“I was resisting pursuing this kind of work because I didn’t know what it would look like. The more I’m doing it now the more I’m realizing that that’s the whole point.”

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

Tonia Sing Chi (TSC): This is Tonia Sing Chi, and I’m here with Hallie Chen for Storytelling Spaces of Solidarity in the Asian Diaspora.

Can you tell me a little bit about how your identity as Asian American and as a child of immigrants played a role in your experience growing up in San Francisco? Did you feel connected or disconnected with your ancestral homeland? Did you grow up around other Asians or immigrant families?

Hallie Chen (HC): First, thank you so much for inviting me. And, second, I will answer that question. My parents are from Taiwan. I grew up actually in the suburbs of San Francisco in a suburban town called Millbrae, which is like a middle-class and now very upper-middle-class place. I went to public schools where probably like 70 to 80 percent of the kids were Asian, and then Pacific Islander, and then Mexican or Latinx. Then there were very few, I guess, European descendants around me when I was growing up. So I felt very much at ease in terms of a racialized identity or ethnic or cultural identity. But I think maybe very othered in personality (laughs).

That is like a different story. I think there’s a kind of mainstream ABC—ABC stands for American Born Chinese in case anyone doesn’t know. Then there’s the fobs who are the new immigrants. That was sort of a derogatory term, but also just descriptive. There was all this sort of nuance within the Asian identities that I was surrounded by. So I never really felt too pigeonholed until I got to high school, when I moved to San Francisco with my family and went to a pretty much all-white private school or high school. Big flip. I know you went to CPS, so you kind of have some analogous experience.

TSC: What school was it in San Francisco?

HC: San Francisco University High School.

TSC: Okay. University—high school—

HC: Yeah, exactly.

TSC: Like college, high school? (laughs)

HC: Yeah. And it really was that. So, growing up, I got to go back to Taiwan all the time. I went to Chinese school on Saturdays. My parents spoke to me in Mandarin. I replied in English, which is why my Chinese is so shitty—you know, Sailor Moon, what have you, a lot of positive imagery, positive associations with food and experience. So I didn’t have quite the trauma that I think some people grew up with. I think the Bay Area is a privileged place in that way for the East Asian diasporic children. Yeah, parents spent the weekends playing Mahjong together. I remember when I was like eight years old, a family friend brought to a Mahjong party, like, boba from Taiwan, and we made it and drank it out of these tiny teacups with giant straws.

There was just always a lot of AZN pride, you know? Not a lot of shame, which was very great. But, socially, I think the kind of artsy-fartsy artistic alternative world more put me outside of the mainstream, even though from these other perspectives things were fine. So then when I got to high school, it was weird because I had people that I was more maybe content-aligned with in terms of interests and desire for being outside of the mainstream in a certain way. But then all of those people were, like, white punk rock dudes. And so it was a pretty big culture-shock shift. And then also, I think there’s an aspect of these conversations, that intersectionality with class that is always really complicated and not really super well explored. My private high school was also the first time I was around extreme wealth even though no one would characterize the suburb I’m from as a place that had a lack of wealth or being an under-resourced area. It was still, I think, leaps and bounds beyond what I had experienced growing up.

So yeah, there were sort of different kinds of alienation and belonging that happened through that schooling. I guess it’s kind of like a story of institutions when you talk about your experience of your identity or understanding what that is. It’s like, How did it fit in this school, and then this schooling, and then the next institution? So yeah, I continued that trend of just extreme kind of self-selected academic achievement slash art. I went to art summer camp and stuff like that. So I was exposed to a lot more white culture. I actually ran into my high school English teacher like two weeks ago at Cancun. He was with these other people, and they’d just gone to an art show. I was like, “It’s your fault that I’m obsessed with white guys.”

TSC: You mean white guy authors and creatives or white guys period?

HC: I think basically we were reading Kafka and Pynchon and just really feeling ourselves in high school, but it was sort of all surrounded around the sort of white male intellectual framework. So that really just seeped into my mind. I think I formed a lot of my identity and ideas around self-discovery and creativity at that time. I think it was both a privilege but also a little bit scary because I haven’t really reflected on how—I mean, currently in my life, I’m reflecting a lot on how white supremacy has sort of been part of forming all of my desires and really changed the way in which I view the world and wanted to operate in the world.

Maybe it also made me very—I can speak—we have a shared language because I love postmodern literature and critical theory, you know? So I feel like that stuff was extremely formative and there wasn’t as much space. I mean, I think I started reading a little more, like, Clarice Lispector and other female voices later. But still—our voices are not in any of our schooling. There’s like none. There was sort of a freedom, I guess, because you’re kind of a tourist in everything.

Interview Segment: How white supremacy has been part of forming all my desires


Hallie Chen, she/her

Interview Date:
February 22, 2023

Themes: Asian American identity, Chinese identity, Taiwanese identity, institutions, whiteness, gender, town fridge shelters, sliding scale work, racialized inequality, model minority, Chinglish, assimilation, colonization, decolonization, azn pride, design, architecture

Oakland, San Francisco, Taiwan, Chicago

Pynchon, Kafka, Clarice Lispector, Benjamin Walter, Ananya Roy, Lion Dance Cafe, Red Bay Coffee, Peralta Hacienda Historical House, Taliesin School of Architecture, Theaster Gates, Girls Garage, Emily Pilloton-Lam, Stephanie Lin, Kounkuey Design Initiative (KDI), Design Advocates


Ancestral Land:
China and Taiwan

Ohlone (San Francisco)

Current Land:
Ohlone (San Francisco and Oakland)

Diaspora Story:
My parents arrived in the US in 1974 from Taiwan to pursue higher education.  They do not identify as Taiwanese because their parents came to Taiwan from China during the cultural revolution. My dad used to repeat NPR outloud in the car to improve his accent and diction so the pressure to assimilate was high in spite of also pressuring us to maintain Chinese cultural norms while doing so.

Creative Fields:

Racial Justice Affiliations: Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, Town Fridge, BIPOC Clients

Favorite Fruit:
wax apple

Hallie Chen was born and raised in San Francisco. While studying urban planning at UC Berkeley for undergrad, she discovered her interest in architecture as a means to create inspiring social spaces and as a tool for progressive community development. After completing a Master of Architecture from Harvard’s GSD, she spent time in upstate New York exploring the connections between ecology, farming and architecture. Upon returning to the Bay Area she became an expert in commercial interior and office developments, before branching out to start CAHA. When not at the office or on-site, Hallie is a leader in youth design-build programs or making pizza in a very hot oven. Hallie is a California Licensed Architect, C-38753.

︎    cahadesign.com

︎    @cahadesign

I didn’t hate it, but I think now I feel concerned about it. At the time I was ready to drink the Kool-Aid and be there talking about Benjamin and drinking whiskey and doing all that kind of stuff. But yeah, I think that then I went to a Cal, which I kind of oscillated between different—I didn’t have a lot of Asian-identified community at that time because I was in a lot of classes that continued to reflect my artistic, intellectual interests, which were formed by the things I started to be interested in, in high school.

TSC: The canon of white men.

HC: Yeah, the canon of white men. Then I got to the GSD, and I think I was sort of aware always that I had a social consciousness and I thought about things more in terms of sort of global inequality and was really interested in international development because of Ananya Roy, who is another person who somehow—she became my intellectual North Star, and she also loves the Frankfurt School. But she complicates things and makes things more—

TSC: Nuanced.

HC: Nuanced yeah. And inclusive. So I found her classes to be the most—one of the lectures that got me the most in her course was the one day when she was talking about Baron Haussmann and the Boulevards of Paris. She brings in a Baudelaire poem and then connects it to a Cure song, which uses the Baudelaire poem in its lyrics. And I was like, “My mind is blown!” So still all white dudes, but—does that kind of answer your question?

TSC: (laughs) You covered a lot of ground actually! It is curious to me, as someone who also grew up in the Bay Area, that you talk about not having shame because I feel like it’s so integral to how I feel about myself (laughs).

HC: (laughs) There was shame, but it was just from my mom.

TSC: Okay. (laughs)

HC: Shame and guilt pervaded, but it was on a very specificpersonal level.

TSC: I wonder if your experience growing up in Millbrae just surrounded by so many Asians really affected that. I was interviewing a colleague of mine who is kind of like our parents’ generation in that she grew up in Pakistan and then came over here and she always talks about how she doesn’t identify as BIPOC because she doesn’t have trauma. (laughs)

HC: (laughs)

TSC: She was explaining, “I didn’t grow up here. I don’t identify with my daughter, for example, who has all this trauma from microaggressions.” She’s always asking me, “Am I BIPOC?” But all of this is making me think more about how formative those really early years are in your sense of self.

The other thing I was curious about is that on the narrator questionnaire you listed your identity as Asian American. I’m wondering if you’ve ever thought about what that word means to you. Do you feel that that identity empowers you? Do you feel like it limits you?

HC: This answer’s probably so similar to what so many people would say, which is like—there’s that split identity where you really aren’t Chinese enough to be Chinese with your family, but people don’t read you as just a purely American person. I’m not even biracial and I think that’s totally accurate. I don’t share language and culture. There’s a big divide between me and my parents, both linguistically and culturally. I think people who are maybe European-identifying Americans maybe feel more “truly” American? Because I would never remove the Asian part—of being American, if that makes sense.

TSC: So you never go to another country and say, “I’m American”?

HC: Yeah—I don’t think so. I mean, maybe I have, but just like, “Literally, I just came from the US.” But if somebody was going to say, like—you know—that never answers people’s questions—

TSC: (laughs)

HC: They’re always like, (makes slanted-eye gesture) Where are you from?

TSC: (laughs) So you feel like that’s just a descriptor of who you are and you can’t really separate that from yourself. You don’t feel empowered by it? You don’t feel racialized by it? You just feel like it’s a fact?

HC: I think it’s a fact for me. Do I feel empowered by it? No, I don’t think so? I don’t even know if those identities are ever really that empowering. I think I feel more shame about being American than I do about being Asian—as a global actor. Goddamnit. (shakes head) I think that’s probably the part that feels the most—I wish I could tell people that I wasn’tAmerican when I was traveling.

TSC: (laughs) I feel that.

HC: I guess it’s an interesting question because I think whether there are certain labels and identifications that are empowering or not at all is something that I don’t really know that I’ve really reflected on that much. I think something that I always found when I was younger—I really hated it when people used gender as a way of creating divisions. I think race probably just didn’t come up as often, but in a similar vein I’m just like, Human being. We’re all people. People are just people. And that is the most empowering identity that you can have—is to try to have that.

“I think basically we were reading Kafka and Pynchon and just really feeling ourselves in high school, but it was sort of all surrounded around the sort of white male intellectual framework. So that really just seeped into my mind. I think I formed a lot of my identity and ideas around self-discovery and creativity at that time.”

I think now that there’s so much more literacy and kind of street cred or something, or anykind of cred, to having a cultural or ethnic identity, it’s more empowering now than it was before. Same thing with being a woman. I think when you’re little you’re just like, “Just see me as a person.” And now it’s like people are trying to amplify underrepresented voices. So it feels more empowering now than it used to.

TSC: Interesting!

How would you describe your work? Has your upbringing or identity, speaking of empowerment, shaped your creative path in the way that you approach your work?

HC: I think the desire to integrate some social justice or community mindedness into my practice, whether that’s, like, because I still do education stuff with Girls Garage or any kind of school, who we try to hire for interns at our office and get resources to and experiences to. I generally have been trying to select people who are more underrepresented in architecture. Our businesses that we like to work with—we’re going to have to work on if I could edit this in or out. I’m like, “No more white males, no more cishet white men for clients if I don’t have to, unless I really, really am into their project.” But most of the time—look at the restaurants and cafes that we’ve been working with.

We’ve been trying to put more of our energy into people who are BIPOC-owned businesses in Oakland who are trying to start their dreams. We’ve done a lot of sliding scale and trade. So, when we worked with Lion Dance, there was sliding scale; when we worked with Red Bay, there was sliding scale. Those are all minority-owned businesses in the area. So I think that’s the intent of a lot of what we’re setting up. We’re kind of still trying to pay the bills, so not really able to maintain that long-term. But then we’ll try to do things like—I’m working on a pro bono project with the Peralta Hacienda Historical House, which uses all of their facilities to provide distance-learning services and space for the lu Mien community around Oakland and for all the Indigenous people that live in the Fruitvale area. A lot of the youth in the area all use the House for internet access, and they did distance learning during pandemic. They have free summer camps and programming and all that stuff.

So I feel like I identify as someone who is maybe interested in equity as a main mission of working in the built environment. I do think being who I am—I don’t know, I mean, it must be influenced by my identity. I just can’t imagine that it isn’t—not that I’ve articulated that very clearly. But maybe I wouldn’t be as acutely aware of injustice had I not. And even though maybe I’m overselling my lack of shame, I’ve certainly had people yell racialized-sounding sounds at me throughout my life. (laughs)

And I guess also I feel like it gives me the ability to see privilege. There’s something about the way that I’ve lived that I still feel like I’m extremelyaware of racialized inequality and class-based inequality.

What else? I don’t know if I covered everything. I feel like I think about it constantly. I think we’re still growing as a firm and we’re not a nonprofit, so there’s a lot of challenges to being able to really integrate personal missions into the daily practice, but it’s sort of like when we can get it in, we get it in. So, during pandemic, we did a bunch of town fridge shelters, and we kind of try to dedicate time and energy where we can—just in how we run the culture of the office—to be thoughtful.

But we don’t get to really be mission driven yet. So I think I would be lying to say that it’s totally central. But I think it’s a big influence and it guides a lot of the decision-making that we do on a micro level with the relationships we build and where we’re trying to put our energy, where we feel like we’re contributing to the urban fabric and whose identities and space we want to take up in the city of Oakland. That is definitely a driver—diversifying the landscape.

TSC: Mm-hmm. I remember connecting with Emily again once I moved back here and she was like, “Hallie’s doing so great. Every BIPOC business owner is hiring Hallie to do their designs.”

HC: Yeah! We feel really lucky because it was like Victor’s running store, which is a BIPOC-focused community running store. And then it was Alkali Rye, which is also a BIPOC producer-focused store in the spirits industry. So it’s kind of by accident slash on purpose that there just happened to be a lot of people realizing that they want to take up space in these particular ways. Red Bay Coffees is Black-owned coffee. The small restaurants—one of the ones that I’m working with is this popup called Immi, which stands for “immigrant” and is a San Francisco place, and we’ve been sort of hunting for spaces together for the last two years. It’s just that kind of word-of-mouth network, and people get really excited now actually that I am a practicing architect in the commercial space who identifies as East Asian, who can speak Mandarin, and then can also represent that.

So we had some potential projects that we were exploring last month where I went to LA because these executives from Japan who are trying to expand into the American market—it was cool for this person who was the business person to try to bring an Asian American architect to the meeting to be like, “I have some sort of cultural literacy to be able to help you execute this new vision.” So it’s definitely more of a thing now, I think, than ever before.

TSC: I like the way you explained your work as helping other BIPOC business owners literally take up space. I also really enjoyed hearing you talk about your work in Emily Stanford’s class. You made a comment that kind of stuck with me, which is that it’s hard to be a designer or an architect and not feel like a colonizer. Can you tell me a little bit more about what you mean when you say that?

HC: (laughs) Oh yeah, totally! I’ll give you an example right now. I am currently in our new office, which is located at 2727 Fruitvale Avenue. It was, like, a farm and garden store warehouse kind of thing. We came into this neighborhood that is primarily Latinx and Black. The residences behind us have a lot of white residents too. But if you look at the sort of main streetscape, we’re, like, a sign of gentrification and that feels like we’ve moved. It’s that constant pattern of creative people trying to move to where space is cheaper. But it means that probably as it gains some kind of traction and permanence in the neighborhood—that it could have a negative impact on people who have been here for longer. I don’t love it, but that’s basically something that I think happens as an inevitability. There’s no way to really, I think, invest a lot of capital into something like just doing any kind of built project in the built environment. We were talking about this at TSOA, at Taliesin School of Architecture. Do you know Stephanie Lin? Did you add Stephanie Lin to this list?

TSC: I can!

HC: You need to add Stephanie Lin to this list.

TSC: Okay.

HC: We were talking about the students’ thesis projects and how they are supposed to build these ten by ten outdoor structures and live in them. But it’s like even the animals and the plants that they displace when they put down the physical, literal material of their structure is like—that’s another form of colonization. It’s environmental; it’s social; it’s cultural. There’s not really a way to get away from that, I don’t think.

Can you do things to mitigate and maybe redirect and engage in some of the existing social processes, ecological processes, systems that exist around you? Absolutely. And I think we hope to do that. My friend who’s a social worker here was like, “What would be really good for you to do in your exact location is a free Spanish-English coffee hour where people come and practice their English and you guys can practice Spanish.” It’s like hosting and amplifying and doing capacity building around what do people need in this exact neighborhood and how to be a thoughtful neighbor is a cool way to try to mitigate the impacts of it, but you’re not getting away from the fact that a bunch of designers and artists just landed in this spot. I just don’t think there’s a lot that you can do.

TSC: I do think that the minute you become a designer or a researcher or an academic, you other yourself from your “community” no matter what community that is. It happens in literally every community.

HC: Totally. I don’t know, did you have a different interpretation of what I said? Or does that kind of align?

TSC: No, no, no! I just wanted to hear you talk about it. I wanted to hear from you what you meant and not assume.

HC: I don’t know if I talked about this in Emily’s class—I think I did—where I worked for KDI in Nairobi.

TSC: Oh, tell me about that. Colonizer or no?

HC: Abso-fucking-lutely. Are you kidding me? KDI does the best job out of any design agency I’ve ever seen at not being that way. But when you’re in the informal settlements and you’re seeing all the other projects by other NGOs—even the toilet design from the UNHCR or any of these other people trying to do “good”—it’s insane. KDI gets around it because they do capacity building. They hire locally; they train locally; they ask people when they do projects who they work with. They get paid; they fundraise within the neighborhood, and then KDI matches. So there’s financial, emotional, social investment in their projects. That’s the least colonizing organization I’ve ever seen. But just being outside of Nairobi and watching every other built project get done was just absolutely an imposing of desire or goodwill upon people who are just like, I guess we’ll take it. So that felt weird and terrible, and I was like, I wish that someone had spent the money—the grant money I got to go to KDI I should have given to the workers who were hired by KDI locally. You know what I mean? It just didn’t make any sense for me to go there.

Second example was when I lived on South Side of Chicago—also a bunch of academic design students living on the South Side in a Black neighborhood trying to build things with and for other people. That whole project of Theaster Gates’ brings a whole stream of rich white investment and other issues to that zone. Also tried to do a really good job at mitigating that feeling, but it’s still—it’s weird. I think we talked about the DesignBuildBLUFF houses that were not designed with the clients in mind as much, and you see the sort of abandoned colonial structures—like a vestige of a Western desire kind of just imposed upon the Indigenous landscape—and you’re just like, This is so weird. So I don’t really think you can do a lot of it. I mean, you have to work really hard and be super thoughtful to make it not feel like a total act of—I think every author of architecture and people who see it as authorship—it’s a total philosophical statement about just being a designer too. It’s like, What do you see design, the act of design, as? Do you see it as your will coming to your vision and your will coming to fruition? Or is it, like, a participatory process in which you’re creating a synthetic material expression of some other set of processes? Which I think some people we know are doing. I think KDI does it and I think a couple other practices have maybe been able to execute on that a little bit better, but usually somebody still wants that visual.

TSC: The nice shot for the magazine with their name under it.

HC: Exactly.

TSC: It is complicated because I think also—I mean, this is a whole other longer conversation that I would actually really love to have with you. But it is complicated because a lot of times people with the capacity to do a lot of that work of setting up a KDI is not necessarily somebody in Nairobi. Once it’s set up, then you can hire people, like you said. But the backbone of those organizations relies on outsiders who have the privilege and the capacity and access to resources.

HC: And ultimately I think I concluded for myself—and this is, I think, why I went to architecture instead of planning—that I’m okay with a certain level of authorship. I think listening is important and I think feedback is important, but I think to pretend that the best outcome will always come from a democratic, majority-rules consensus kind of situation without leadership can be very difficult. So I think what I see architecture as is that ability to exercise critical judgment and have a little bit more of a leader or vision that not everyone will be happy.

TSC: So you talked about how in high school you were indoctrinated with the canon of white men, which is maybe what that has led you to do or be inclined towards—

HC: Who I’m partnered with. It’s just, like, every level.

TSC: (laughs) All the levels. I was going to go on a brief tangent but—

HC: I want to hear it.

TSC: I was going to ask if you’d read Disorientation.

HC: Oh, I have. I have.

TSC: Was it triggering?

HC: I was just crying. It was so good. I felt totally dragged, and it was great.

TSC: Totally. I know. Do you feel like you faced challenges as an Asian designer or educator, or do you feel like being Asian has prevented you in any way from full participation in the design profession?

HC: I was talking about this with a coworker the other day. I’m going to go back to class over racial identity because I think you tend to try to match your client’s experience a little bit. So sort of, like, the fancier and richer the client, the fancier and richer the designer, and that sort of like—I feel like that happens. So I think we’ve been very intentional about—I haven’t really tried to go for high-end residential, for example. I just don’t think that those clients and I are going to share a lot and that I will be able to—I think maybe partially I could, but anyway, it would be challenging—or I’d have to change my look a little.

But I don’t know if it has prevented slash I think a lot about where I can be effective. So it’s less about barriers at this particular juncture. Because we’re boutique and small and nimble, I think we’re very selective in that way around who we work with and what we want to work on. But the biggest barrier—and I think this is just true of society—is that a lot of jobs are word of mouth, and your name gets passed around and recommended and if you don’t know some people, you’re never going to enter those circles. So I think that there’s a combination of me saying, like, Oh, maybe I don’t want to work with those people, but also how would I get that work?

So I think there’s probably an element of inevitable—like your first few jobs when you start a firm is, like, for a parent’s friend’s pool house or something. That’s a classic story I feel like.

TSC: I know a couple of those. (laughs)

HC: Yeah! And it’s like if you don’t have a rich parent’s friend who wants to take a risk on a young architecture firm—it’s like, How are you going to get that job? We talked about this—like, it’s pervasive in architecture in general. Like, How are you going to pay your bills if you decide to take the internship at OMA that pays $20,000 a year in New York City? I think that there’s just sort of, like, a general race and class mobility and access—corralling. It’s just true. It’s like, Look at who gets what kind of jobs. Find out how they got those jobs. The rich white people are going to hire a certain kind of white guy architect, you know what I mean? And Nicole Hollis. That’s what’s going to happen. So I guess that’s a barrier, but it’s also kind of, like, I guess, Am I trying to break through it? I don’t think so. (laughs) I’m like, I’ll go over here. Where I want to be. Alone.

TSC: Is it a boundary or a barrier? (laughs)

HC: Yeah, exactly. I think probably I will learn more and have a different answer to this in five years when I’m trying to do larger-scale multifamily or trying to win competitions for a public school or any of that kind of stuff. I’ll tell you more about that in a couple years.

TSC: Okay. Five-year follow-up interview.

HC: I think we’re trying to make a jump in scale in the next few years in terms of the size of projects we do. I think I’ll have a different set of experiences when that happens. I’ll go through different interviews and have probably encountered more stuff. I mean, at this particular moment, we’re really interested in trying to do affordable housing and multifamily housing as a next step for our firm. When I meet with the seasoned affordable housing designers, they’re like, The first thing you need to do is get certified as a woman-owned small business and a minority-owned small business; then you’re going to get that leg up for winning government contracts. So, in this moment, it’s probably a privilege if I could get those things done, but they cost several thousand dollars and a lot of paperwork to do. So haven’t done it yet. Trying to do it. Trying to break those barriers for that type of stuff. I think I’ll have a different response soon. If I try to do institutional stuff, I’ll let you know.

TSC: Sounds good. Have you ever experienced resistance to your role or your presence in racial justice or solidarity work?

HC: TBH, I haven’t done that much, so I don’t think I’m super qualified to answer that question, but I hear what you’re saying. I think I have a sense of, I know it has happened to people around me. Because there’s sort of that model minority assimilation aspect to being Asian, where the experiences of racism are very different. So I could see that being something, but I honestly don’t—I think because my choices around my social justice engagement is usually around youth and education. I don’t do a lot of organizing with a lot of other adults, so that’s not something I feel like I can totally speak to. I’m on the board of Bay Area Girls Rock Camp, which mostly serves Oakland youth of color and a lot of Black and brown young people. Everyone’s just like, “It’s all love and you’re everyone.” One of the community tenets is, “Everyone who’s here belongs here.” That’s one of the first things you learn when you’re at Rock Camp. So there’s really, like, an effort to make people feel like we’re all in it together. But I don’t know that I’ve really tried to be in other spaces where there’s more social justice action organizing. But I could imagine it.

TSC: Maybe you haven’t thought about this that much, but do you feel like there’s a specific role for Asian Americans in this type of work? Or are you in the “We’re all in this together” kind of, like, mentality?

“I think now that there’s so much more literacy and kind of street cred or something, or any kind of cred, to having a cultural or ethnic identity, it’s more empowering now than it was before.”

HC: I think that there’s probably a way to leverage the model minority thing where I feel like that non-threatening—people don’t feel threatened particularly, I don’t think, by Asians in meeting spaces and stuff like that. So I think that our ability to maybe sort of infiltrate power structures and then push through agendas is maybe something that could be leveraged. (laughs) I think that’s the Robin Hooding of it, let’s say. It feels like a responsibility for sure. If you feel like you have upward mobility and you don’t experience as much resistance, which I think especially in design—I feel like it’s very white and Asian, and you see that. It’s sort of easier to slip in through the door and be like, “Oops, guess what? I am going to talk about race here. You didn’t know, but I have this Trojan horse of intersectional agendas that are just going to really throw a wrench in what maybe appeared to be a smooth, obedient operating situation.”

So yeah, I do think there could be a specific role because it’s like in that acceptable minority, if we have more access—yeah, I’m sure there are barriers too, but I also do think there’s probably more access. Why wouldn’t you advocate for making sure that you’re thinking about who you’re hiring and how things are conducted at your firm? I think that that’s definitely perhaps a specific Asian American designer role to play.

TSC: Yes, because of the model minority myth, we can kind of slide in as invisible spies or something. We have access to white spaces because people “round us up” to white oftentimes, and then we can use that privilege in ways that people won’t expect of us.

HC: Exactly! And you should!

TSC: And you should! (laughs)

When I spoke to Emily, she made some comment about how she just has a feeling that if all the Asians and Girls Garage—like you, me, Hye, and her—got together and did a project together, it’d be awesome. I’m wondering how you feel about that sentiment. Do you feel any sort of affinity or connection when working with other Asian designers who have similar values to you? Have you thought about it much?

HC: I don’t know that I’ve thought about that. I think it’s funny because that maybe goes against a little bit about how I feel about how I want to roll, but I also get it. It’s interesting because I think sort of in the face of greater difference that makes sense. We’re so nuanced and individual that it doesn’t—I think it’s, like, both.

TSC: “Both and.” (laughs)

HC: Yeah. It’s a “yes, and.” (laughs) I remember the person who invited us to do that business meeting with the Japanese executives I told you was so psyched on us and was so excited when he got on Zoom and everyone was Asian on the call. It's like that for some people when they’ve been primarily a minority in a space—so I think it’s contextual. I think that’s the totally legit feeling to have when you’re thinking about, How does this read or represent to a wider world? But we also don’t want a flattening of our own identities. Like an assumption that somehow there are certain qualities that—you know what I mean? I totally get it and I totally am like, “Yeah, of course I would do that. If Emily wanted us to do anything, I would do it.”

TSC: You’re like, “Actually that’s the conclusion. If Emily is doing it, I’m doing it.” (laughs)

“It’s sort of easier to slip in through the door and be like, ‘Oops, guess what? I am going to talk about race here. You didn’t know, but I have this Trojan horse of intersectional agendas that are just going to really throw a wrench in what maybe appeared to be a smooth, obedient operating situation.’”

Interview Segment: I have this Trojan horse of intersectional agendas

HC: Yeah! Because I think ultimately it’s like there are times when that narrative is useful and then there are times where that narrative is harmful. I’m down for furthering the needle even if it makes me feel a little bit more stereotyped for a minute, for something. If it’s somehow there’s a greater good to it—which I often think there is. And I think also—we didn’t talk about age. But I think age is really—time and context and age, people’s experiences are so wildly different. And what was acceptable at different times in different people’s lives is so different. And right now is so different. So I feel like—

TSC: You seem scared. (laughs)

HC: Yeah. No, but I love it! There’s a lot of stuff when we talk about—I think about sometimes how Emily’s audience is probably fifty-plus-year-old white Berkeley people.

TSC: Her audience? You mean, on social media?

HC: No, on like fundraising—and progressive Democrats. So we have to speak that language if you want to play the nonprofit game.

TSC: Yeah.

HC: So I’m a hundred percent ready to do that if we need to do that. Then if we were going to a room filled with Gen Z college students, I probably wouldn’t talk about an Asian girl designer super pact. (laughs) You know? It’s a totally contextual kind of like thing.

TSC: I think she was talking about it more in terms of, like, how we would communicate, what we would notice, what we would want to make visible, that kind of thing. I do wonder though how much of it is just growing up in the Bay Area—being socially conscious—how much of it is just the context here versus our experiences growing up experiencing racialization and marginalization, and all of these things.

What dreams or aspirations do you have for Asians in Asian diasporic spaces and the people who are shaping them through design?

“ I think ultimately it’s like there are times when that narrative is useful and then there are times where that narrative is harmful. I’m down for furthering the needle even if it makes me feel a little bit more stereotyped for a minute, for something. “

HC: A very poignant question to ask me today. I feel like because something that happened—this is my own personal development. Let’s say I spent the first two thirds—teens and twenties—and a little bit into thirties sort of, like, indoctrination with the white cannon. And then now I’m trying to read only—trying to consume certain kinds of media, read certain books, and trying to diversify the inputs into my brain and my exposure. I kind of hope that there’s a way for me to connect to my own cultural identity in a more deep way that’s authentic to my interests and doesn’t feel like—and I want that for people who are practicing. It’s like, How do we find ourselves in our practices again? And things that are more traditional and maybe not part of things that were shaped by white supremacy and our aesthetics that were shaped by white supremacy? When we were doing the pop-up with Viridian, I was really interested in Asian geometry, like architectural geometry and how to bring that into some of the spaces and things that we’re designing and working on. I designed a shelf for Taiwan Bento—

TSC: I like that shelf!

HC: Thank you so much!

TSC: I’m so sad they closed. What did they do with it? Where did it go?

HC: I’m sure it’s in their house. I hope it’s their house.

TSC: Okay, good. It better be.

HC: But stuff like that where I was like, “Oh, I get to integrate a little bit of my cultural identity into this and put a little contemporary spin.” But that’s stuff I hope we can—I think specificity can come back and not only modernism and minimalism. I think ornament should come back a little bit. I hope and I dream that ornament can come back a little bit. And just expression! Feeling creative, something that feels authentic and expressive, that’s unique, that somehow is our thing. But on another side—and maybe you can help me because you’re doing this project—I need a coalition of Chinese-language-speaking design professionals. My friend who works for the Portola Neighborhood Association is helping all these small businesses who are getting those horrible ADA lawsuits for their entries. And it’s really hard for people to navigate the building process. They don’t know contractors. Contractors don’t speak Chinese. They don’t know how to navigate the city permitting system. They get taken for a ride. They don’t know how to shop around. So I went this morning to a dim sum restaurant and a mechanic shop on Silver Avenue to go assess and help them put together a plan for executing the corrections. So I think some organizing and helping of new immigrant businesses and helping people and communities thrive in the built environment. I thought it’d be so cool if we had a little agency and we went around and we “extreme home makeover-ed” people’s businesses and helped them pass ADA inspections and redid graphic design for, like, their menu or their awning or whatever.

TSC: That’s interesting. It’s like—have you heard of Design Advocates—but Asian?

HC: What’s Design Advocates?

TSC: There’s a group of designers that started it in New York. And they do a lot of pro bono, advocacy-related work. So it’s a lot of notable architecture and design firms in New York City, and they operate like a collective. I mean, yes, sign me up. I’m into it. Also, when you started talking about the Chinese language thing, I’ve been thinking about how I would love to have a resource for speaking architecture, design, and built environment in Mandarin.

HC: Same. I need that.

TSC: Yeah.

HC: What are we calling it? Design Advocates, but Chinese?

TSC: Yeah, but Chinese. We should talk about this more because my next question actually was basically this, which is that an important part of this project is about creating resources that’ll be useful for Asian designers. What resources would you love to see for other Asian designers or for yourself?

HC: Chinese language, design language would be super helpful.

TSC: Yes.

HC: I couldn’t figure out how to say landlord this morning!

TSC: How do you say it?

HC: It’s Wūzhǔ.

TSC: Okay. That makes sense.

HC: Then there’s two—it’s like “owner of the building.” But there’s just a bunch of random specific terms that I just never learned and would love to know.

TSC: I mean, I would love to create a list of what we know and then just pass it around—ask people, ask cousins, and also people who are actually designers who work in China, Taiwan.

HC: Chinese Design Dictionary. Done. New project. Publish it. Get the advance.

TSC: I’m going to do it. I’m not kidding. I actually really want that for myself.

HC: Same. I’ll help you. Tell me. I’m ready.

TSC: Let’s do it. Okay. I’ll share a Google Doc with you. (laughs)

HC: Perfect. I’m sharing one with you right now. (laughs)

TSC: Okay, perfect. Even better. (laughs) I'm remembering this one time AAPI Women Lead made a post that was like, “Who wants to help us build exercise bikes, or repurpose those bike share bikes as exercise bikes for elders?” Emily and I both commented, and then Emily messaged me immediately and was like, “I’m sharing a slide deck with you.” It was like literally two minutes after us both commenting on this Instagram, you already have a slide deck with ideas. (laughs)

HC: Classic. (laughs)

TSC: It was pretty funny.

HC: The second is a list of Chinese-speaking built-environment professionals—so handymen, contractors, architects, engineers—who can speak to businesses.

TSC: Yeah. Do you speak Cantonese as well?

HC: Absolutely not. Just very crappy Mandarin.

TSC: Chinglish.

HC: It’s very Chinglish.

TSC: (laughs) Well, I think we’re nearing the end of our hour. Is there anything else that you would like to share or revisit that we talked about?

“I kind of hope that there’s a way for me to connect to my own cultural identity in a more deep way that’s authentic to my interests and doesn’t feel like—and I want that for people who are practicing. It’s like, How do we find ourselves in our practices again?”

HC: I think this is something that I haven’t reflected on a lot and I’m telling you, also, I think it’s a personal development stage for me to have any kind of desire to have an identity that’s connected to my cultural heritage. I think it’s new and also just sort of becoming aware of how colonized my mind is, is new. So I think this was, like, round one of this interview because I don’t know yet, and I probably—I think something about our generation that’s true both from being a woman and/or having the racialized identity is we accepted a lot of things as normal that now people are saying is not okay. So it’s hard to really have narrated to oneself that those feelings or those experiences were any type of way.

I thought about this mostly in the context of my personal relationships and my friendships and understanding how many microaggressions I withstood and how much othering I withstood. Have I even gotten to the point of reevaluating that in terms of my professional world? No, I don’t think so, because I think for the most part, I felt like I could rely on my intelligence and rationale to have a lot of agency in this context. But am I going to start noticing that more? Yeah. And I have. I’ve talked about with my coworkers the meetings and the experiences that have been the hardest have been when we’ve been the minority in the space. Is that because of that? No, I don’t know. Maybe coincidence. Hard to say. So I just feel like I’m at the beginning of this consciousness and I might have different answers for you in a couple years.

TSC: That sounds great. I mean, this is a cross section moment in time, so I appreciate any reflections.

HC: I would love to know what the twenty-seven-and-younger set is saying to you.

TSC: What the Gen Z are saying?

HC: Yeah.

TSC: I mean, I don’t know if I’ve interviewed anyone under twenty-seven, but I have interviewed people who are around thirty, which I feel like is similar. And everybody is just like ten steps ahead of where I was when I was that age, you know what I mean?

HC: Absolutely. The maturity levels are off the charts.

TSC: I’m so jealous—

HC: (laughs)

TSC: But I’m also—just excited for the future. I think about it in terms of having a kid. I’m much more excited about her experience growing up than what we were given—the othering, the white canon, “smelly lunches,” all those stories that everybody tells.

HC: Are you on TikTok?

TSC: I’m not on TikTok, no.

HC: Okay. I’m just going to send you one TikTok video that relates to this.

TSC: Okay. (laughs)

HC: It made me cry. (laughs)

TSC: Aww. Good cry or bad cry?

HC: It’s just very moving. It’s talking about what you’re talking about.

TSC: That’s sweet. I’ll probably cry.

HC: Well, thanks for including me, Tonia!

TSC: Thank you for chatting with me! I will follow up with you soon. I’m going to jump into that document and start filling things out. Mostly question marks.

HC: Yeah, well, I think that we just need to start the design terms. We just start it.

TSC: Agree. Should we just share it around other people who speak a little bit of—?

HC: I love it. I love it. I love that.

TSC: Sounds good.

HC: But maybe it should do a spreadsheet so we can re-alphabetize it.

TSC: Let me look at what you have. Maybe.

HC: I’m going to say do the spreadsheet. I think it would be better to do the spreadsheet for the dictionary. The dictionary project should be a spreadsheet so that we can share it to everyone.

TSC: Okay. Sounds good. 

“I think something about our generation that’s true both from being a woman and/or having the racialized identity is we accepted a lot of things as normal that now people are saying is not okay.”

Interview Segment: Becoming aware of how colonized my mind is

Posted February 26, 2024