Yayi Chen: In Transient
CHINESE WOMEN'S LABOR, CULTURAL STRUGGLE,
AND VISIBILITY IN THE WESTERN SOCIETIES.
editor: Julia Delisi,
date: Oct 28, 2019
NOVEMBER FEATURED INTERVIEW SERIES
Yayi Chen is a Chinese fashion designer and recent Parsons graduate in Fashion BFA program. Born in Spain, Yayi was raised in a first-generation Chinese immigrant family with an enterprise in the food industry. Her thesis collection “In Transient”, linking back to the family history, is a discussion on the visibility of Chinese women in the western world, and a call to the voice of this marginalized community. Her multi-cultural background grants an intricate and elegant aesthetics. Her collaboration with various artists from similar cultural background further addresses the struggle, and awards the achievement of the community.
photographer: Son Dae Yoon, Lusan, Zhuo Chen, Esther Lee
set designer & choreographer: Cathy Ru
videographer: Zhuo Chen
Hau Yin Andree Kong
stylist: Jerry Hong Jin Wu, Esther Lee
model: Jia Yi, Xuan Ye Li, Won Che, Liao Zheng, Vistanny, Claudia Jiang, Cheng Zi Hao, Eve Liu
GROWING UP AS A SECOND-GENERATION CHINESE IMMIGRANT IN SPAIN AND CHINA
I’m from Spain. My grandparents were one of the first Chinese immigrants from their town to go to Europe. The 80’s and 90’s were a time when Chinese people were moving from rural areas to the European world, because Shanghai and Beijing weren’t really accepting of rural people coming in to get jobs. They found that going to the Western world was a bigger chance to have a new life of success. So a lot of immigration happened in this time, especially in the Southern part of China.
Chinese immigrants formed communities in Europe. I was born and raised there, and basically all the Chinese families run their own family enterprises like Chinese supermarkets or restaurants, because they didn’t get a lot of help from the government. They are still living as alienated and marginalized communities instead of getting into contact with real Western society because of language barriers. They are very hardworking and independent people, so the community grew very fast because Chinese immigrants tend to be very united.
A lot of children were sent back to China when parents had to work in Spain, and that was called transnational motherhood which was part of my research. They were sent because most parents didn’t have time to take care of their children and run their family enterprises. A lot of children grew up in their hometowns with their grandparents. That was not my case. I moved back and forth between China and Spain. While adapting different education systems and cultures, I had to keep switching languages from Spanish to Chinese to English.
IT'S VERY DECORATIVE AND ORIENTAL FEELING, BUT NOT VERY OBVIOUSLY OR AUTHENTICALLY CHINESE.
THESIS: EXPLORATION TO REALIZATION
The word transient means impermanence, a place of transfer. The first layer of understanding is that when the Chinese immigrants moved to Europe, they had to stop in many countries until they could get a visa. A lot of workers were illegal workers at first, and their identities were blurred and invisible. The second layer is that being transient is a state of changing, and the generations following have changed their identity too. The first generation didn’t assimilate as much to the outside world, but we did.
In my research, the Chinese woman’s identity remains very secondary and hidden, but they took a very important part in the family enterprise. Apart from being a mother, they also had to work on their family business at the same time. But still, their work or labor isn’t considered as important as the men. The wife and mother’s role is very hidden, which is why I chose to cover the women with lace bodysuits. Lace is a very fragile textile from Spain and France, and that’s a representation of the Western world, but I added the hand beading that represents the Chinese part which covers their faces.
I used photos of the Chinese restaurant as reference because I grew up in that space. After school, all the children go back to their family’s working space. The family business is just such a central part of their lives, they have to stay there all the time. That’s why space is such an important element in my work, the relationship between space and the woman’s body. I took it very poetically.
The collection name “in transient” came from a collaboration with my fine artist friend, Cathy Mou, who has a similar background to me. We wanted to build this language and voice of Chinese immigrants in the West. We filmed the performance film in London, it’s a piece which explores the poetic language between the overlooked woman’s laboring body and their working space.
I worked a lot with lace, knitwear, and transparent materials. Heavy beading and fringe, which all come from the interiors of the Chinese restaurant in the Western world. It’s very decorative and oriental feeling, but not very obviously or authentically Chinese.
I was really inspired by curtains. My research took place in homes and places where you could
buy home fabrics and trimmings and fringes. Some elements of the Chinese Qi Pao came into
THESE WOMEN ARE NOT ONLY UNSEEN BY THE LOCAL COMMUNITY, BUT EVEN WORSE, THEIR LABORING BODIES IS OVERLOOKED WITHIN THEIR OWN FAMILIES.
I definitely consider myself a Chinese, because my family origin is Chinese, and I can’t reject that. Through my thesis, I thought a lot about who I am, where I belong, and I realized that there could not be a definite answer. Since I was young I’ve always been asked this question, “where do you want to live, where are you from, what do you think you are? Spanish, Chinese?” Even in China, when they ask me where I'm from, I can’t say Shanghai, I can’t say my mom’s hometown. In terms of identity I feel Chinese but I also have multi-cultural backgrounds in the Western world. This also explains the transient phase that second and third immigrant generations experience, our identity is never fixed, it alters along with changes in our life destinations and values.
I don’t think women are still in that position today, they are much more visible and empowered generally. But I could still see from relatives and friends in Spain or Europe, that there are mothers who are working in traditional ways, it just depends on how open minded they are.
SOCIAL CHALLENGES FOR CHINESE WOMEN IN THE WESTERN SOCIETIES
Here in the US there are a lot of Chinese people in schools, but in Spain I might have been the only one in my school. When I was very little, people sometimes laughed at you as being an outsider. But, overall, most of them were just curious of my different look.
I think the parents that are assimilating into society have a different experience because they have more cultural barriers, and they need to have a willingness to open their mind to really assimilate. The food they eat and the language they speak differs from first and second generation. The second generation is exposed to the local culture more and naturally assimilate. Some even end up not accepting their Chinese heritage.
Some Chinese women still remain very invisible in the immigrant community, for example if we look at Chinatown, there are still very traditional Chinese restaurants with women like this. Their life hasn’t changed that much from the 80’s and 90’s. These women are not only unseen by the local community, but even worse, their laboring body is overlooked within their own families. In Chinese families, women often have to be very loyal to their family. In the case of immigrant families, apart from being loyal to your children and husband, you also have to be loyal to your family business. It will be such a challenge to follow your own career goals and dreams.
FUTURE PLANS AND ADVICE TO CREATIVES
I am planning to earn more professional design experiences at companies based in New York and perhaps keep working on personal projects collaborating with artists, aiming to expand the cross-disciplinary conversation of fashion and fine-art.
For a designer, It is so important to believe in yourself. Because you will hear so many comments or questions that may hold you back or challenge your thoughts throughout thesis year. Have short time deadlines and keep up on them. When conceptualizing and collaborating, try to think outside of fashion.