Conversations | Wo Chan a.k.a Pearl Harbor
“What does it mean to center artists and the arts as a community resource? I think this is important and ever-evolving work.”
In the spirit of Asian and Pacific Island American Heritage Month in May and LGBTQ Pride Month in June, we spoke with NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellow Wo Chan (Poetry ’17) about cultivating kinship with artists and performing during the pandemic. Learn more about Chan’s drag practice as Pearl Harbor and other people-centered engagements below.
NYFA: Can you tell us a bit about how you’ve continued to perform and showcase work during the COVID-19 outbreak?
Wo Chan: I’m a poet and a drag performer who makes half their living from teaching poetry and plaza dance. The other half comes from performance work in nightlife and other cultural institutions around the city. When venues shuttered in mid-March, I found myself no longer able to do any of my work. The plaza dancing lessons in Brooklyn stopped, as the Homestead church basement (usually full of Chinese grannies playing Mahjong) suddenly emptied, and then the high school closed.
My after school teaching program has moved to Zoom and Discord. I think the challenge is—and in some ways always has been—finding the means to stay flexible and responsive to our community’s deeper needs. As a teacher, I’ve seen my class shift into a site of grief work, offering poems and space to young students who are suffering so much loss. We’re no longer dancing, but we’ve held fundraisers to buy and home-deliver groceries for our senior citizens who are stuck far away from markets, missing the Chinese ingredients that they are familiar with. What does it mean to center artists and the arts as a community resource? I think this is important and ever-evolving work.
The world of performance has moved online: from Zoom rooms to Twitch TV, I’m lucky to have a drag collective (Switch n’ Play) with whom I can perform twice a month for our friends, fans, and following. The creative outlet of drag has always saved me in times of shock and duress. Creating new drag for the video format has been a bright blessing, heralding projects that involve wrangling my roommate and neighbor as a tech crew, climbing a ladder to dance on my roof in a gown, and dress-setting my living room in a silk forest of sheets for projections.
Yesterday, I Zoom-visited an “Introduction to Studies of Race, Migration, and Sexuality” class at Dartmouth taught by Eng-Beng Lim, and conducted a two-hour long experimental makeup tutorial and artist talk with novelist Alexander Chee. We talked about beauty, poetry, and mothers in a digital room of 40+ undergrads who were following along, painting themselves, and listening in a shared boudoir moment. In the end, we did a group drag performance over Zoom that was unbelievably touching.
In all, the pandemic is not only pushing me to consider new ways of sharing work, but to question my understanding of how my work connects to a world that is in deep suffering, and how to create out of an impulse to connect with that reality.
NYFA: As you mentioned, you’re a member of Switch n’ Play. What has involvement with a collective meant for your art? What would you tell someone looking to join one?
WC: In many ways I think queer family chooses you. As a queer person, I’ve struggled so much with trying to earn the love of my birth family that I shaped myself into whatever form I knew they would approve of, which was silence, obedience, and eventually absence. I think one’s authentic life has its own gravity. People are drawn to you simply for being you, and if you let them, those people become your family. If you go out there looking to be loved, make sure you are present enough to accept it when it is offered.
NYFA: Do you have any projects already out in the world or coming up that you’d like to share?
WC: Yes. I am populating my IG TV with more and more performances, some of which I’m very proud of! I have a few shows coming up that you can catch online, as well. On May 29, I will be one of many poets doing a reading online to help raise money for the CT Undocufund. On May 30, I’m performing over Zoom as a part of a fundraiser for The National Queer Theater. And lastly, there are digital Switch n’ Play shows on Instagram Live happening on June 13 and 27.
About Wo Chan
Wo Chan is a poet and drag performer. Chan’s poetry and performance evoke an operatic sense of play that brings together the high emotions of childhood, queer identity, memory, (un)documentation, and migration. They are the winner of the 2020 Indiana Review Poetry Prize and received a NYSCA/NYFA Artist Fellowship in Poetry in 2017. Their chaplet ORDER THE WORLD, MOM was published by Belladonna* in 2016. Chan’s poems appear in POETRY, Mass Review, No Tokens, The Margins, and are anthologized in Vinegar & Char (University of Georgia Press), Go Home! (Feminist Press), and Bettering American Poetry (Bettering Books). As a standing member of the Brooklyn based drag/burlesque collective Switch n’ Play, Chan has performed at The Whitney Museum of American Art, MoMA PS1, Joe’s Pub, National Sawdust, New York Live Arts, and BAM Fisher. They are a regular guest on Sasha Velour’s Nightgowns and have performed in operas, music videos, cabarets, and short films. Chan was born in Macau, China, and currently lives in New York where they teach poetry workshops and perform drag shows for queer and POC communities. Find them on Instagram at @theillustriouspearl.
– Interview Conducted by Alicia Ehni, Program Officer and Kyle Lopez, REDC Fellow
This post is part of the ConEdison Immigrant Artist Program Newsletter #129. Subscribe to this free monthly e-mail for artist’s features, opportunities, and events. Learn more about NYFA Immigrant Artist Mentoring Program.
Images from top to bottom: Wo Chan, Photo Credit: Mettie Ostrowski; Wo Chan, Photo Credit: Marion Aguas