It’s a matter of minutes until the midnight start of the Lunar New Year, and Mimi Jong is in the tinsel-draped green room of Bloomfield’s Cobra Lounge, bedazzling her erhu as the snare of electronic music blasts through the opening and closing door. Buoyant partygoers jockey for position on the dance floor by DJ Formosa and squeeze in to get temporary “Year of the Rabbit” tattoos from the corner booth.
Moments earlier, the same dance floor stood still in silence to hear Jong’s proto-Mongolic two-stringed instrument mix with the floating voice of Vietnamese singer Mai Khoi. This is the kind of contrast JADED events have become known for — a mix of energetic joy and pensive space, of tradition and new ways of identifying the AAPI experience.
A swell of anti-Asian hate crimes boiled over in America in the early days of the COVID pandemic. The xenophobic conditions gave rise to JADED, an artist collective dedicated to the celebration of Asian American and Pacific Islander [AAPI] art and culture in Pittsburgh.
After the brazen Atlanta massage parlor shootings in 2021 that left eight dead — six of them women of Asian descent — JADED collaborated with the Sex Workers Outreach Project PGH to create REST, a one-day experience built for Pittsburgh’s AAPI community to collectively express grief and care for one another.
PublicSource photojournalist Stephanie Strasburg sat down with JADED co-founder Caroline Yoo and two other new leaders, Bonnie Fan and Elina Zhang. The group untangled the success of their packed Moon Rabbit Rave event that rang in the Lunar New Year on Jan. 21 from the contrast of shootings targeting the AAPI community in California later that same weekend.
For the artist collective, the path forward is not without risk but the purpose is clear — to honor what’s come before them as they continue to evolve opportunities for connecting the AAPI community in Pittsburgh.
The conversation has been edited for brevity.
Bonnie Fan: It’s kind of eerie or interesting to talk right at this moment, in the context of when JADED was first founded with REST after the Atlanta shootings and then, you know, after our gathering on Saturday [Jan. 21], the Monterey Park shootings.
Caroline Yoo: We started from a community need of gathering to grieve.
Elina Zhang: It’s so ragtag because I truly was just like, I need a place. Let me get my friends and tell their friends.
Clockwise from top left: Stephanie Tsong, who deejays as Formosa, collaborated with JADED to organize the Moon Rabbit Rave on the first night of both the Lunar New Year and her residency at Cobra Lounge. Tattoo artist Yang Zhen Lee applies original temporary rabbit tattoos to partygoers. Audrey Medrano’s glasses fog up in the deejay booth. JADED’s Elina Zhang, center, and Caroline Yoo, right, grab drinks at the bar. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Bonnie Fan: We also saw a lot of other groups pop up, you know, just like in that time. There was that need to find community. I had a lot of Asian queer friends move away from Pittsburgh, a lot of really close friends, and I couldn’t fault them for leaving, obviously. I understand, it’s not a place where it’s easy to just naturally stumble into a big community, you know, friends, lovers, whatever. Like your people. But also it kind of felt, okay, how do we make a space where my friends want to stay? And who does that work? If we don’t do it, who will? Basically, no one is going to do it for us.
Caroline Yoo: I love seeing young or even older Asian-Americans, who have never really had to sit with their identity, come and talk to us. I think that’s the most powerful thing. To come in and to be like, oh, I didn’t realize that other people were having these same responses: anger, sadness, joy, confusion about belonging.
Conversation and collaboration across generations
Michael Nguyen (left), with the East Coast Asian American Student Union [ECAASU], stands before an altar honoring victims of the Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay shootings at a rally for solidarity with those communities, Feb. 4, 2023, at Global Wordsmiths in Larimer. JADED’s Bonnie Fan (bottom right) was among speakers at the event by ECAASU and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance Pittsburgh Chapter. (Photos by Stephanie Strasburg/PublicSource)
Elina Zhang: Even the limits of just talking to my parents about the events in Atlanta and Monterey, about any kinds of violence toward the Asian-American community. It feels like my parents’ generation, and they’re first gen, they don’t really have the language to know how to talk about it. They don’t really know how to talk about structural injustice and racism towards the Asian community. A lot of times they just kind of have a really hard time acknowledging it, they see it as just something that they just need to deal with. Whereas I feel like I’m part of a community of people who kind of are able to pinpoint the larger structural problems and organize around it.
Caroline Yoo: I think it’s just like the different generations deal with things differently. My parents are both Korean-American immigrants, came over in the 1990s. I was born and raised here. But I feel like there’s an immigrant culture of needing to survive here. They uprooted, you know. You grew up with your whole family trying to survive in a different country in ways like, yes, the racism is bad, but it’s also about putting food on the table. Yes, it’s about survival. And then everything else falls away. And their idea of surviving in the U.S. is a very different U.S. than it is now. You put your head down, you work, you make money for your kids for a better life. And I feel for us, we’re in a very different generation, we grew up here. We understand our parents, but we don’t want to live in fear.
Bonnie Fan: It’s great because there’s such a trust and excitement for collaboration across generations to introduce new, interesting ways of celebrating things that we share, you know, an identity, but also having new twists on it, new takes. I think that’s a lot of where the artistic energy comes in. Like the folks that we bring in to perform or collaborate, they’ve been doing work for so long or like, they have their own stories of how they came to Pittsburgh.
Loudness as a political choice
Stephanie Strasburg: That reminded me of something that I read in your interview with City Paper. You mentioned that after REST the community was coming to you and sharing that there was a craving for spaces that were not just built around processing the trauma, but also built around joy. Joy. Celebration. And one word you said was “loudness.”
Caroline Yoo: Yeah, I think loudness is definitely a ‘me’ word. [laughs] I hope it relates to everyone, but it’s definitely something I embody a lot.
But I think with my own experiences of being Eastern Asian-American specifically in the U.S., I’ve been taught to be slow and to be quiet. Like when somebody says a racist comment at me or when somebody sexualizes me because I’m an Eastern Asian femme, for some it could be easier to not pick a fight or to not respond or to let things go. And I think I’ve been taught that a lot. My parents do it because they love me and they’re afraid. Every time an Asian incident happens, which is I think for a lot of our generation, I got a call from my mom that’s like, ‘Don’t wear loud clothes. You need to subdue yourself because the more attention you call to yourself, the more that means that you could be violently approached.’
She knows me, and she knows that when a white male throws a racist comment on me, usually if I’m in a public setting and not alone, I will fight back. And my mom, she’s like, ‘I don’t want you to be dead at 27.’ But it’s also like, I don’t want to be silent because of my safety. And could maybe the loudness be the thing that actually makes us more safe at the end of the day? The fact that we’re so, you know, proud about our culture and so open about it and wanting to gather people and wanting to connect with all of these other people who have these same experiences of having to silence themselves. Having to keep themselves smaller, having to for our own safety. Like, what does it mean for us to reclaim loudness or us to be loud about, ‘No, actually that was really disrespectful of you to say that. No, that was really racist of you to say that. No, stop sexualizing me.’
Elina Zhang: Basically, loudness is a choice, not just something as incidental, it’s very politically strategic.
‘Dispelling the myth of limited pie’
Bonnie Fan: As we were talking about the different Asian spaces that popped up more and more post-Atlanta, not just JADED, there’s a recognition that people are doing amazing things like just in their own orbit. A lot of the work was just connecting a lot of those folks and that connection created tenfold more connections. There aren’t a lot of spaces for AAPI folks that are not tied to a university space specifically. I think that a lot of folks come through Pittsburgh in the context of a lot of different stories, but it’s harder to imagine staying sometimes if you don’t have a community.
Elina Zhang: What JADED, as the co-founders made it, was to really materially improve the lives of Asian Americans. Yeah, we don’t f–k around with money. It’s about paying people a proper wage, the performers, and when we are looking for money, we are looking for ways to increase the value of Asian-American performance art. I think that is so concretely powerful.
Caroline Yoo: That comes from all of our lived experiences because co-founder Lena Chen and I have been performers in different contexts as well as visual artists. In the creatives, we don’t really get paid. There are so many times in the performance world where we’re thought of as entertainment for the gallery opening. We’re fighting for space.
Elina Zhang: And it’s also like it’s also falling into the values that the art world, the white art world is dictating. It’s kind of like, ‘Please, please let us just even be a token Asian in your show.’ That’s just so frustrating. And it kind of does feel like we really have to start bottom up rather than look to the institutions to carve out even a little bit of space.
Bonnie Fan: I think about dispelling the myth of limited pie. We know there’s so much abundance and abundance flows in a certain way. JADED’s work is to unlock that and start momentum in terms of the lip service that institutions have paid to diversifying their spaces and so on. And believing in that abundance for a collective, for a community.
Caroline Yoo: If this was our parents’ generations, our grandparents’ generations, our ancestors would be rolling around in their graves. Because it’s the Lunar New Year. All these different events that are meant for ancestor worship, for giving thanks to your family, to the world, to bring in prosperity for the new year. And you wouldn’t do that at a club, right?
It’s like, how do we create it? Traditions that are very much our own, that are the same ways of giving respect to our ancestors, giving respect to our community and bringing them prosperity. But they’re just in our own ways.
Stephanie Strasburg is a photojournalist with PublicSource who can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @stephstrasburg.
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