World Without Borders? Reflections of a US Trip


--- Sandy Chan (2021 Fellow)

About Sandy Chan:
A natural communicator and leader, Sandy is more than proficient when it comes to bringing people together. Her community projects successfully blend art with youth empowerment and community engagement. Sandy was the mastermind behind the award-winning YMCArts in Education Project Urban-Rural Life Community Arts Education Project, which enabled the young people and villagers of Ma Shi Po to explore the relationship between self, land, and home through a series of arts education activities. Sandy was also responsible for the establishment of the Warehouse Teenage Club Ltd., a pioneering arts center for youth, where she successfully developed music and art programs for young people. Sandy received ACC’s HKETONY-ACC Fellowship to travel to San Francisco and New York to observe and conduct fieldwork on community art programs in the US.

The HKETONY-ACC Fellowship is made possible by the support of matching funds from the Hong Kong Arts Circle.

Soon after I landed in San Francisco, I noticed a lot of handmade “Black Lives Matter” and “Stop Asian Hate” posters on the windows of people’s homes facing towards the streets. What a great way to “own and use” these private/public border spaces to share one’s own private/personal wishes with the public and the neighbors, to feel safe and comfortable in the community. But I also wondered: why were there so many of these posters?

For this ACC trip, I curated a project named “Comfort in Everyday Objects” (日常安物). “Is it possible to establish some sort of companionship in one’s own daily life? Perhaps an object containing a story or a spirit, hidden in our everyday life that can provide us a peace of mind?” This thought prompted me to invite 13 Hong Kong artists and myself to participate in the project. I brought along a pack of 14 pieces of tangible cards with photographs of our “everyday objects” and hand-written messages that I wished to share on this cultural exchange trip, with the hopes of extending and sharing our ideas and feelings with people in the US.  

Every day I would spend some time walking around different neighborhoods to observe how people “used” the public space wisely or engaged with their neighborhoods/communities. During these random visits, I was lucky enough to have been able to initiate many dialogues and meetings with many different people in the community, as well as art practitioners. Often, I would bring up the “Comfort in Everyday Objects” project to listen to how they interpreted their idea of “comfort”, and I also invited them to write down their ideas on a post-it. Eleven American art practitioners joined the project with great enthusiasm by sharing their object photos and writing.

Different art practitioners in the US take part in the project with great enthusiasm

Sandy also invited them to write their ideas on a post-it

Among all the various fruitful encounters, there were two community art projects that impressed me a lot. They showed me how community art practitioners in the US connected their communities through the idea of comfort.

The first was the concept of Community Gardens, which were found in both San Francisco and New York City. Most of the Community Gardens were created out of a simple reason—“to make the community a safe clean place again”, a goal shared by neighborhood residents and  community art practitioners, who stated that the “abandoned land and vacant lots had attracted drug dealers or homeless people, which has made the areas very unsafe and dirty.” There are public resources that local people could seek out for support, like Green Thumb (NYC), which “provides programming and material support to over 550 community gardens in New York City. Workshops, which are the access point for supplies, are held every month of the year, covering gardening basics to more advanced farming and community organizing topics.” Please click here to learn more about Green Thumb. 

During my visits to all these beautiful and vibrant community gardens, apart from small farms and seating areas, I also found many vivid murals promoting community inclusion and love. They were often created by teams of students and neighborhood residents, supervised by local artists. When I visited the SF Sisterhood Gardens, there was even a Tai-Chi workshop for the neighborhood conducted on that particular Saturday morning. “This is a labor of love (physical exercise work). Through farming, gardening and various social gatherings, we are doing community activism.” Indeed, activism and inclusion were at the core of most of the community gardens I visited. 

  (From left) Lydia’s Magic Garden, New York; Sisterhood Gardens, San Francisco

Another impressive community art project I came across was Skywatchers (SF), run by ABD productions (a non-profit arts organisation).

Inside a SF Community Garden named Tenderloin National Forest (created by The Luggage Store Gallery), there was not just only hardware, such as farms, gardens, sculpture, benches, and murals, but also “software”–dancing, music, poetry and theatre. These were part of community arts programs nourishing a sense of communal spirit, and they tried to work with the homeless and lower-income groups living in residential hotels. Rising rents, rampant evictions and incipient gentrification leading to members of the general public losing homes are currently pressing social issues in California. Skywatchers therefore chooses public spaces like public libraries to give performances, and they often invite the audience to interact with them. Their philosophy is “Creating performance that centers the urgent concerns of formerly unhoused residents of San Francisco’s Tenderloin district, working with professional artists in a collaboration rooted in the ethos that large-scale social change begins with intimate, interpersonal relationships. With art as a catalyst and common language, the multi-disciplinary, mixed-ability ensemble creates work that amplifies neighborhood stories and illuminates narratives too often invisible in our collective cultural production.” Click here to learn more about ABD productions and here to learn more about The Luggage Store Gallery.  

                          Skywatchers chooses public spaces to give performances

                                Tenderloin National Forest

There was a particular discomforting “cultural exchange” I experienced on a bus ride in San Francisco pertaining to the issue of Asian hate. This gave me a significant perspective on the issue, as I was able step into the shoes of local Asian Americans and experience how they might feel, especially the Chinese elderly who often took public transport and might not even speak much English. Although I did not suffer from any physical injuries, I was still haunted and disturbed by the stressful experience for a long time afterwards. 

All the encounters and meetings I experienced on this fellowship trip gave me the strong impression that Americans (especially immigrants and people in the arts and culture fields) strive hard in the hopes of having their voices heard, and especially to fight for survival resources and social status. All the social and community art activism I have encountered seem to reinforce the idea that racial discrimination and social injustice have worsened in recent years.

I still remember one community art practitioner agreeing with my observation above: “The racial thing is the root and the core of our US culture! You cannot ignore it.” Maybe that is why the community arts scene in the US, and especially in SF (a particularly political city), is so well-established and so vibrant. Ironically, without such political and social struggles, this active arts scene may not even survive. Freedom is such a paradox– does the freedom to voice your thoughts and feelings allow one to use violence or express hatred? I couldn’t help but ponder on such issues.

Over the course of my five-month trip, I learnt how to compose myself and give myself comfort and peace of mind whenever I felt stressed or unsafe in US. I often think of HK’s pressing socio-political-cultural status, and wonder how we could bring together our various communities of different cultural backgrounds or beliefs, as well as to nurture a sense of comfort collectively. Maybe we could try to curate more art programs facilitating the collective communication of our inner thoughts through body movement and non-verbal art language. This could perhaps enable us to learn to reconnect with Mother Nature. This may be preferable to opening our mouths and voicing our thoughts too soon or jumping to conclusions. I wonder.