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Ada Chen Is Turning Asian Stereotyping on Its Head With Jewelry

You might’ve seen SF-born Ada Chen’s jewelry on your Instagram feed. Whether it’s the text message earrings detailing a racialized and fetishized exchange between Chen and a potential interest or the headpiece that pulls back your eyes to narrow slits, Chen’s jewelry is hard to miss. Riffing on classic Asian stereotypes, Chen turns these stereotypes into clever and aesthetically beautiful pieces of wearable art using humor and wit. However, the thing about Chen’s jewelry is that while she uses humor as a tool to articulate sharp and oftentimes bleak observations of how the world interacts with and reacts to her identity as an Asian-American woman, her work is neither solely satirical nor farcical as one might think upon first glance. In actuality, Chen’s work contains layers of nuance, meaning, and cultural references and images, such as the drum toy and the soup bowl, that is deeply ingrained into the memories of a first generation Asian-American. And it’s Chen’s ability to reconcile specific and nostalgic references and Chinese-American imagery while infusing a quality of lightness and playfulness that can be enjoyed and appreciated by all that makes her a Milk favorite.

We sat down with Chen to talk about her jewelry, navigating identity, and technology—check it out below.

So who are you?

Who I am, I am Ada Chen. I grew up in SF around a lot of people like me. And then I moved here to go to Pratt for jewelry.

What is it about jewelry specifically that draws you to it?

In the beginning I didn’t think of jewelry as a way to express myself at all. In high school I did dumb, wire jewelry just because I liked the craft and making something for myself. I had wanted to do something in design. I then majored in jewelry because it has a design component of designing for the body. The functionality of jewelry is what drew me to it because it challenged me in new ways.

What do you mean by the functionality of jewelry?

So when you think about a painting or a picture, you can just hang it and leave it there. But with jewelry, you have to think it fits on your finger or how it fits on the body, and it can’t flop this way or that way.On your website, you identify as an artist and a jeweler. Why do you make that distinction?

I make that distinction because when you think of jewelry, you think of someone who makes jewelry just to sell. Like commercial stuff. Consumer culture is boring to me and I’ve always been drawn to making conceptual art that holds your attention for a while, so I make that distinction because I realized that I didn’t fit into that category of making things to sell to people. I want to be recognized by my art rather than my jewelry.

A lot of your jewelry deals with you grappling with your identity as an Asian American woman but what does identity mean to you? Was there a defining moment or was it a gradual process in coming to terms with it?

It was super gradual. I grew up in SF where there were a lot of Asian Americans, so I grew up with people who were like me and I didn’t feel very out of place just because that’s how everyone grew up.. But when I went to school in New York, the demographics changed and I started meeting new people and hearing about their experiences and kind of noticing differences in how I grew up versus how they grew up. And of course when you’re in college everyone’s talking about where they came from and everyone’s such from a different place. That’s when I started thinking about my own identity.

Another thing is that there were a lot of international kids at my school, and there weren’t as many Asian American students as there were international Asians. The two groups never really meshed. It became very obvious when I talked to people in my class who were Chinese and we realized we have such different experiences that it just doesn’t make sense. We don’t really identify with each other with maybe half of our whole lives and our childhoods.The chinky eye piece is kind of insane. What’s your design process?

For the chinky eye piece, it’s good for jewelry because it has a lot to do with the body. I had a crazy contraption before I arrived at this design. A lot of my stuff, I just start making it before I realize the issues, which isn’t a good way to make jewelry (laughs). It’s just me thinking in the shower of how shit works. It’s just kind of figuring it out as I go, but I know the result that I want. It’s just a question of how to get there. I know the concept, but not the design yet. And then it gradually comes to me.

What’s your process of choosing certain imagery? Why the images you chose?

I try to think of things that are very specific to the Chinese culture that I knew I grew up seeing. It’s not just a Chinese dress, or like something specific to China. I try not to do that. But something that’s very present in America. For the drums, I didn’t even know what images to put on the drum until four months after I conceptualized it. My cousins had said something about shrimp dick because she’s, like, 13. And then I was hanging out with my friend who was cat sitting a siamese cat, so I got the “Asian pussy”. So it just happens.

But not all of the images I choose or the jewelry I make are strictly political. There’s a funny and nostalgic side to my work.

Right, because you don’t want to be pigeonholed. So where do you want to push yourself in terms of your art?

For me, it’s not about making money. For a lot of jewelry designers, the dream is to make your own line, make your own collection. I do want to do that. I want to be my own boss but I don’t want to spend my life making production pieces. I want to make one-of-a-kind statements, things that have meanings, that you need to take time to understand. I see myself continuing this area of focus, I guess because there’s lots to be said about identity and I’ll probably discover more in years to come. But sometimes I just want to make some dumb shit for myself. Like I wanted to make these chinese slipper heels, and it’s not that deep, you know?What’s something about your work that you feel is misunderstood or lost in translation?

I guess some of the details get lost. Like the text message earrings, people are reposting that like crazy but I’ll see some comments that are like, “these earrings are cool but the messages are dumb,” and it’s like, but I didn’t make this for you. I made this for me, for people like me, and who can relate to me. Shit gets washed out and people don’t read into things. I wish people took the time to understand like, for example, the drum toy. And understand the chinky eye piece. There are layers and nuances lost. But mostly that my art and my jewelry is for me to feel like there is something that people like me can recognize.

Going back to your text message earrings because they are aesthetically and content-wise about technology and about being sexually and romantically active in the digital age, how do you feel about our current dialogue about technology?

I honestly don’t see technology or social media as evil as people make it out to be. Humans are innately social creatures and this is just another way to communicate— it’s just a matter of controlling it. I think people can use that platform for good things and also, what is wrong with showing the best parts of your life? That’s why you have different social media—Twitter for your depressing stuff, Instagram for your best side. We are able to relate to more people in that way.

Can you talk about some of your experiences being fetishized / sexualized? When was that moment to realize that’s not a compliment?

The second they bring up Asian, or race, then you know that that is what they see as important. I feel like if you know how to be treated right, then it’s obvious. It’s definitely a growth thing in age, as simple as that. When you’re young, you’re into the world and you crave attention and then you start realizing that not all attention is good.

Any upcoming projects?

Yes! I have so many ideas but right now, no studio to work in. I also have a full time job at the moment. I really want to share a space in Metalworks so I can make work, but it’s basically another half of my rent so it’s hard. I feel like all of this Instagram clout is making me seem like an established artist but I’m not, I just graduated and I feel a lot of pressure because people are like, “Can’t wait to see what you do next!” and I’m like, “Me too!” But I know I shouldn’t take it so seriously. But I also want myself to achieve.

Images courtesy of Ada Chen and Daniel Terna

Stay tuned to Milk for more of our favorite rising artists.

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