By Jen Kwan
正能量 (zhēngnéngliàng) [positive energy] rose to fame as a catchphrase on Chinese social media in the early 2010s. Anything – a TV series or news article – had zhēngnéngliàng if it could spark optimism and hopefulness. This is easy to apply to the creations of Jen Rao. But there is little to be said for taking art at face value.
“A lot of my personal projects are expressions of identity—as a woman, a queer femme, a sexual person, someone with Chinese diasporic origins…Marginalization is a big motivation for trying to express a darkness beneath the outward appearance of color and positivity.”
Jen left Chengdu in southwest China’s Sichuan province at the age of five. She lived in a few North American cities—mostly in Canada—in suburban, predominantly white neighborhoods. She graduated with a business degree, in her parents’ best interests.
“I struggled to connect with both the children of the Chinese immigrant families we had banquet dinners with and the white children that went to my school, from whom I desperately sought approval. I distanced from the Chinese kids, feeling deeply different from them, rejecting the behaviors and identifications that I felt were traditionally Chinese.”
Over the years, Jen’s perception of China has changed from what was presented to her as a child during trips to “the motherland” (“a patchwork of historical sites and commerciality”) to what she saw after relocating to Beijing in 2015. One night, a Tinder date brought her to School Bar, where she watched all-women Chinese punk band Free Sex Shop. It began a journey of rediscovering cultural identity through the discovery of subcultures she long resonated with outside of China.
“I was surprised to see these empowered and expressive women perform before me, completely uninhibited and unafraid to express their vulnerabilities. My eyes were opened to a scene that I had no idea existed.”
By the time Jen had moved to China, the concept of zhēngnéngliàng was shaping the country’s societal and political messages. It ran parallel with the government’s plans for economic development. In 2014, it announced a campaign to decongest Beijing through urban rejuvenation. Three years later, the “Great Brickening” in 胡同 (hútòng) [traditional alleyway] areas unfolded.
“Buildings that were deemed not up to code or operating under the incorrect zoning were demolished. Windows and doors were bricked overnight. I began, almost obsessively, documenting the changes in the hutongs through watercolor illustrations.”
Under the moniker “drift & dune,” she depicted shopfronts of businesses at risk through a series of postcards, which these establishments would display and sell as souvenirs. Most of them no longer exist. In 2018, she exhibited for the first time in a group show called “Hutong Art Project Vol. 1 — Vitality Remains.”
“The event felt like a collective goodbye to the hutongs as we knew it, and although we were brought together by something that was less than desirable, it felt unifying.”
Ironically, zhēngnéngliàng originates from the Chinese translation of a self-help book by British psychologist Richard Wiseman titled Rip It Up. Ironically, it was through this pivotal event—also colloquially known as the 拆 (chāi) [tear down]—that Jen had inadvertently carved a path for herself in the local art scene. One day, at an affordable art market, she met the co-founder of a Beijing collective that documents underground culture through illustration.
“Shuilam Wong encouraged me to put my work out there, and so I created my first self-publication, a mini-zine that could fit in your pocket that explored the sentimentality of inanimate objects. I printed 40 copies and sold them at Shui’s table for 5 kuai ($1) a pop. Despite the tiny physical size of the creation, it felt like a milestone.”
In Chinese media, narratives that appear to get a zhēngnéngliàng stamp of approval feature the quality of overcoming a setback. In Jen’s case, that anecdote likely begins with the rescue of a partially blind pug named 包子 (bāozi) [steamed stuffed bun], who sometimes went by “nugget.” When she and her then-partner Dave Carey lost their teaching jobs and studio to the COVID-19 pandemic, they took a leap of faith and invested their life savings into a business venture. The stylized name and image of Baozi’s face became the symbol of a cassette label called nugget records, with a quaint space that houses a café, bar, recording studio, and music venue.
“We were not experts on any of what we were doing, but everything was done with a lot of heart.”
nugget upholds a purpose to be an inclusive and accessible convergence point for Beijing’s local and foreign communities, which has somehow propelled Jen into a coincidental role as an ambassador for the Chinese diaspora.
“We occupy both of these spaces and I think that’s kind of rare [in Beijing] for someone from the diaspora, so I don’t take that lightly. I want to utilize and implement the things I’ve gained from experiences of my North American upbringing in a household of Chinese values…It’s important to me to operate a radically accepting space, especially in China, where that’s not always the case.”
While co-running nugget, Jen has expanded her creative practice and collaborations in digital art and live visuals. It has brought exposure on local media platforms, including the Chinese-language editions of the Wall Street Journal and Kinfolk magazine. But she often also speaks of the challenges as someone whose identity intercepts peripheral minority categories.
“I experience micro-aggressions and discrimination regularly due to being a young female business owner…Even though my work has been published, I still suffer from imposter syndrome.”
Less than a year after nugget opened, Jen found herself coming to terms with keeping a friendship and business with someone who was no longer a long-term romantic partner. Although she questioned her queerness for years, the breakup prompted a search for answers.
“I started a journey of introspection. I started reading about comp-het (compulsory heterosexuality). I started sharing with people. They really encouraged and supported me, and it did lead to my coming out…I know how much chosen family and community is important to me. And I want to be able to extend my own communities in a way that might touch upon my insecurities and experiences of marginalization. But I am also compassionate to the fact that other people will want this, too, and I want to bring it to them.”
For six months, Jen lived in a housing collective, fondly referred to as Studio 702—a nod to the New York night club of the late 1970s, Studio 54. The storied 300-square-meter apartment, infamously known for its parties, has been home to a range of Beijing creatives in the past decade. There, Jen introduced the séance salon, a project aimed at creating a space for women and non-binary people to share knowledge and art and discuss topics related to intersectional feminism in a non-commercial and uncensored setting. The small 20-member gathering is a relatively big feat in a country where there are unpredictable consequences to crossing or even towing the boundaries of censorship.
“We’ve covered menstruation, fertility, birth, abortion, sex, sexuality, and relationships…It was my first time having to be able to speak about these things in such an uncensored way. And just being able to create that for other people’s involvement as well as my own was really rewarding, liberating, and empowering.”
While nostalgia and idealizations of periods, places, and objects have been key to Jen’s art, expressions of vulnerability have become the core of her work. In the process, she is reclaiming a once-rejected heritage, presenting a counter-argument to a homogenous vision of China instead.
“I want to continue to represent and communicate things that are important to me—to strengthen femininity, female sexuality, subjects and themes of the Asian diaspora, and a sense of being embedded in our generational and locational context.”
In China, many are attuned to seek zhēngnéngliàng, even if it means overlooking the direness of a situation. Separate from its political stigma, zhēngnéngliàng denotes proactive optimism that should not necessarily equate to toxic and relentless positivity. For about two months, Jen lived in Guangzhou, southern China, where she opened another nugget under a government-sanctioned program. Since then, efforts have also been made to keep the flagship in Beijing afloat. Operating amid a pandemic has been accented with financial woes and noise complaints about the space’s signature tiny stage concerts and gender bender parties. But Jen believes there is hope to be had from the community she has integrated with, helped cultivate, and given back to in ways beyond business and art.
“It’s hard to say these things with confidence, especially in a time that is plagued with uncertainties. Even though operating from Beijing is so difficult, we’ve been granted a lot of opportunities and have a lot of exciting things on the horizon. So, I’m generally very optimistic, and I know that our community will come through in the end.”