universities, hometowns, organizations, or whatever they want!
Esther: Basically we just needed to expand, because the unfortunate thing that comes with making work or collaborating is that people graduate and they move to different places, and so without closing Sad Asian Girls for good we just wanted it to live on by itself. Whether or not it becomes something else I guess is out of our hands, but hopefully it remains in the same spirit.
Amazing. So how are you guys finding these people?
Esther: Honestly we still have two or three big things we’re trying to work out, like collabs and some talks scheduled and I feel like if we’re gonna have a call for submissions and find people to take over, we’re gonna have an official release date for that. Some details that we have aren’t completely solidified yet though, stay tuned I guess.
Where are you girls going to go? Are you going to move together?
Esther: Personally I have no idea, we’re not gonna stay in the same state. I’m Canadian, so I’m technically still an international student and so I have to find a job within 90 days after graduation otherwise I have to go back to Canada, just all this shit that I still have to deal with so I don’t know where I’m gonna end up.
Olivia: We’re open to whatever comes up. If we get a job we love, we’re gonna go get that job. Studying at RISD kind of let us escape into a 24/7 creative environment and we had the privilege of working on SAF with all that time.
Esther: But now we have to deal with the “real world.”
Yeah I know, I’m in that same boat. I literally wake up to bake muffins at four AM at a coffee shop. But what else interests you folks? What kind of music do you like? What kind of food?
Esther: Olivia is a huge foodie and before SAF, we actually did a project on foodies, but that’s a different story
Olivia: We made a fake restaurant.
Esther: I guess I like some mix from indie-rock to psychedelic metal to hip-hop, I’m not really cool enough to have an interesting hobby
Olivia: Esther is packing photography courses into her schedule. Lately, she’s been document the lives of the local creative community in Providence and her own life too.
Esther: Oh right, I always forget that I’m doing photography because it’s a side thing for me, I’ve yet to take it seriously but we’ll see how that goes.
Olivia: For me, I really love food. Everyday I’m trying to find something new or cooking different foods in my kitchen. For my thesis, I want to hopefully explore the intersection of food and politics.