Bay Area artists explore nuanced immigrant experiences in Chronicle Chats

Samuel Albillo/Staff

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On Tuesday night, the San Francisco Chronicle hosted its fourth and final Chronicle Chats event of 2018 — “Art without Borders: Immigrants and San Francisco Cultural Life” — at the Herbst Theater of the San Francisco War Memorial and Performing Arts Center to tackle the evening’s designated topic: the ways in which immigrants have shaped the cultural life of the Bay Area.

Featuring four artists from across the world, each seasoned in different artistic mediums, the panel aimed to shed light on the nuanced experiences and challenges faced during the process of creation from the perspective of immigrants in the Bay Area.

But given the limited time for discussion (less than an hour and a half), the wildly diverse panel of artists featured that day—a chef, singer, ballet dancer and cartoonist— respectively hailing from Marrakech, Ciudad Juárez, Shanghai and Vietnam — had a tight space for free exchange of dialogue between each other and with the audience. And the unwieldy and complex nature of the subject (each panelist was quick to acknowledge the limitations of broad labels like “artist” and “immigrant”) restricted Tuesday’s event to mere glimpses of insight into the “immigration experience.”

In the first round of questions, deputy managing editor of the SF Chronicle and moderator of the night, Kitty Morgan, asked the four panelists which part of their identities—as immigrants and as artists—made the most sense to them and if they “even call (themselves) those things.” Each response quickly revealed the challenge of talking about the expansive cultural world of the Bay and the diverse demographic that populates it —let alone art itself.

“What does that mean?” asked chef Mourad Lahlou. “We are all immigrants.”

“I think we are also all artists,” singer/songwriter, Diana Gameros, later added.

Still, the benefit and significance of having a variety of artists coming from different cultural backgrounds in one room was made especially clear when each artist revealed what it was like to work in fields of art that continue to have staggeringly low representation.

According to prima ballerina of the San Francisco Ballet, Yuan Yuan Tan, one obstacle she continues to hurdle over is critics’ unnerving fixation on her ethnicity, characterized by easy labels like “the Chinese dancer,” despite her success in a traditionally Eurocentric form of art.

“So what,” said Yuan Yuan. “I’m just going to dance the best I can and not dance for the critics.”

Cartoonist Thi Bui, who was displaced during the Vietnam War and spent some time in refugee camps at a very young age, spoke on her experience of being viewed as the “other” in the United States, despite spending the majority of her life in the country and only knowing how to speak English.

“It was strange to be treated as somebody who was not from here because, to me, I went from not really speaking any language to speaking English,” said Bui. “So I suppose (my) origin story is actually me taking ownership of my story and telling my story differently than others might tell it for me.”

Such is the purpose of events like Chronicle Chats, where contrasting ideas and perspectives can be exchanged in a designated space in an orderly manner.

“The genesis of (Chronicle Chats) was really community engagement on topics that affects Bay Area’s citizens,” said, Hearst Bay Area Media Group’s VP of Marketing, Sarah Cooney. “It was a natural extension of what we already do.”

Unfortunately, time, as always, presented itself as a challenge especially when more complicated topics sprung up during discussion, such as the housing crisis in the Bay Area and inevitably, the current state of affairs in U.S. politics.

The nuance in the conversation was lost when panelists arbitrarily ranked issues based on which ones mattered most and even more so when a member of the audience asked about “people with closed minds,” and Lahlou disagreed and understood the reference as “the people in the middle.” In both instances, the labels are too broad for any meaningful or productive discourse.

But the silver lining of the event came with the realization that even within what the artists recognized as “the Bay Area bubble,” not everyone will agree with each other—whether it be in their definitions of art or in whom they want to see in the White House. Events such as Chronicle Chats are healthy catalysts toward these revelations.

The real challenge from there is figuring out what we’ll do in the face of dissent.

Contact Lloyd Lee at [email protected]. Tweet him at @helloydlee.