When we started our Save Music in Chinatown all-ages benefit matinee fund raisers five years ago, the idea was to build on the neighborhood’s punk rock past to support the local public elementary school’s music program. But a lot of other unintended stuff happened, too. Kids that can handle it have been exposed to underground culture and empowered by DIY. A real community of friends and supporters has grown around the shows. My family, which has roots in Chinatown, has been sucked into its culture and activism.
And a couple of months ago, we made a friend when Xu Ziyi sent a query asking if she could use our project as a subject for her graphic design class at ArtCenter. The fifth-term graduate student from Suzhou couldn’t have known that Wendy is an alum of the Pasadena art school or that both of us have a history of working with and supporting art school students and recent graduates. But, of course, we invited her to our home, opened up our archives, and suggested she draw with Eloise–and not just any kids in Chinatown.
A few weeks ago, we saw Zi present her final project and were blown away. The raw-but-powerful oversized two-color zines recalled vintage Search & Destroy and Slash mags and the mocked-up compilation LP was a perfect fit next to influential Dangerhouse’s Yes L.A. compilation and Flipside’s Rodney on the ROQ records. The posters, buttons, and patches further reinforced my feeling that while I was too young to catch the Germs, Dils, Weirdos, Bags, and Go-Go’s at the Hong Kong Cafe in the ’70s, we’re making our own golden age by bridging my favorite subcultures of L.A. punk and mostly blue-collar, English-learning immigrant kids.
How could I not ask our new friend about it?
What did you expect when you approached us about using Save Music in Chinatown as the topic of your graphic design project? What were you hoping for?
My biggest fear was that I was a stranger, you would be busy, and that you would not be willing to do it. In my mind, there was only a 10 percent chance you guys would reply. Really! But it was such a surprise that L.A. punk bands had shows at the Hong Kong Cafe. The craziness combined with Chinese traditions is so cool and I wanted to make the project work. My biggest hope was that we could just meet and talk about it.
Growing up in Zhangjiagang, what was your impression of punk rock?
I did not really know punk music. In a traditional education or family environment, we are not exposed to it in China. So, for me, it meant rebellion: people yelling instead of singing and being against the norm. But then I listened to punk at your house and liked it! Especially young Chinese bands like Birdstriking and Chui Wan. They are pretty cool—the music, the design, the aesthetics. I want to know more about them.
Did the project develop and turn out as you expected?
In the beginning, I could not imagine what it would look like. All my design solutions came from drawing with Eloise. She is so talented and so sweet and always wears a smile on her face. I am a pretty shy person, actually, but Eloise made me feel comfortable and her energy is so powerful and positive. Such a lovely girl. For example, Eloise showed me her Chinese practice sheet when we decided to do collage. I immediately thought, “That’s it! Castelar is a school that not only teaches English but also Chinese.” The grid that primary school students use to practice Chinese became part of the identity system.
Can you tell me more about how the project took shape?
Can you imagine every Saturday drawing with Eloise, listening to punk records, and being shown cool stuff? All of Eloise’s drawing are amazing, effortless, and so unique. She inspired me a lot. Also, you and Wendy showed me a lot of cool album covers, design books, and movie posters. Those inspired me, too. I hadn’t been home for more than a year, but it felt very warm–like family. For me, you guys have become like relatives and I really appreciate it! That was the best thing ever, and I don’t think it will ever happen again.
When did you start to have a vision of how the project would turn out?
The hardest part was the first couple weeks when I was not very clear what I wanted. It was hard to let Eloise to draw for me. I think it was around the sixth week that I felt a little stuck trying to connect punk rock and Chinatown. Then I thought about how I feel about Chinatown and what I like about it. Suddenly, I remembered our first assignment was to go around the neighborhood and look for inspiration. To get to know the place. At that time, I bought a lot of traditional stuff. This was really helpful. Then I knew what I wanted my project to feel like and what I wanted Eloise to draw for me. The beautiful drawings and designs were for Chinese New Year, but I was seeing those things differently. Although I grow up with them, I hadn’t been to China for a year and was seeing those things in terms of design. It was cool and different, and it inspired me a lot.
What sorts of comments and suggestions did you get from your instructor and peers as the project evolved?
Actually, before we met I did some posters just to get going and see if I could catch the feeling of punk rock. When I showed the class, my professor said it was too easy for me to do what I was doing. Then they saw Eloise’s drawings and said, “That’s cool. You should do workshops with kids and use their drawings.” I totally agreed and got excited about it. That week we met, and the second time we met was at your home when we starting doing it. It was so amazing!
How did the newspaper come to be?
I struggled with the newspaper. My professor said the titles for each show were confusing and unclear. I got some fun words from the shows, and some just had quotes or just images. I was thinking of how to include dates without being boring, and then the Chinese traditional calendar came to mind and then I designed the dates like that to clarify the different shows. I am very glad my professor guided me on what wasn’t clear, because it can be hard for a someone that close to a project to see a problem!
We were so happy to attend the review, but I felt like I blabbed too much about my family’s experience and you didn’t get to say enough about your work! What were some of the things that you learned or got out of the project?
I am so happy you guys could come to my final and make it wonderful! It was a special project for me, because usually you do it on your own and most information comes from the internet. This was my first time to work with real people. It didn’t feel like client project, I was surrounded by super nice people, a super-talented artist, and music! You guys gave me inspiration and fed me, too. The design was all driven by all those experiences, which I think is much powerful and special than what I could have done on my own. I made good friends. I became more brave. I just loved it and I never want to give up!
Above: Zi with the zine and Lois, who happens to be visiting from Olympia with Eric and will be playing at Save Music in Chinatown 14 on Sunday, January 28. Hope to seeya there!