When Mai Ryuno and Melissa Chin-Parker go about their lives, they’re leaders, bosses and creative thinkers. Their art and skills have been visible in exhibitions, plays and workshops in the region for years.
After three March 16 shootings in Atlanta spas counted six Asian women among eight dead, it was a rude awakening of how they saw themselves. “It’s half a block from the parking garage to my studio,” says Ryuno, an artist, teacher and owner of Play Full Ground Studio in Monterey. “It was the first time I felt scared to walk that half block.” Ryuno was born and raised in Japan and is currently a permanent resident in the U.S.
Chin-Parker, a second-generation Chinese American woman and interim artistic director for The Western Stage in Salinas, has always been cautious walking alone or at night as a woman. The surge of anti-Asian violence and, in particular, attacks on elderly Asian women, added another layer of fear for the 61-year-old.
Racist attacks are “not new,” both Ryuno and Chin-Parker observe. But the Covid-19 virus happened to originate in China, and some looked for a scapegoat. Their visibility as Asian women makes them potential targets.
There has been another development in Asian visibility. Asian artists have been gaining popularity, particularly in film. Parasite, directed by Korean filmmaker Bong-Joon Ho, won the Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director and Best Original Screenplay in 2020. This year, 8-year-old Alan Kim, who starred in Minari, won the Critics’ Choice Award for Best Young Actor. Chloé Zhao, the Chinese filmmaker behind the critically acclaimed film Nomadland, won the Critics’ Choice nod for Best Director.
This recognition does two things. If you’re Asian (especially Asian American) it validates your community’s contributions to the art world. “Representation is important. It goes back to the old saying, ‘You can’t be it if you don’t see it,’” Chin-Parker says. But it also sparks debate on validity: If more minorities truly deserve institutional awards and whether or not Hollywood is just riding a wave of so-called cultural “wokeness.”
Making sure her art is worth showing to a general audience is something at the forefront of Ryuno’s mind. “I don’t necessarily like categories. This is why I don’t show in exhibits that are just for women or just for Asians,” she says. “I want people to purely judge the value of art on its creativity.”
Even as she steers the largest theater company in Salinas through a pandemic, Chin-Parker wondered early on if she was hired because of her gender or race, a token position. But then she reminds herself about her accomplishments: “I am the first woman artistic director. I’m the first woman of color to have this position. I have to remind myself to take up space and to own it. I’ve been in this company for 34 years.”