Nested in back-corridor evenings on Chinatown’s Vine Street, the Asian Arts Initiative (AAI) features a venue cozy as it is spacious. Tall ceilings reminiscent of balcony-style theaters, colorful yet understated lighting, a diverse array of Asian faces, ages, and languages.
What I discovered at AAI’s “Family Style Open Mic” series were far more exhilarating Friday nights than the welcoming-of-weekend festivities back on Penn’s campus (notably collegiate-style). Both December’s and January’s open mics offered pre-performance socializing in the venue’s front-room art gallery, complete with catered Asian dishes from local restaurants. Gradually, the crowds would gather through a curtained entrance into the back-room – an electrifying transition from muted voices and bright lighting to muted lighting and bright voices.
The series, hosted by spoken word duo Yellow Rage (Michelle Myers and Catzie Villayphonh), fused dynamic open mic performances with main features and mini-features. December’s main feature starred musician Jason Min, whose poignant melodies underscored equally poignant lyrics, while January’s starred comic book artist Larry Hama, whose commentary fostered Q&A dynamic with a highly interactive audience.
However, the open mic portions, dispersed between the larger features, resonated the most with me. Initially, I expected the open mic-ers mostly to be Asians or Asian-Americans whose performances related (at differing levels) to a collective or idiosyncratic Asian experience – instead, I found that the vast majority of performers, though Asian-American, didn’t reference anything explicitly “Asian,” at all. From hip-hop to vocal renditions of Disney hits, choreographed belly-dancing routines to freestyle pop-and-lock, and poems criticizing educational institutions to supernova-time metaphors, the open mic fostered a remarkably diverse stream of craft, talent and creativity.
Upon second thought, perhaps it isn’t a coincidence that most of the AAI open mic-ers departed from Asian-conscientious performances – rather, this should be expected. After all, as a second generation Asian-American myself, I regard my artistic work and the energy fueling such work in simply human terms – not necessarily “Asian” terms. That being said, understanding of identity is certainly more racialized for some than for others, and perhaps that’s why each person’s artistic energy manifests in such unique ways. Regardless, though the performative content didn’t actively address an ethnic discourse, the mere demographics of the attendees attested to a vivacious Asian diaspora and dialogue: first-generation Asian immigrant-parents and full-time professionals, second-generation Asian-American college students, and third-generation toddlers, often biracial or solely English-speaking.
Without a doubt, AAI’s “Family Style Open Mic” series resounds as a celebratory and unifying force among Philadelphia’s Asian-American sub-population, evidenced by the prevalence of regular attendees as well as courageous newcomers who often venture to the venue alone. The forum functions not only as an artistic gathering, but also as a cultural gathering, engaging communities over poetry, song, dance, food and drink – what better way to encourage cross-generational and cross-cultural conversation.