Chinese-American artist, Evelyn Wong, is a survivor of multigenerational abuse and severe family dysfunction. Her experiences in navigating the complexities of being born into such a family while growing up in the American South provided her with a unique perspective on what it means to be a woman of color in American society today. Wong’s work highlights the problems of unquestioned practices found in the long-held traditions and patriarchal attitudes of modern Chinese culture that contribute to the oppression of women’s voices. Her work reflects the state of liminality experienced by someone who exists between American society and Chinese culture, and asks viewers to consider whether the problems she sees are so different from one culture to another.
Wong received her BFA from the University of South Carolina and is currently pursuing her MFA from Maine College of Art. She works across a variety of disciplines, including drawing, painting, paper engineering, embroidery, bookmaking, and installation, and she cites artists such as Andrea Dezsö, Kara Walker, Shahzia Sikander, and author Laura Esquivel as sources of her inspiration. Wong’s current research into the use of the narrative and storytelling methods has led to investigations on the use of various scroll forms with Asian origins as a reference to her own story and heritage.
My current work is motivated by my experiences in how the unquestioned traditions and ideals of filial piety in many Chinese-American households can lead to generations of abuse within the family. Studies by the American Psychological Association indicate that Asian American women and Asian-Americans who are college-aged have the highest rates of chronic depression and suicide ideation. While the causes of this vary widely, some online communities for Asian-American women have revealed that one of the causes is from the oppressive and patriarchal nature of filial piety which is imposed upon many of us by our families from an early age. These ideals treat females in the family as virtually nonexistent except to serve: subservience is expected of a woman first to her father; after marriage (which is expected of her), she is to serve her husband; and after he passes, she is to serve her son. In no place within these beliefs does a woman have agency to her own thoughts or opinions, and in fact, she is taught from an early age to hold her opinions whenever she is wronged or disagrees with the males and the elders of the family, or else face punishment (verbal, physical, or even removal from the family).
This oppression has led to generations of pain and trauma for many women from Asian backgrounds. In the modern Asian-American household, these beliefs are exercised in the form of restrictive treatments towards daughters who are verbally and physically abused, socially isolated from their peers, emotionally and psychologically manipulated into submission, and stripped of their individuality. Daughters are given unrealistically high expectations of performance (academically, professionally, and otherwise) and are trained to constantly fear a failure to meet everyone’s demands. Mental health problems are seen as a weakness of virtue and nature, and so family members often deny that their daughters’ mental health is at risk for fear of bringing shame and dishonor onto the family name. However, the abusive and controlling treatment towards these women ultimately results in a constant state of anxiety and depression, as well as feelings of loneliness that can lead to suicidal impulses or chronic health problems.
My work examines the cultural narratives of, and resulting from, such toxic cultural practices from a historical and contemporary perspective, and relates them to patriarchal societies outside of the Asian and Asian-American communities. What is our responsibility in dismantling the power structures and disrupting the social practices that uphold these sorts of attitudes, and how do we heal the communities and victims that have been subjected to and oppressed by them?