LA artist commemorates victims of Monterey Park with portraits
When Jonathan D. Chang visits the 626, he often wears a black hoodie with a colorful print of Guangong on the back. A military general from the Three Kingdoms era became a Taoist tutelary deityguangong, or Guan Yu, is known throughout China and parts of Vietnam as a symbol of wealth and protection. Chang’s hoodie features his own design of the deity, drawn in classic chibi fashion with a large head and smaller limbs.
“Growing up, I was always kind of scared of the character because it was a red face,” says Chang. “Ugly, intimidating, but it was real.”
These days, Guangong has kept Chang busy. “I feel like there is so much negativity and violence happening. Wouldn’t it be nice if there was a character to protect us when we actually needed her?”
As Chang muses, he stands on the outer ridge of a vigil at the Star Ballroom Dance Studio in Monterey Park last Wednesday night where a gunman killed 11 people on the first day of the lunar new year. Chang was shocked to learn about the shooting; He had been to the Alhambra the night before and had New Year’s Eve dinner with his mother and grandparents. “I never thought it would happen in our area, especially in our own backyard — a place so many Asian Americans in this area call home. We go out to eat dim sum with our grandparents or have our first date with our girlfriends,” he says.
While struggling with his grief, Chang decided to draw illustrations of the victims, depicting Ming Wei Ma, 72; Mymy Nhan, 65; Diana Tom, 70; Xiujuan Yu, 57; Valentino Marcos Alvero, 68; Yu Lun Kao, 72; Hong Ying Jian, 62; Wen-Tau Yu, 64; Chia Ling Yau, 76; Muoi Dai Ung, 67; and LiLan Li, 63. Every portrait drawn with a Wacom Intuos Pro tablet and edited with Adobe Photoshop has vivid colors. Chang shared these portraits on his Instagram with captions detailing each person’s life and the impact they had on those around them, linking to GoFundMe campaigns started by surviving family members.
Although he never planned his Instagram account as a news source, he is aware that he has helped strangers converse with their friends about difficult topics. The emphasis on people’s humanity has inspired Chang to draw portraits of people killed in gunfights and affected by the rise in anti-Asian violence during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as events that may not make national headlines. He feels this approach helps “bring our community closer…rather than just reading a notice on a website.”
Chang was born in Taiwan and moved to the Los Angeles area with his mother at the age of 3 after the death of his father. He grew up mostly in Temple City and attended the now-defunct New Avenue School. His mother worked in a real estate company on Valley Boulevard at a trust company, where he spent evenings with her in the office, drawing on blank copy paper. The family briefly relocated to Tampa, Florida for a few years before eventually returning to Southern California. In Tampa, Chang says he was the “only Asian kid around” and recalls often having to “defend his Asian nature.” Luckily, his mother encouraged him to embrace his identity. While Chang was drawn to taking art classes at Arcadia High School, he admittedly “wasn’t a good student,” he chuckles, despite meeting his fiancé at one of those classes.
The diversity of Los Angeles has long nourished his artistic approach. Surrounded by diverse diasporic cultures, Chang would visit Monterey Park to eat Singapore noodles and hot pot while growing up. He would check out the small capsule machines with holographic trading cards from Dragon Ball Z outside a Chinese bookstore in Focus Plaza. At the Kinokuniya in Little Tokyo, he poked fun at all the art books, video games, and comic animations. These childhood obsessions, Chang says, shaped his playful chibi Drawing style: something that has stuck with him as a multidisciplinary designer and illustrator for toy products and even merch for Andrew Yang’s 2020 campaign.
While working 9-5 as an art director at OnChain Studios, Chang needs to move what he calls “community service” art time to the evenings. He has a backlog of portraits to work on and has spent the past week at his dinner table creating portraits of the victims of the Star Ballroom Dance Studio.
In February 2021, Chang drew a bright, colorful portrait of 84-year-old Vicha Ratanapakdee, a Thai immigrant who was attacked and killed while walking in the Bay Area a month earlier. “My condolences to the family of Vicha Ratanapakdee. I hope justice is done,” Chang captioned his illustration of Ratanapakdee. As anti-Asian violence continued to mount during the pandemic, Chang drew and published portraits of people including Michelle Gopushed onto the New York City subway tracks, and Yao Pan Ma, a restaurant worker who was pushed to the ground while collecting cans. It featured Asian-American heroes like Betty Ong, the flight attendant who reported to American Airlines that Flight 11 had been hijacked on 9/11, and Filipino nurses on the frontlines fighting the coronavirus.
When 76-year-old grandmother Xiao Zhen Xie fought off an attacker beating her in San Francisco, Chang managed one viral gif by Xiao brandishing a baseball bat that reads “F- around and find out.” Soon, Chang’s design was printed on 1,000 t-shirts by Xiao and all proceeds went to #StopAsianHate’s AAPI Community Fund. Chang prioritizes working with Asian-owned companies and emphasizes that his art should not be used for profit. He is also committed to ensuring that people do not misuse his art for their own political agendas.
“That was something we discussed from the start,” said Stephanie Tran, co-owner of Town Print, the Bay Area print shop that worked with Chang. The team reached out to Squarespace to request that processing fees be waived and donated. Jersey sales grossed more than $37,000 and were matched by a Goldwater Capital match. “When we work with artists, they often get paid for their time or royalties. Jonathan is truly doing this from the bottom of his heart to honor the victims and raise awareness,” she adds.
“It’s not really meant to be like this masterpiece,” Chang says of these portraits. His process usually involves researching each individual and what family members have to say about them. He applies flat colors to the piece and casts a shadow highlight layer that resembles a halo, which also adds another dimension to the 2-D drawing. “They are designed more for speed. It feels like a moment in time. I want to capture an honest moment: they smile, they let someone they really love take their picture. Remember them as they were, not as this big tragic thing that happened to them.”
Sometimes Chang receives messages from family members who stumble upon the portraits. Alice Sakaye, the daughter of Maria Liang, owner of Star Ballroom Dance Studio, wrote to him after seeing the portraits of the victims of the shooting: “It really touched me and my mother. Thank you for paying tribute to the departed… they were longtime friends and well wishers who shared a love of dancing and supported our small business.”
It’s that news that keeps him going, he says, beyond the tedious nature of work and when the news cycle has shifted his attention elsewhere.
“After the media is gone and this isn’t the news cycle anymore, these families have to deal with this stuff for life,” he says. “It’s really important to humanize our community and show that just because it’s not your family, it could have been. We never know.”
He wants individuals to feel empowered to use their skills for local community activism.
“I feel like we can all agree on one thing [that] we all want to protect our elders. We want to protect the most vulnerable in our community,” adds Chang. “And I feel like as long as we focus on that, that’s going to unite us even more.”
https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/story/2023-02-01/la-artist-monterey-park-victims-portraits LA artist commemorates victims of Monterey Park with portraits