Brenda Wong Aoki Artist Statement

Every moment of our lives contain a kernel of what is to come and the flower of what has been.

For over 100 years, Japantown has contributed to making San Francisco one of the most magical cities in the world. But today quietly, painfully deeply rooted cultural neighborhoods are disappearing. Here in J-town precious places we took for granted are gone: the Bowling Alley ( a place not just for Japanese but for all the kids in the Western Addition), the venerable Uoki Sakai Market, Jimbo’s Bop City, Marcus Books and Hokubei Mainichi Newspaper. The hotels have been sold and resold, the movie theaters too, and the shopping malls are in limbo awaiting the plans of their current owner in LA.

This is the kind of change that keeps small business owners awake at night.

Amidst this shifting landscape, the spirit of my grandfather, Father Chojiro Peter Aoki an early leader of Japantown in the 1890’s, whispers to me, “Do something.”

But I am an artist; I tell my grandfather, what can I do?

Aware”, he tells me. The poignant beauty in the ephemeralness of life. “Remind the people of the Aware of this place, show them why it is precious. When they remember, they will cherish it, and together you will find a way to survive.” 

We (First Voice) decided to commission young artists to undergo a process of Immersion, Transmission and Art-making. Everyone who answered the call was either multiracial or intercultural. 

This warmed my heart because I, as a hapa, had always felt I am not really Japanese-American because I’m not full blood. But this thinking is shifting. Being Japanese led to the pain and hardship of the Incarceration. Our multiracial children are a direct result of the Nisei believing that marrying outside was safer, somehow better. The triumph of this tragedy is that today coursing in the very blood of our many hued rainbow children is the potential to be the peacemakers, the bridge builders that unite the many tribes. They are in the vanguard of what this nation is becoming.

These multiracial young artists reflect what J-town truly is. The Western Addition has always been a crossroads. Many people call this place home: Filipino, Chinese, Korean, Latino, African-Americans, Okinawan, Hawaiian, and Japanese. 

We called them the J’tells because they have been tasked to tell the story of Japantown. Their job was to immerse themselves in the Cycle of Life. They spent time with two year olds, 111 year olds and everyone in between. They received transmissions from their elders: artists, historians, community activists, and spiritual leaders. In return, the J-Tells spread Effervesence. Then they made art.

Nancy Hom’s Mandala is a testament to the exquisite beauty of the individual and the power and the magnificence of the community as a whole. Kevin King’s Prayer Pagoda invites all of you to contribute your voice to what is precious about this place.

Art contains memory. It holds life moments for the future, it bears witness to the present. Through symbol, ritual and sound, art goes straight to the heart and once our hearts unite, we can move mountains.

Our greatest desire is that all of us will cherish this sweet, sweet J-town. 

Brenda Wong Aoki 

Suite J-town Artistic Director & Co-Founder/Co-Director First Voice