Artists Turn Chinatown Food Memories Into Gorgeous Illustrations for a Good Cause

Maybe it was a weekly ritual you had, strolling through the bustling outdoor produce markets with a beloved grandparent. Or the first time you set off firecrackers with all your cousins to ring in the Lunar New Year. Or a steamer full of pork buns whose sheer deliciousness haunts you to this day.

What’s your favorite Chinatown memory?

That was the question that Good Good Eatz, an Oakland-based initiative offering support to restaurants and markets in Oakland Chinatown during the coronavirus crisis, posed to its supporters last month, getting responses from Chinatown lovers from around the country that ranged from kung fu lessons to family dim sum feasts. From the more than 50 submissions, Good Good Eatz organizers chose five winners whose memories were turned into gorgeous illustrations: a glowingly iridescent sack of steamed buns, a purple-pink montage of a late-night karaoke run among them.

The five illustrations that came out of the project, which they called Good Good Memoreez, are now available for purchase, with funds going to support victims of the California wildfires.

Good Good Eatz co-founder Trinh Banh explains that the idea for the project came about largely because so much of the organization’s work — of supporting struggling businesses during the pandemic — had all started to feel so heavy. “This is so fucking serious,” Banh says. “We’re doing food. But it isn’t fun anymore.”

The Good Good Eatz organizers decided to come up with a fundraiser that would still go toward a good cause, but that would also be fun and would help spark some much-needed joy. Everyone was missing the times they spent sitting around the table with friends and family, sharing stories and enjoying a good meal — say, a plate of dumplings or noodles from their favorite Chinatown spot. They eventually settled on the idea of having members of the community share their favorite Chinatown memories, and then having illustrators translate those memories into a piece of artwork.

As Banh puts it, “Because we can’t be together physically, it’s another way to connect.”

They had an artist friend, Jocelyn Tsaih, founder of the Save Our Chinatowns fundraiser that benefits small businesses in the Oakland and San Francisco Chinatowns, recruit five talented Asian-American artists — Sarula Bao, Andy Busc, Sunny Taiyang Chen, Kevin VQ Dam, and Shuhua Xiong — to turn their favorite memory submissions into artwork.

Saruna Bao, a Brooklyn-based illustrator, wound up creating a piece based on an East Bay submitter’s memory of going out for karaoke in Richmond and then finishing a late night with popcorn chicken at Oakland Chinatown’s Shooting Star Cafe — a memory she says resonated with her because of her own experiences exploring New York’s Chinatown as a young adult with her “found family” of queer Asian-American friends.

The piece, which you can see below, is joyous in its portrayal of togetherness. “My primary emotional quality while making this was a yearning for my friends and my community,” Bao says.

Initially, Banh says, the plan was to have the money that the art sale generated go into Good Good Eatz’s general fund, which supports restaurants and other food businesses in Oakland Chinatown. But with wildfires raging in Northern California this past week, they decided to pivot to help folks who are in the most immediate need: All proceeds will now go to UndocuFund, a Sonoma-based disaster relief fund that’s providing support to undocumented farmworkers and other undocumented individuals in Sonoma County that have been impacted by those fires.

Three of the final illustrations were inspired by memories rooted in the Bay Area, in either Oakland or San Francisco Chinatown. See each of those pieces below, along the original text that inspired it. On the Good Good Memoreez website, you can also see the artists’ commentary on where they drew their inspiration for each piece. Prints of all five illustrations, in an 11-by-14-inch poster size, are available for pre-order for $45 each until September 8.

May’s memory: In the early 90s, at the corner of 90th and MacArthur in East Oakland, site of the weekend drag races and donuts, my mother organized our apartment building of a dozen Southeast Asian immigrants and refugees to take over the abandoned acre of land next to the building and grow food. Overnight, they transformed the neighborhood into an oasis of Asian herbs and vegetables. Young and old were drawn from their homes to care for the plants. My mom would take her harvest to Oakland Chinatown and trade for other food. We didn’t gave much, but we always ate very well.

Kevin VQ Dam

Jody’s memory: In college, Friday nights were fond memories of my friends and I venturing out to Richmond to karaoke and then to Shooting Star Cafe afterwards for some late night snacks. We’d order popcorn chicken, dinner plates to share, and desserts with chewy toppings because we could. It never felt late until we got home and it’d be close to 2 a.m.

Sarula Bao

Kimi’s memory: Every weekend, we would visit my grandmother who lived in a senior home in SF Chinatown near Broadway and Stockton. As we went through the building, seniors would pop their heads out the door to see who has visiting. In one building, exposed wires running along the ceiling, shared kitchen and bathroom for whole floor of people, chatting in her SRO with everything tightly packed around us (clothes hanging on the window to dry, food and dry goods on one side, small table in the middle of the room and using the mattress as a bench). Saturday shopping in the crowded streets, holding onto plastic bags in different colors that kept growing as we moved through the street, following her through the crowds and waiting on the sidewalk as she skillfully navigated her way through the crowds to get veggies, noodles, medicine and other items from each shop. Triumphantly holding the pink box of baos that were still warm and steamy and getting to dig into them once we got into the car to drive home.

Sunny Chen

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