A Thousand Hands Behind Every Practice

“You’re always going to be a mosaic of all the people and thoughts and research and conversations that you have.”

Monyee Chau

Monyee standing in front of Of Salt and Altars (left wall), 2024. Tacoma WA US

Photo by Nancy Mariano.

I first met Monyee Chau while we were both working at the Wing Luke Museum in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District. As we got to know one another, we discovered the parallels between our lives, becoming strangely humorous for the many coincidences that existed. We had both grown up in Kirkland, Washington, a suburban neighborhood outside of Seattle. Both of our families owned restaurants. We had attended the same middle and high schools, although we didn’t know each other then. From there we both went to different art schools– Monyee to Cornish College of Arts in Seattle and I to the California College of the Arts in San Francisco.

As we became friends and later collaborators on a mural, we’d find even more evidence of our parallel trajectories; yearbook photos of one another and the realization that we had admired each other’s art even as young teenagers. 

Nina Vichayapai, Monyee Chau, and Jae Eun Kim in front of Fruits of an Imagined Geography, 2021. Facebook campus, Bellevue, WA, US. Mixed media.

When our paths crossed at the Wing Luke Museum, a museum dedicated to the art, history, and culture of Asians, it would be simplistic to call it a coincidence, as these interests also run strong in both of our work. As I got to know Monyee, I grew a deep appreciation for their vibrant art and impassioned community work. For us to be drawn together again seems to only have been destiny and a testament to the underlying values that forged us. I continue to be deeply inspired by Monyee’s work that puts Asian American stories at the forefront, especially in Seattle where their art, murals, community work, and so much more can be seen all across the city. As an artist with many fascinating socially engaged processes embedded in their life and work, I was eager to speak to Monyee about some of their latest projects. 

Nina Vichayapai: It’s such a treat to know you as a friend. We’ve collaborated together and also went to the same middle and high schools. Could we start by talking about what your experience was like growing up on the Eastside of Seattle?

Monyee Chau: So much of my work really began when I was able to think about my family’s restaurant as a location and space that really rooted me to my identity. What made that so strong was the complete cultural juxtaposition with where we lived and where we grew up. Growing up in a place where I felt like my grandparents were picked on for coming to my school events, where I felt really out of place, and really uncomfortable in my skin, helps me really appreciate what it meant to grow up in my family’s restaurant in the city of Seattle. I think growing up on the Eastside allowed me the ability to sit back and reflect on how much it meant for me to have that experience, because I feel really lucky. And I know that we also have a lot of parallels in having a family restaurant. 

Monyee Chau and grandmother Noi Chau, 1998, at Chau’s Family Seafood Restaurant. Seattle WA, US. 

Nina:  Yeah, and a lot of my work is also influenced by growing up on the Eastside and feeling out of place. So your family had a restaurant in Chinatown-International District (C-ID) in Seattle. What was the name of the restaurant?

Monyee: The name of the restaurant was Chau’s Family Seafood Restaurant. It was on the corner of 4th and Jackson and had been around for 20 or so years and was just a very special place for my family to be able to thrive and have a community within the neighborhood.

Photo of grandparents and father and family friends in front of Chau’s Family Seafood Restaurant sign, on Jackson St. Circa 1980’s. Seattle WA, US

Photo of grandfather, grandma, and uncle at a restaurant in Seattle, WA, US. Circa 1970’s.

Nina: How did your family end up in Kirkland? 

Monyee: My grandparents on my mom’s side live in Kirkland and my grandparents on my dad’s side that had the restaurant lived in the city, in Beacon Hill. I grew up in Bellevue, but when my parents split up they both went to live with their parents, so that also meant that I split my time living between Beacon Hill and Kirkland growing up.

Nina: So it sounds like you were bouncing between Seattle and the greater Seattle area for your childhood.

Monyee: Yes, that played a big part in recognizing that contrast – going to school on the Eastside, and then every weekend being in the city and just seeing the vast differences between the communities there. 

Nina: They’re so different. I feel like it’s hard for people to conceptualize, especially if they weren’t around the Eastside back then, just how different it is from today. Today it’s so much more diverse and also so much more wealthy.I’m wondering, what were some of your early experiences with art or community work since both are a really big part of your life?

Monyee: Growing up I started taking some art classes with a friend of mine who ended up becoming my god sibling. They were taking art classes from this teacher in Newcastle. That is where I really built up a lot of technical skills, because he comes from Shanghai and there’s a big culture of replicating works as best as you can. And so a lot of technical skill was born out of that. 

As for doing community work, I was really interested in finding a community, but I didn’t entirely have one that I felt incredibly connected to. I first found that sense of community when I went to a town hall meeting at the Nisei Veterans hall that was about rezoning the Chinatown-International District (C-ID) to allow for taller developments.That’s where I found the C-ID Coalition. They were handing out culturally relevant foods and had signs for folks, making sure that there was advocacy for the elders as well. And that’s what really got me into doing the work that I do now. It really let me see the ways that we can engage with people that we might not always be connected to through our work or school. So I think that was the first of many moments that gave me a lot of perspective on what it means to engage within a community. 

Ingredients For A Mourning Soup, From The Diaspora, 2021. Seattle, WA, US. gouache on paper. Painting of a Taiwanese street food cart. Photo courtesy of Monyee Chau.

Nina: Can we talk about the project you did in the neighborhood then, Medicine for the C-ID?

Monyee: This took place at an artist residency through Flower Flower, which was an all queer, all trans Asian and Pasifika artist collective. I worked together with Jaeun Kim, and our residency was very rooted in what it means to make art for a neighborhood and how oftentimes elders get forgotten in that conversation. Jae and I really wanted to make sure that we were making work about elders that supported elders.

It began with a workshop that we did with a local acupuncturist named Dr. Tamsin Lee. We did a workshop called The Spirit of the Lung where we talked about how to supply our community with tools to support ourselves during wildfire season.

Dr. Tamsin shared with us some of the current Chinese astrology as well as how to prepare for wildfires, using tools such as Qi Gong. Dr. Tamsin also worked with us to create a lung support tea for elders in the neighborhood.

In addition to elders, we had a range of ages of folks in the workshop that made this tea. We were able to make like 200 bags of tea that we gifted to share with the neighborhood elders through ACRS (Asian Counseling and Referral Services). And a lot of the students who came were also able to take that tea home with them.

This workshop was a precursor to Jae and I interviewing some of the organizing aunties, Auntie Sue Kay and Auntie Karen. We talked to them about what it was like to get into organizing, what their experience has been like in the city, what changes they have seen, and what kind of things they hope for. 

We talked about the neighborhood and their own personal relationships with medicine including herbs. Auntie Sue would bring gifts to other organizers when they were feeling sick or after a protest. So that all culminated into Jae and I collaborating on a piece that were portraits of these two as well as frames that were printed with linoleum block prints of the medicine and herbs that they had mentioned during the interview.

Nina: That is such a sweet project. The portraits you painted and the block prints that Jae did on the frame are so beautiful. I love the way your art comes together. Can you tell me what kind of herbs were in the tea that you made for the workshop? And what herbs did you learn about for use after protests? 

Medicine for the CID, 2023. Seattle WA, US. acrylic paint on wood, linoleum block prints on fabric.

Monyee: So it looks like there are strawberry leaves, roses and some sort of lily. I know a lot of them were specifically anti-inflammatory. Some of the herbs represented in the paintings that we talked about were ferns, which Auntie Karen would collect with her family at Seward Park, and there’s also Chinese yams as well as matsutake mushrooms.

It was really sweet because when she came to the interview she also brought a bunch of things with her. They brought Nin Jiom Pei Pa Koa honey loquat syrup. She says that she’ll bring that syrup to organizers because it tastes really good, is really good for your throat, and helps you recover from a sore throat, especially after chanting at protests.

Nina: That’s amazing. It’s so cool to learn about other people’s relationship with herbs and medicine. I’m really curious what the process was like for you to take an interview and turn it into a piece of art. How did you come up with that idea? I think it’s funny because we’re doing an interview and also talking about an interview that you used in making this art. Interviews can be such a great tool for making something collaboratively.

Monyee: It was really fun because Jae and I think really differently.  It was just a great opportunity to get to know Auntie Sue and Auntie Karen better. A lot of the time when we’re working together it’s in response to what’s going on in the neighborhood and working towards that. I think not a lot of intentional time had been put into getting to know each other deeper and so this was a really special opportunity to do that.

When we were thinking about the art that we wanted to make afterwards, a lot of the historical icons who have done work in the neighborhood have been very patriarchal. We always have portraits and photos of a lot of men, so why don’t we take this opportunity to celebrate these two wonderful women who have been doing this work for a long time?

While listening to their stories and what they wish to see in the future,something that really spoke to me was, when we think about the city, there’s so many different neighborhoods, right? It’s all divided up into Japantown or Little Saigon. I remember from the interview they were talking about how it didn’t used to be like that. It used to just be that we were all together. And it seemed really strange and disconcerting when those labels were put on everything, especially with I-5 gutting the neighborhood as well.

So it was just really wonderful to hear these small details that they maybe wouldn’t share on an everyday basis. But being able to have that intentional time together was really special for us to experience.

Nina: What was it like for you to collaborate with Jae, who is also your partner?

Monyee: I love collaborating with Jae. The first time that happened to a lower degree was when the three of us were all working together. It’s been really fun because we’ve been really excited to work on new things together. And because we’re in a relationship, our communication skills have been really rooted in a lot of compassion and understanding and friendship with one another.

Finding the intersections of what we’re both passionate about is really exciting because there’s a lot of magic that happens in that little intersection. So it’s a really fun and exciting thing for us to do as a duo. 

Nina: Do you have any other collaborations planned with Jae or that you’re working on currently?

Monyee:  We have been talking about collaborating with Dr. Tamsin again who we did in The Spirit of the Lung workshop with. I think we were wanting to expand on that and really talk about different aspects of the body and which parts hold different emotions. The lungs can carry grief, the heart carries joy. Our goal is to bring in some of the knowledge of traditional Asian medicine as well as health and herbs. It’s been a goal of ours to do what we can to keep our communities healthy in a time of climate crisis and other scary things. 

Nina: When you’re really deep in it, in your art projects, are there certain ways that you like to receive care from Jae or vice versa? Likehow do you like to support Jae while they’re really going through it in their own projects?

Monyee: I think that learning from art school has been helpful in how to really vocalize feedback or critique. I think that with Jae and I, a lot of affirmations and conversations are really helpful for the both of us, especially with an approach of compassion and care.

I think what makes things the most successful when you’re sharing any kind of feedback is that approach of being like, ‘I know you have the best intentions, but maybe this isn’t being communicated as much as you were hoping that it would be’, for example. And it’s always nice to not be in your own head, so collaborating with someone whose thoughts and mind I really value is wonderful.

Being with someone else helps bounce ideas back and forth a lot easier. I don’t think that the residency Jae and I did last summer would have been anything close to what it was if we were both working individually, you know? The chance to build off of each other has been really special and really exciting. 

 Photo of Monyee Chau, Karen Sakada, Sue Kay, Jae Eun Kim in front of Medicine For the CID, 2023. Seattle WA, US

Nina: I can’t wait to see what you two make. It’s so lovely seeing your work together. Do you have any tips for anybody who wants to collaborate with a loved one or someone they’re in a relationship with?

Monyee: Every couple is different, but something that works really well for Jae and I is to make sure that we have a specific time and place set aside for planning. Because when we live together everything melts into each other.

Sometimes if Jae’s cooking dinner and I’m just thinking and talking out loud like…”what if we did this for this project,?” But Jae needs a specific place, time, and mentality for us to talk about that, which is so reasonable. So being able to make sure that you have dedicated time so that you can bring your best self into that collaboration is my top tip.

Nina: That’s such a good tip. That’s definitely a boundary my partner hasn’t set with me yet, but probably should because I’m blabbing all hours of the day about a project!

So what happened to the pieces? Do Sue and Karen own them now, and how did they receive it?

Monyee: Yeah, they were gifted to them. We wanted to both honor them as well as give them these pieces. Right now the pieces are actually at the Wing Luke Museum in an exhibit on elders called Hello Auntie, Hello Uncle, which is going on until February 23, 2025.  They’re going to be there for a year and then they’ll go to Auntie Karen and Auntie Sue after that. 

Nina:  I’ll have to go and check it out. I’m curious about your recent project at the Tacoma Art Museum which is opening soon and is on view until 2027. Could you talk about that? 

Monyee: The show is called reFrame: Haub Family Collection of Western American Art, in reference to a collection of art at the Tacoma Art Museum with a very colonial perspective of Western expansion. So the Tacoma Art Museum invited all of these curators of color to respond to some of the works. Lele Barnett reached out to me, alongside Zhi Lin, to respond to these Mian Situ paintings that were a part of the Haub collection. 

I have been interested in exploring the history of transcontinental railroad workers, so that’s what was cultivated in this project. There is a mural that consists of two walls that highlight the Chinese relationship with the Pacific Ocean, as well as the goddesses Mazu and Guanyin that carried them across. It was really important to me to bring those goddesses in because in one of the records a white person had written about these Chinese workers that “build altars wherever they are,” so that’s a big part of why those goddesses are there.

When you both enter and exit the exhibition, the mural of the ocean that I created is there. So this idea of crossing the Pacific Ocean is a big part of the layout of the work. There’s a lot of symbolism as well acknowledging the fact that the Tacoma Art Museum is on Pacific Avenue, which is the very street that Chinese residents of Tacoma were marched out of during the Chinese expulsion of 1885. The Tacoma Art Museum building itself, designed by Olson Kundig, also has a railroad feature in front of the windows. All of these aspects tie into the mural. Currently, Pacific Avenue has the link light rail which is a source of a lot of community issues and conversations, as public transportation is something that has continually been used to cut through communities of color.So there’s a lot of symbolism and layers to the work.

Of Salt and Altars (right wall), 2024. Tacoma, WA, US. latex paint and wood. Mural honoring Chinese Railroad workers and Guanyin. Photo courtesy of Monyee Chau.

Of Salt and Altars (right wall), 2024. Tacoma, WA, US. latex paint and wood. Mural honoring the journey of Chinese Railroad workers, depicting Goddess Mazu. Photo courtesy of Monyee Chau.

Of Salt and Altars (right wall), 2024. Tacoma, WA, US. acrylic paint and wood. Close up of mural honoring the journey of Chinese Railroad workers, depicting Goddess Mazu. Photo courtesy of Monyee Chau.

Nina: Wow, that’s so cool. Did a lot of those ideas come out of the research or did you have a strong idea going into the project of what you wanted to do?

Monyee: I think a lot of it was being able to see the space itself and what I was able to work with in the environment, like being able to look at that pathway that Chinese residents were marched out on running parallel with the mural.  A lot of the information that I found came from the book Ghost of Gold Mountain by Gordon H. Chang. And understanding all of these details with the altars and with the goddesses.

I had learned that hundreds of thousands of letters went between the US and Asia across the Pacific during that time of heightened anti-Asian rhetoric and Chinese expulsion, yet we have absolutely no record of any of them due to the destruction and pillaging of Chinese property. So in the mural you can also see these letters that sort of fly across the sky.

I also found a record of Cantonese folk songs, sung by immigrants who had crossed the Pacific, and their wives and children’s songs about their fathers and husbands going across the water. I think about the way the ocean is so magical and holds all of these songs as well as all these lost souls of people thrown overboard. It gives me chills to think about.

I thought it was really incredible that there was this record of all of these songs. Actually, this weekend I’m bringing some other friends who are also of Southern Chinese descent to go and write more of those folk songs along the lines of the ocean in the mural which I feel is a really special aspect of the piece.

Nina: That’s amazing. It sounds like you do a lot of combining spirituality along with historical research in your work. What does it mean for you to combine those?

Monyee: Those are really important aspects of my own personal life. That’s how it comes out into the work itself because that’s the way that I can process things and also process really heavy topics and conversations. Being able to bring in all of those aspects feels really healing to me.

I get really interested in stories of spirituality or mythology, so I was excited to learn about the story of Mazu, who is a young, epileptic girl who had visions during seizures. During a seizure of hers, she appeared over the water in front of her brother and father guiding them out of a storm into safety. Thus, she began to be known as a protector of seafarers. I think those little things that you get to learn about are always really exciting. I think that’s why it finds its way into my work. I really enjoy overlaying all of those considerations when I work on a piece.

This is the first time that spirituality has been so straightforward in my work. I’m really enjoying it. And I also think it helps me understand what that experience might have been like for Chinese immigrants.

My family on both sides has also been very spiritual. Both sides of my family are Buddhist. As a kid I felt very distant or not incredibly understanding of it. Being with Jae has sort helped me nourish that part of myself more, which is playing a huge part in the work of me trying to understand my ancestors a little bit better.

So, it’s a newer practice, but it’s something that I feel excited to explore more. 

Nina: What kind of spiritual imagery are you particularly excited about in this work?

Monyee: In the mural, there are these two groupings of arms and hands all doing different actions that happened with the folks working on the railroad, such as yearning for family, praying, making offerings to deities, or being in a place of solidarity across identities.

Those were based on depictions of the Thousand Arms of Guanyin, who has a thousand arms to offer mercy and compassion to all beings. So I feel like that’s something that has been really fun to bring into different aspects of the work.

Nina: I just love all these elements you’re talking about and how they come together. Is this the largest piece you’ve done?

Monyee: The largest has been our piece for Meta, which was 760 square feet. This one is just 620 square feet. But as the solo creator, it is definitely the largest piece. And I feel like this is one of the proudest works I’ve ever put out into the world. 

Nina:  I like how you’re like, it’s just 600 something square feet. That’s bigger than my apartment! 

Monyee: I had so much help!

Nina: You would need it for sure. I feel like it’s never fun to do a mural or anything large scale on your own. I’m curious about where this project falls in the range of collaboration for you in terms of your other projects.

Monyee: I would say that this project specifically feels like I’m the creator of the work, but so many people came together to make it happen. I had two people, including Jae, help me paint the mural. And then two people who I’m bringing in to add their handwriting and their experiences into the mural. So if I’m to work on more solo projects, this is how I would like it to happen moving forward. Always having community input or letting the community have their hand in the work itself.

You’re never truly wanting to be just you in the studio. There’s always some component at some point for people to come into the project. I feel like that’s how all work is created too, right? Nothing that I create is solely from my own self. There’s always people that bring in so many different aspects or inspire me. And so I feel like it would be wrong of me to say that anything I create is only ever my own voice.

Monyee and Jae Eun standing in front of Of Salt and Altars (left wall), 2024. Tacoma WA US. Photo by So’le Celestial.

Nina: That’s beautiful. That definitely describes what it’s like to be an artist for real. Nothing is really truly just you.

Monyee: You’re always going to be a mosaic of all the people and thoughts and research and conversations that you have.

Monyee Chau (they/them) is an artist based on unceded Coast Salish land, and has graduated with a BFA from Cornish College of the Arts in 2018. They explore a journey of personal and collective healing through their lens as a queer Taiwanese/Chinese American, believing in the power of storytelling and breaking bread as a means of community building for the path to justice and liberation. Monyee’s work spans across mediums to speak to the multitude of themes of labor, diaspora, and collective community care. 

They’ve exhibited in museums and galleries locally and internationally, including the Wing Luke Museum, Museum of Northwest Art, Mori Art Museum, and Copelouzos Museum. They have spoken at institutions such as Harvard Graduate school of Design, New York University, and the University of Washington. They have been awarded as one of the 100 Changemakers by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation and of the 100 Taiwanese Americans, and rewarded the 2021 Arc Artist Fellowship. Their work is in collections such as the Museum of History and Industry, New York University, and Center for the Study of Political Graphics.


Nina Vichayapai (she/her) Nina Vichayapai is an artist who orients her belonging somewhere between the United States, where she lives, and Thailand, where she was born. Her relationship to the many disparate places that forged her sense of home has resulted in her interest in excavating the globalized world around her for signs and representations of belonging. Her interdisciplinary art practice weaves textiles, social practice, and placemaking as tools to explore these subjects. She graduated from the California College of the Arts with a Bachelor of Fine Arts in 2017 and is currently pursuing a Master of Fine Arts in the Art and Social Practice program at Portland State University.


The Social Forms of Art (SoFA) Journal is a publication dedicated to supporting, documenting and contextualising social forms of art and its related fields and disciplines. Each issue of the Journal takes an eclectic look at the ways in which artists are engaging with communities, institutions and the public. The Journal supports and discusses projects that offer critique, commentary and context for a field that is active and expanding.

Created within the Portland State University Art & Social Practice Masters In Fine Arts. Program, SoFA Journal is now fully online.

Conversations on Everything is an expanding collection of interviews produced as part of SoFA Journal. Through the potent format of casual interviews as artistic research, insight is harvested from artists, curators, people of other fields and everyday humans. These conversations study social forms of art as a field that lives between and within both art and life.

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