In the 1980s, Carol Nye began creating a photographic record of historic importance, by recording the rapid demographic and cultural changes occurring in Chinatown. As an outgrowth of this project, Nye began taking a series of portraits of Chinese American women whose public and private lives exhibit a strength of character that she believes can serve as an inspiration to others. These portraits were the basis of a plan to honor the women in the public realm. Nye crystallized her idea into a formal proposal after attending a meeting organized by Lydia Takeshita, publisher of the local art magazine, Visions, and director of the Artcore Gallery, who encouraged Asian American artists to develop public art projects for Chinatown.
Chinese women, according to Nye, traditionally stay in the background and do not talk about their accomplishments in public. Nye wanted her installation to subvert this taboo and confront the discrimination Chinese American women face from both their own community and from the dominant culture. She also wanted to present positive role models for women and undermine stereotypic views that Asian women are either actresses or objects of desire. Nye decided which women to honor after discussions with members of the Chinese Historical Society of Southern California. All the women she included in her installation either resided in Chinatown or were active in the public life of the community.
In 1992, Nye presented the design of her photomurals honoring Katherine Sui Fun Cheung and Yu Hai Seto at the Merging One Gallery in Santa Monica in an exhibition of proposed public art projects for Chinatown. Each panel presented the woman's name and occupation in English and Chinese, and juxtaposed a recent portrait by Nye with an historic black and white portrait.
While preparing a grant application, Nye decided to seek funds to install four panels in Chinatown rather than just the two she exhibited at the gallery. She initially planned to rotate the panels by installing two at a time on the exterior wall of the Pacific Alliance Medical Center.
Though the medical center would have been an ideal site because of its proximity to both the city library and the Castelar School, Nye was unable to install the panels at the facility because of a scheduled renovation. Through the intervention of Mickey Gustin, the art planner at the Community Redevelopment Agency, the Metro Plaza Hotel agreed to provide space to display all four photomurals at the same time.
Her project was installed in mid-1994 and scheduled to hang for only a year. Nye proposed a temporary installation because of the lack of a public art tradition in Chinese culture and she was uncertain of the community's response. She also felt that a temporary piece would help prepare the community to accept permanent public art installations in the future.
Funded by a grant from the Los Angeles City Cultural Affairs Department, each of the four panels identify in English and Chinese the name and occupation of the woman being honored. The photomurals honoring Katherine Cheung and Yui Seto are identical to the designs presented in the show at the Merging One Gallery but the ones of Dr. Louie and Ella Quan are different. Rather than combining a recent portrait with an earlier photograph of the woman, they link a recent portrait by Nye with an image representing the women's public life. A stack of books refers to Dr. Louie's position as a librarian and a rendering of a temple--often the site of education in ancient China--connects Quan with education.
A computer generated the image of the temple in the background of the Quan panel, and assembled the books on Louie's right arm. These books, which Nye photographed separately, represent Louie's background in multi-cultural education. The first book concerns an African-American child. The second book relates to a woman from the period of the Han dynasty (202 B.C. - 220 A.D.), who was involved in Chinese education. The remaining books are traditional Chinese books. Bilingual texts on plaques attached to the building at eye level recount the lives of all four women.
The text has been provided courtesy of Michael Several, Los Angeles, September 1998.
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