Story and Photos by Andrew Brobst

Presented by the Chinese Culture Center of San Francisco, “How I Keep Looking Up/Como Sigo Mirando Hacia Arriba/仰望” is a trilingual, multiethnic, community-based public art action engaging 16 working-class immigrant Chinese and Latina women in the creation of flags that tell stories of power and resilience.

Artist Christine Wong Yap, a contemporary visual artist and social practitioner whose work “explores belonging, resilience, and other dimensions of psychological well-being,” led participants through a series of workshops where they exchanged lived experiences, and developed design and fabrication skills. 

“How I Keep Looking Up” consisted of six workshops over the course of three months — three workshops were held in Chinatown at 41 Ross Alley, and three at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Arts. The Chinese Culture Center intentionally chose Chinatown and the Mission District so that participants could learn about one another’s cultures and spend time in their respective neighborhoods.

The first three series were taught in a classroom style with presentations on national flags, cities, and social movements, explaining their cultural and historical significance. Included in these presentations was a lecture on symbolism and how to visually compose a narrative with lines, patterns, and symbols. In the first three sessions, participants began the process of depicting their own unique experiences as immigrant women. Among the experiences were stories told of their families, migration journeys, work as domestic laborers, and surviving trauma. 

In the first workshops, Spanish, English, and Chinese dictionaries were provided to facilitate communication between participants. Yap initiated workshops by reviewing common expressions in English, Chinese and Spanish, which all participants recited in unison. 

After the first three sessions, consisting of teaching the significance of flags and narrative, the final three workshops involved designing, sewing, and pressing techniques. 

The last session took place on Oct. 15,  and the passion and focus of each participant filled the room. The women diligently worked cutting fabrics, sketching and ironing. Amid the highly focused workshop, Yap hung the very first finished flag, two pairs of hands holding a heart with a bandaid placed across diagonally. Everyone stopped what they were doing and applauded, a moment of realization washed over the artists and spectators. Their project was finally coming to fruition.

Elsa Hernandez Flores cuts fabric for her flag. Photo: Andrew Brobst

For Elsa Hernández, one of the Latina participants, being part of this project was an enriching experience because she was able to learn from another culture and language. “It was very interesting. I learned to say ‘good morning’ in Cantonese and they learned how to say it in Spanish. I see it as a cultural exchange. And I liked telling my story through a flag because you don’t need words to express yourself.”

After attending these workshops and being involved from the very start of the process, Hernández, a domestic worker in San Francisco who is originally from Mexico, captured her migration story through a flag. She came to the conclusion that no matter where we come from, “we all face the same challenges and difficulties. No matter the color of our skin or our language, I think that sometimes, just with a smile you can show empathy towards other human beings.”

This collaborative program shines a light on how immigrant communities, although culturally different, share similar lived experiences as minorities in San Francisco navigating systemic inequity. Especially for immigrant women whose stories are often marginalized. This project was created to benefit them, by giving them materials, resources, and a space to express themselves artistically in a medium that is often inaccessible to them. 

Christine Wong Yap measures and cuts a piece of large fabric. Photo: Andrew Brobst

As San Francisco faces ongoing gentrification and economic instability impacting the most vulnerable populations, these cross-cultural exchanges are a powerful demonstration of solidarity in difficult times. 

The result of this community-focused collaborative project is 16 vibrant and colorful flags, each developed by the artist to tell their own story. The flags will be unveiled at the 2023 Chinese New Year Parade on February 4, 2023, by the designers and their families. The Chinese New Year is celebrated according to the lunisolar Chinese calendar and is celebrated in February, marking the end of winter and the start of spring. The year 2023 celebrates the Chinese zodiac animal of the rabbit.

The exhibition at the Chinese Cultural Center runs from Feb. 7 to April 1, 2023.