A Q&A with Artist Lala Openi

Lei Culture Lala Openi

By way of the Bay area, resident Chinatown artist Lala Openi brings her unique brand of culture to share–and hopes you will, too.

Text by Alan Fraser
Portraits by Kainoa Reponte
Photos of art show courtesy of Jared Perez & Lala Openi

On a Friday afternoon, multi-media artist Lala Openi waits for me at a round two-top cafe table. Her computer is open with a full desktop screen, materials cover the tabletop around it, and she is in the middle of a FaceTime conversation. It seemed like a long-shot, asking to get a sit down with her just hours before her art show at About the Goods in Chinatown, but it’s clear she likes to get maximum use of her time.

Openi is a fifth-generation San Francisco native. As a student of Cultural Anthropology and Philosophy at UC Davis, she started by looking at the design program, before deciding its numerous prerequisite demands would have cost too much of her time. “It would have taken, like, nine years to graduate,” she says, “so, I was like nah, I’m gonna leave.”

She headed to the Academy of Art school in San Francisco instead. The city was where she found a creative tribe, living in an outer Mission art warehouse shared with nine to 13 others. The loft had a recording studio, walls often repainted by the city’s best graffiti artists, and, at one point, a skate ramp. It even had “one of those octopus things for silk screening,” she says. “It was a very creative place to start my young adulthood.”

Lei Culture Lala Openi

The physical environment, however, turned out to be taxing her body. She found out her increasing health issues were due to black mold, something not uncommon to discover in the fog-famous city. “It destroyed me,” she says. “That was one of the reasons I moved, so that I could heal.” Deciding to find a more salubrious situation, Openi picked Hawaiʻi for its salt water and fresh air. Happenstance led her to spend a month in Kailua, where she waited for a living-work space to open at the Chinatown Artist Lofts. One did.

Now, two years later, she’s settled right in. Openi has since co-founded The Contingency, a community of QTIPOC (queer, trans, inter-sexed, people of color) individuals with the intention of creating spaces welcome to people like them. “We were just looking for friends,” Openi laughs. People may associate the collective with the Kings, Queens, and Inbtwns dance party they put on at Manifest last year; this year, they are hoping to diversify their community outreach. The day following our talk is the group’s first planned beach day, where they hope to conduct an informal survey about what events members want to see the most. “If you’re representing a community, it shouldn’t be one person dictating what that looks like. It should be a community effort. Everyone should have a say.”

Meanwhile, she’s putting her own art in motion. Her show, Valentines to My Ancestors, at About the Goods came out of a conversation—translated to her from Cantonese—that she had with her grandfather back in November. When asked if he had any life advice for her, “he said, ‘No. Our lives have been too different,’” she says. He then revealed a story unknown to anyone in the family, about his experience as a cook during the Japanese occupation of China: There was a guard who took a liking to him, and when the day came to kill the subjected Chinese, he tipped off her grandfather so he could flee. This personal disclosure inspired her to start work on the show, which she calls “a letter-in-a-bottle to our ancestors.”

Her show encourages participation, with prompts provided for visitors to contribute their own letters to the ancestral stories and photos on display. “I wanted to flip the script on where we’re paying attention,” says Openi. “Especially in children of diaspora, there’s a lot of cultural erasure happening.”

Lei Culture Lala Openi

What other artists are inspiring you right now?

Jahra Wasasala. She’s in New Zealand, Aotearoa. She’s a dancer, but also does poetry. I think what she does is really inspiring. In the visibility movement, I’m appreciating a lot of different pockets getting filled – people reconnecting with their roots, kind of reclaiming them. Or not ‘kind of’ but YES, reclaiming them. Wild Homegirl on Instagram, she does queer brown magic illustration and she’s starting to make sculptures—Sage Stargate’s really dope, she’s super underrated. Celebrity-wise, I might get flack for saying this, but – Eddie Huang. First time I saw ABC’s ‘Fresh Off The Boat’ I was like, “that’s me.” There’s no Chinese American family on TV like that. Even if they did change his whole story to fit the rules of sitcoms, it’s still cool that he’s out there. Oh! And Ai Weiwei. Ai Weiwei’s really awesome. Just an all-in-all general badass.

What do you do for fun?

I like cooking a lot. What else do I do…I just feel like I work a lot. I’m trying to find a balance, a more live/work balance. A lot of the passion projects I do – I mean Valentines to My Ancestors is like what I’m doing for fun. That’s what I do for fun. I make free art shows, I make big public spaces, for fun.

You say you like to cook, do you have a favorite place to eat, favorite restaurant?

I have favorite dishes. I’m really bad at favorite anything.

Okay, what’s a favorite dish?

I like the Ox-tail pho, at Pho Nam. And – I’m sad, I don’t know if they’re the same restaurant anymore, but Good Fortune, it used to be on Smith and Pauahi, and now it’s changed to Ginger and Garlic or something. I don’t know if it’s the same people, but I used to go there and be like, ‘Can you make me this?’ and then they would do it. Like things that weren’t on the menu. I’m hoping they’re still there.

Any good music you’ve been listening to lately?

I’ve been really into Sabrina Claudio, she’s really good. Oh, and Brockhampton.

What is your happy thought? Like when you’re having a bad day, what is the thing you can go to, to bring you out of it?

So, I have like—I’m gonna change my answer. It’s not exactly answering the question but it’s still relevant. I had a friend when I lived at the warehouse who was really sad all the time, he was just always having a bad day, and I said, ‘you should just find something, just make yourself giggle, like look at something and say, ‘Ah, that’s stupid,’ and you’ll giggle and you’ll be good.’ If you can figure out how to giggle at any time, you’ll be fine … finding inspiration in anything, I guess. It can literally be anything.

What do you want people to get out of your show tonight, to walk away with?

As with any of my shows and spaces I create, I really hope that people can just see themselves in the pieces. I like creating pieces where people can feel vulnerable, and then can identify with the piece—or with the letter, in this case. I think that, being able to see yourself in someone else’s story, I feel like that is what really helps us understand each other – builds bonds, builds even self-confidence, because you’re like, ‘oh, I’m not the only one who’s experienced this.’ And it just feels good.

Lei Culture Lala Openi

Valentines to My Ancestors is on display at “About The Goods” (1145 Bethel Street) until February 17.
Click here for more info.

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