Friday, November 27, 2020

A Tale of Two Grandmothers // On Memory

This day is one of death and life, but so are all days.

A candid I took of my paternal grandma in the
Hong Kong Railway Museum, March 2018.
Exhibited at the Chicago Public Library, May 2019.

This morning my paternal grandma passed away at the age of 86, surrounded by family in Hong Kong. We knew this was coming. She was diagnosed with stage IV pancreatic cancer in the beginning of August, and it was inoperable and chemo wasn’t possible, so it was a death sentence. We didn’t tell her; think back to the film The Farewell. And lately she was on her literal death bed; the past few nights when we should’ve been sleeping, my dad would have his video chat on all night so that he could, in a way, be with her when it happened. I’d fall asleep (and oftentimes wake up in the middle of the night) to hospice noises and the sound of her labored breathing. I didn’t want to see her like that, wasting away. I wanted to remember her as she was. And who she was made me shocked when the diagnosis came, despite her age. She was so active and independent and self-sufficient. If you’ve been following my travels over the years you might remember that, every time I visit HK for Art Basel, she and I would literally hike around mountains together. She lived by herself, and she was always walking all over the city on her own, and she was always so sharp.

Pancreatic cancer is brutal. I won’t go into the details of her rapid deterioration but I empathize with anyone who’s had loved ones suffer through it. My parents and I paid attention to Alex Trebek’s journey more closely than the average person might because of my paternal grandma, and when he died a couple weeks ago, it filled me with dread.

Today is also a celebration of a life. It’s my maternal grandma’s 96th birthday according to the Western/solar calendar. She’s an immigrant and lives in the Chicago metropolitan area.

One of the photos my uncle texted us of my maternal grandma looking so
pleased after winning mahjong on various days in July and August 2020.

We always celebrated her Chinese/lunar one, which usually falls around December, but this year we decided to observe her Western one early; according to superstition, if my paternal grandma died, we wouldn’t be able to go to my maternal grandma for 49 days. (The irony is my maternal grandma isn’t superstitious, but some other relatives are, and we respect their wishes.) I guess I should backtrack a little before I continue, though.

I’ve been staying home since March. Home being my parents’ house. My parents are 63, so I knew back then, as I cancelled the physical show for SLAYSIAN when Illinois’ total cases exponentially jumped to 66, that if I didn’t come to them as soon as possible (I remember I had one last errand to run before hunkering down), I wouldn’t be able to see them for who knows how long.

We’ve been living like we’re under lockdown this entire time, nonsensical “reopening” be damned. We still get curbside pickup for groceries and sanitize them before bringing them in. We got takeout once, for my parents’ anniversary. We don’t even take walks around the neighborhood; I see too many people without masks outside. When it was warm out, my dad and I would simply walk around the perimeter of the house (how funny we must’ve looked to anyone who might’ve seen us).

Like I said before, I’ve been a germaphobe since I was 10 (it began when we were given a notice that strep throat was going around, and I suddenly flashed back to the trauma of catching it from different classmates over and over when I was 6), so on the one hand it’s like most of my life has prepared me for this, but on the other hand this is pretty much my worst nightmare. We’ve been strict, with me being the strictest and the enforcer. The only times I’ve ventured beyond our yard were when I had to go to my childhood orthodontist for a retainer concern (“Welcome to the outside!” the staff joked to me) and when we drop off freshly homemade food and other snacks for my maternal grandma every month.

We have a system. My maternal grandma lives with one of my uncles and his household. They have a table on one end of their garage. We arrive and park in their driveway, they open the garage door, we place our gifts on the table, and we stay at that open end (I sometimes stand directly under the garage door and think back to my childhood fear of being decapitated that way) while they’re at the other end. We briefly say hi and exchange a few words and maybe take a photo of the two of them from this distance. We drive away as they watch us, and my grandma waves, and I wave back. In July I overheard my mom saying that every time she says goodbye to her mother there’s a feeling of sadness, and I mentally agreed. Pre-pandemic, my mom would spend time with my grandma at least a couple times a week: Sunday dim sum and errands in Chinatown, a weekday dinner at their favorite neighborhood restaurant.

My maternal grandmother is also the woman who raised (and spoiled) me when my parents went to work. We were close. I was her favorite, which boosted my ego because she has 20-something grandchildren.

I use past tense because her memory has been fading. (This is why, for those of you who follow me on social media, over the summer I was delighted to learn that she still remembers how to play—and win—mahjong, pictured above.) Before the pandemic, this was my #1 stressor. It was on Christmas 2019 that she officially forgot who I was. And it felt even worse to me that it was an otherwise joyful moment. We were at her house for the annual Christmas party with extended family and it was the end of the night and an aunt was trying to shuffle her off to bed so we were saying our goodbyes, and she forgot who I was and did not remember raising me. It was bittersweet because she was genuinely praising me and joking, “Oh, I must have done a good job then!” and doing it so cheerily and rubbing my arm and looking at me with kindness and wonder, yet I couldn’t help but let the tears flow as I smiled and nodded sadly with everyone watching us. Without context it was a cute exchange—she was even saying how tall I was (I’m 5’1”)—but I felt like I was dreaming. It was like her true self—her innate personality and humor—shined through, like she was seeing me objectively since she wasn’t beholden to our decades of memories and experiences together. It revealed to me that every version of her would like or love me, that if she met me for the first time she would still feel the same, and she’s always been the kind of strong, opinionated, firecracker of a woman who’d just as easily let it be known if she didn’t like someone. Still, it was a pain I’d never felt before. Earlier, I’d thought I’d be OK with it like Miguel in Pixar’s Coco, but I wasn’t. Then again, unlike Miguel, I’d lived an entire life with her.

Then COVID-19 hit and my priorities completely changed. On March 1, the last time I went to yum cha and before the location of the state’s 4th case was confirmed (we’d received news of it from a cousin who saw a post by a local hospital worker that said Arlington Heights), I suspected community spread and shifted to survival mode for my family. And when your mindset shifts to staving away death, sickness, and suffering, everything else can seem so trivial. I was now happy my grandmother was alive and safe, and I would do everything to keep it that way. Her memory loss also became a silver lining to me: She wouldn’t have to worry about what was happening (she barely knows what’s going on); she wouldn’t have to miss me. I became OK. Throughout the pandemic I’ve even joked about her condition with my mom (imitating a little old lady voice, “Who are these two women who bring me snacks every month?” “She probably doesn’t even remember the previous visit; the snacks are a nice surprise each time”).

So, two days ago it was a race against time for my mom to bake my maternal grandma a cake and for us to drive the 8 or so miles to her, hurriedly wish her a happy birthday, and then get back in the car and leave, before anything happened to my paternal grandma.

We made it, as my paternal grandma held on. She clung to life until all the HK family could be at her bedside at once, holding her hand and bidding farewell. I couldn’t be with her as she was dying of course, but I don’t regret it. I will now always remember her as she was in life: Loud, fierce, hiking mountains in her 80s. Life and death may have been on my mind, but so has memory.

I’m suddenly thinking back to when my maternal grandfather died, on Father’s Day—the Father’s Day that the Bulls won their 4th championship and the first one Michael Jordan won without his father—when I was 8. That was a death that changed my life in so many ways, and marked the end of one era and the beginning of another: I wrote my first diary entry; my mom eventually quit her job; [because] my grandma, who used to live in the house across the street from the one I grew up in (my parents had intentionally moved there so she could babysit me), moved out of that house and started anew. There were too many memories there for her. After staying with us for a little while, she moved to Palatine, where she’s been ever since.

Life is strange and everything can change so quickly. Now more than before I think about how little time we have with our loved ones. The years are fast.

This day is one of life and death, but on this day I celebrate both my grandmothers’ lives. On this day I choose to celebrate life.

P.S. Something I was always proud of was how both my grandmothers admired each other. They’d always individually praise each other to me, telling me how they thought the other was so impressive and such a good person. They have so many children and thus so many in-laws, yet it was my grandmothers who connected. In my youth I’d joke how it was a testament to how powerful I was. (Of course, being my maternal grandmother’s favorite probably didn’t hurt.)

P.P.S. Oh, the limits of the English language. In Chinese we have completely different words to distinguish between one’s maternal and paternal grandmothers.

Monday, November 23, 2020

You Are Stardust


You Are Stardust by Jenny Lam, acrylic paint on wood, 8.5 x 6.375 x .125 in.

Resilient. Loved. Those were the first words that came to mind when presented with You Are Beautiful’s blank “You Are __________” board for their Virtual Winter Exhibition.

DIY board from You Are Beautiful.

But then, as I was playing around with my paints (in case I was a little rusty—I hadn’t painted in over a decade! what better way to get back into it than such an inspiring prompt), something else came to me.

I was testing out the colors of my new paints, painted this miniature
while playing around, and fell in love. November 2, 2020.

What both humbles and empowers me, makes me feel small in the best way and makes me feel part of something bigger than all of us, something greater than all of this, is space, the stars. Always has been that way—refer to this page of my diary from when I was 13.

A diary entry from Spring 2001, during landing
(hence the shaky handwriting) of a flight home from D.C.

“We are made of star-stuff,” Carl Sagan said. “We are a way for the cosmos to know itself.” That fact has always comforted me, and I think we all need to be reminded of it in these times.

You are stardust. 

This photo is the most accurate when it comes to the painting's colors.
(Taken with a Samsung Galaxy; all others iPhone 5s.)
The virtual opening is December 12 at YAB HQ, where my piece will be available for purchase. [12/12 update: The show is live!] [12/13 update: My work has been sold!]

(Painted this a couple weeks ago, mailed it to You Are Beautiful last Monday, and can’t wait to see what others have created! Thank you, YAB Sticker, for the quarantine project, and for lighting a fire in me to make my own art again.)

P.S. For more about the creative process, development of an idea, and evolution of this painting, check out the bottom of this page.

Tuesday, October 13, 2020

Making a Ruckus // The Art Advocate

Rest in peace, Paul.

9 years ago, Paul Klein gave me my first art review. It was for the first exhibition I independently curated, and I was so excited to have an actual art critic come and preview the show as I was installing it. Not written in his article: When Paul smiled and said to me, “You’re making a ruckus.”

At the time my privacy setting for this Facebook status
was "Everyone but Paul Klein."
The intro to Paul Klein's preview of Exquisite Corpse
in Art Letter, "Art: Preseason," 1 September 2011.

Paul and I indeed hadn’t met until that late summer afternoon at Fulton Street Collective. (I knew of him, and I’d cold-emailed him my press release.) The first part of his post-visit preview reveals as much about him as it does about me, perhaps even more so. Paul exemplified the best of Chicago’s art world: welcoming, unpretentious, unconcerned with your credentials, no frills, funny as hell. He called himself an art advocate, and he was right.

I never signed up for his popular Klein Artist Works course (side note: I just learned that all his videos are now on his website, free of charge—what a treasure trove), and I met him long after he was no longer a gallerist and dealer, so unlike most who were touched by him I can’t speak as a student or mentee of his. But anyone in his orbit can attest that he was a positive force. In fact, so strong was his gravitational pull that something as seemingly insignificant as a few sentences in an online newsletter—which may not have looked like much for an established arts professional—was enough to assure my novice self that I was on the right track.

Almost exactly 5 years (and a hell of a journey) after that exhibition, Paul emailed me this and invited me to speak on a panel about “What Matters.” The other panelists were Edra Soto, Magalie Guerin, Juan Angel Chavez, and Tom Torluemke. The fact that he trusted me, trusted in what I had to say, especially alongside such titans, again reflects his character.

That was in fall 2016, which means he was already battling cancer then. According to his CaringBridge site, “in the fall of 2014 Paul was diagnosed with Stage IV esophageal cancer that had metastasized to his liver [and his] doctors gave him 6 months to live.” He was going through this yet was still blessing us with moments like these

Laughter between Paul Klein and me at the "What Matters"
panel at Startup Art Fair Chicago, 25 September 2016.
Screenshot taken from a video by Contreras-Gabriel Project.

and moderating a discussion on such a theme. That floors me.

One can only hope to be half as good as Paul was, to leave a mark on multiple generations of local artists like he did. We walk in the footsteps of giants. Daunting as that may seem, we can take it one step at a time:

Advocate for artists like he did.

Make a ruckus.

Wednesday, July 22, 2020


SLAYSIAN Virtual Exhibition has gotten some great press coverage throughout Illinois’ shelter-in-place order. I’ve compiled a collection of these articles / interviews with artists (and yours truly) / reviews / etc. here. (Also in Facebook album form for the highlights.) Take a look!

May you and your loved ones continue staying healthy and safe.

Friday, June 5, 2020

Call for Artists: Asian and Black Unity

(Thank you to SLAYSIAN artist Aimy Tien for the tip!) A call for art from For the People Artists Collective Chicago: “Looking for Asian artists available to create artwork around Asian and Black unity!”

Here’s their post with the details.

(Speaking of such unity, here’s some fascinating history I fell into a rabbit hole reading about.)

Also, yesterday my mom told me about Darnella Frazier, and how she’s a hero and how scary and traumatic this must’ve been for her. Darnella is the teenaged girl who filmed the murder of George Floyd. Here’s the official GoFundMe to support her.

And! Here’s a reminder from a Movement icon; may she rest in power.

In solidarity, always.

Monday, June 1, 2020


Via the International Chinese Fine Arts Council:
“The slogan ‘Yellow Peril Supports Black Power originated from protests to free Huey Newton, a co-founder of the Black Panthers. […] [This] image is a historical archive original poster from the 1960s.”

Black lives matter.

Friday, April 3, 2020


I am thrilled to announce that I’ve been selected to receive a 2020 Individual Artists Program grant from the City of Chicago’s Department of Cultural Affairs and Special Events! Thank you, Mayor Lightfoot and DCASE!

(If this sounds familiar, I was awarded my first one back in the day for Dreams of a City. I used it to purchase stamps. Thousands of stamps.)

And if you didn’t see the previous post, some [more] levity through art: I’ve turned the group show of local Asian American artists I curated and subsequently postponed into a virtual one you can view while staying home (and saving lives).

Monday, March 30, 2020


It’s here! I’ve launched SLAYSIAN: The Online Show! As you know, I curated an exhibition featuring 39 incredible local artists, a celebration of Chicago’s (and the surrounding Midwest area’s) Asian American talent. I ended up postponing it due to the COVID-19 pandemic. This artwork deserves to be seen far and wide, so until we can all physically come together again, I’ve put together a virtual version for you to enjoy in the safety of your own home. May this serve as some welcome respite in these frightening times. May this also serve as an act of resistance and solidarity; it is needed now more than ever.

Here’s the main page. And here’s the artists page; click on each artist to view their art and bio/statement.

And: In honor of National Doctors Day, here’s another one of my aforementioned friends fighting on the front lines.

Sunday, March 22, 2020

Greatest Generation

(Click for the full post.)

And one of my aforementioned friends on the front lines had this to say about the situation at her hospital, which is the situation in all hospitals across the US. We all need to do our part, and if you can, pitch in; every little bit counts. (And here’s the article she linked to; the last three paragraphs are a must-read.) The federal government is useless, so it’s up to us. All healthy hands on deck. This is wartime.

(To start, here and here are lists of donation sites for PPE.)

Lots more COVID-19 related news—including resources and ways to help, as well as light-hearted respite—on Twitter.

Monday, March 16, 2020

In the Time of

(For those not on social media, my announcement from Saturday.)

SLAYSIAN is postponed.

I’m so sorry, folks. It’s personally upsetting to me too, but I was in the gallery yesterday evening assigning wall space for all the artists, and while I was doing so we were listening to that day’s COVID-19 news. Our governor was practically begging folks to hunker down, and it would be irresponsible for me to go through with the show in the middle of all this. Plus, we wouldn’t be able to celebrate it with a big group of people anyway, and these artists’ work deserves that. So we’re postponing until the pandemic is over.

That said, postponement means I have hope that things will get better, and I have hope that in the near future we can put together an amazing show that everyone can come see in person.

I’ll still go forward with putting the art online in a virtual exhibition of sorts (after all, quarantine means I’ll have more time to do so).

We’re all in this together, and we’re all doing this to look out for one another. Please stay home as much as possible and as long as possible, #flattenthecurve, protect the elderly and immunocompromised, care for one another, stay healthy, stay safe, and have hope.

(P.S. As someone who’s been a [slight] germaphobe since age 10, it’s been interesting to see everyone else finally adopt all the habits I’ve always had. Even when this pandemic ends, let’s keep up with these habits! (As I keep saying, both for your sake and for your loved ones and communities.))

Tuesday, March 3, 2020


Thank you to everyone who applied to the open call for my next group exhibition, SLAYSIAN. Today, I am excited to announce the selected artists! Hailing from all over Chicago (and the surrounding Midwest area), these talented local Asian American artists include:

Aimy Tien, Alex Kostiw, Bumjin Kim, Caroline Liu, Charlene Moy, Chris Gallevo, Cindi Jean Zdrinc, Dan Castranova, Dao Nguyen, Eddie Yeung, Eric Mah, Gabriel Mo, James J Gu, Joyce Jodie Kim, Juliann Wang, Julius Bautista, Justin Suico, Kaitlyn Hwang, Kiki Jia Qi Zhen, Kristel Becares, Kristin Anahit Cass, Mendy Kong, Muriel Christensen, My Linh Mac, Nayeon Yang, Nini Kao, Priscilla Huang, Rialin José, Richard Gessert, Robert Apolinar, Saebom Yang, Sam Riesmeyer, Sierra Tuazon, Sophie Pokorny, Stafford Smith, Susie Xiong (InsomniaBird), Tshab Her, Vivian Le, and Yuqing Zhu.

Congratulations! This show is going to be amazing.

Everyone else, here’s the Facebook event page. (Notice something different? Apparently Facebook no longer allows you to create event names in all caps, even though that’s… my thing. See also: 2016’s LEXICON, and the URL for the Facebook event for 2012’s I CAN DO THAT somehow doesn’t work anymore but that was capitalized too, naturally. Anyway:) Invite yourself and your friends!

Tuesday, February 11, 2020


First: I am so happy to announce that, for the third year in a row, I’ve been chosen to exhibit my artwork at the Chicago Public Library during May to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month! This year, I’ll be in my own neighborhood’s branch: Logan Square! Thank you, CPL!

Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile.

Second: I know I haven’t been updating this blog much lately, and that’s an understatement [she says as she sheepishly looks at the post numbers by year in the Archive sidebar]. (Like, my last real post was a contextless but wistful one about my college reunion.) So I’ll simply bring you up to speed with my most recent adventure.

Last month, my parents and I traveled to Patagonia, where we rang in the new year. Going there was on my personal bucket list, which people have been asking me about since 2008 because of Dreams of a City, and I’m usually cagey with my answers, but now you know one of them.

Patagonia was, without a doubt, one of the best trips we’ve ever had. My mom said it was on the same level as when we went to Egypt (coincidentally, the same year I started my aforementioned mapping project), and my dad said—while we were standing in the above spot in Torres del Paine—that out of all the places we’ve been to, Patagonia is the most beautiful. I’m inclined to agree.

San Carlos de Bariloche, Patagonia, Argentina. First full day of our trip.

Yet even more than the grandeur of the landscapes and wonder of being in such wilderness was the beauty in the human connections. Music, passion, dancing in the heat, late nights overflowing with wine. Beautiful souls, rollicking laughter, finding that most things—and not just the age-old human desire to be near mountains and bodies of water—are universal. It’s summer in the southern hemisphere and all of it was the epitome of summer’s bittersweetness, fervent and fleeting. “Only connect,” that literary-reference-learned-as-a-teenager-turned-tenet-in-adulthood, comes to me again, and it couldn’t be more suited for a space where it’s a reflex to pass your mate to all your friends old and new and everyone drinks out of the same metal straw, and I couldn’t have asked for a more perfect way to enter a brand-new decade.

Volcan Orsono, Los Lagos, Patagonia, Chile.
The ferry (one of many when crossing the Argentina-Chile border)
turning a bend and revealing this was unreal. New Year's Day.

(Even the imperfect was perfect. Like that time one of the many buses we’d take for the Argentina-Chile border crossing broke down before it reached us so we waited in the shade around a replica of Che Guevara’s La Poderosa II. Or that other time the trailer carrying our luggage broke and we bonded while stranded for four hours at a rest stop in Villa Tehuelches and then in our [absolutely lovely and lovable and hardworking and total sweetheart of a 23-year-old Argentine tour] guide Esteban’s hurry to finally leave… left behind Sonja from Vienna at said rest stop and didn’t realize it until the bus was already minutes away while driving at full speed. (We made a frantic U-turn to get her back.) It was straight out of a movie; it had us cackling and clapping; it was glorious.)

The mighty Glaciar Perito Moreno, Parque Nacional Los Glaciares,
Patagonia, Argentina. This is the third largest ice field in the world
(the first and second are in Antarctica and Greenland). 

I loved it all, and I already miss Argentina and Chile dearly. (I missed them as soon as our plane took off from Buenos Aires and my mom said “goodbye, Argentina” and then I whispered it and felt a swell of sadness, but still.) Naturally, I took a ton of photos (and yes, still with my little 5s) and have shared a few of them (33 photos/photosets) on Instagram. They’re also organized on my Tumblr with tags for Patagonia and Buenos Aires. (And if you enjoy scrolling, they’re also on Twitter and Facebook.)

Life is art; paint it with the world.

Mt. Tronador right after crossing the border from
Argentina's Parque Nacional Nahuel Huapi to
Chile's Parque Nacional Vicente Perez Morales. Patagonia. New Year's Day.

Happy 2020!

Candid of my parents taking it all in.
Parque Nacional Torres del Paine, Patagonia, Chile.

P.S. In case you missed the previous post, the call for artists for my next group show is up!

Friday, January 31, 2020

Call for Artists: SLAYSIAN

SLAYSIAN is a celebration—a celebrAsian, if you will—of local Asian American artists.

Artists on the Lam invites Asian American artists in Chicago and the larger Midwest area to submit work for this group exhibition, opening on Friday, March 20, 2020.

Created by artist and independent curator Jenny Lam, SLAYSIAN is the long-awaited follow-up to 2016’s acclaimed LEXICON, which featured 46 artists and was itself the successor to 2012’s acclaimed I CAN DO THAT, which was named the audience choice for “Best Art Exhibit” in the 20th anniversary edition of NewCity’s Best of Chicago issue.

Local Asian American artists working in all mediums—painting, illustration, photography, sculpture, mixed media, multimedia, installation, textiles, you name it—are welcome to apply.

In addition to visual artists, SLAYSIAN also welcomes poets, writers, storytellers, performance artists, and performers of all types.

The art’s subject matter can be anything and everything. There isn’t necessarily a specific theme; this is above all a showcase of local contemporary Asian American talent. We inherently defy stereotypes and break boundaries simply by making art.

(In other words, this isn’t a show where the art needs to be about being Asian in America. Of course, if that’s what your art is about, then feel free to submit that!)

  1. You’re an Asian American artist. (It should go without saying, but this means all Asian ethnicities, including South Asian and Middle Eastern.)
  2. You consider yourself a local artist. (Chicago, Chicagoland, Illinois, the Midwest, etc.) Folks outside of this area may apply too, but note that priority will be given to the Chicagoans and Midwesterners. Those of you who got your start here but have moved away are also welcome (we miss you!).

To apply:

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