It’s hard to explain what I do, but I’d describe myself as a trans-disciplinary designer working at the intersection of design, business and art; the connective tissue is creativity. I’m liaising with designers, researchers and technologists and currently working on a project called Tropical Futures Institute, which relates to my own search for cultural identity.
Through this moniker, I’ve been producing work that’s in line with my mother Annie Chen’s own mission of preserving, exhibiting, fostering and collecting Filipino artwork in the Philippines – her Cebu City gallery, 856 G Gallery, is one of very few galleries in the southern Philippines.
New York is the perfect place to work across disciplines because as a city, it’s very intersectional. There are a lot of different spaces clashing with each other, dancing with each other, or in close proximity to each other – and the same can be said for the city’s cultures and identities.
Here, you have an apparent relation with a lot of otherness. It draws out these relationships and forces you to confront who you are. You’re meeting all these different people, all these mixes and situations, and it amplifies your identity, allowing you to become more of who you are.
I was born and raised in Singapore – I spent about 25 years there – and went on many excursions throughout Southeast Asia, but I’d always go to the Philippines for Christmas, New Year’s and during the summer. My mom is from Cebu; she’s really my anchor and connection toward that part of my identity, as well as the person who introduced me to design.
When I was very young, I would go to her silver studio and play with blowtorches and make stuff. When I was 20, I left school to take some time off to work and ended up starting a men’s clothing label in Singapore called Sifr, which I ran for four or five years.
That was the first big leap for me into design, followed by a decision to leave that business, Singapore and my whole life in Southeast Asia, roll the dice and move to New York to finish up school at Parsons School of Design.
At first, I was intimidated, because there are a lot of layers to this place. Every year I stay here, some other layer is revealed. I hate to say it because it feels so cliché, but you have those quintessential New York moments.
For instance, when I was relatively new to the city, a friend took me to a dance party – in Singapore a lot of my friends were house or disco DJs, and that’s a big part of my life right now – in this amazing warehouse space in Brooklyn, and I just remember thinking, “This feels very New York.”
The city has everything, but certain things won’t show up for you unless you know how to look for them or you have someone who can show them to you. It surprised me when I discovered how tribal it can be. When you get here, you see it as this big glob of people, but when you look closer, it’s really local.
In the electronic music scene, for example, all of these crews are producing their own sounds, and that’s really where the magic comes in. There are so many of these groups that they’re bound to cross-pollinate or collide, and that’s when stuff happens, when something clicks.
In a lot of ways, everyone who comes to New York is always hoping for that moment. It’s a really romantic notion, that you might run into someone or something that’s going to change your life forever, or have some sort of impact on you – and it’s the mystery and romance behind that notion that makes it so attractive.
I may be a night owl, but I have an action-packed day ahead of me, so I drag myself out of bed to meet some friends for breakfast at over at Marlow & Sons, a spot that’s been championing the farm-to-table movement in South Williamsburg for quite a while. First things first: black coffee, followed by a bacon, egg and cheddar cheese sandwich on a biscuit, which I attempt to atone for with a side of sautéed kale. So Brooklyn! 81 Broadway Brooklyn, New York
Another friend – my roommate, actually – runs a music label and DJs with his friend at an internet radio station called The Lot Radio, which broadcasts out of a shipping container plopped onto a triangular patch of dirt at the border of Greenpoint. One half of the container is a radio and DJ booth – where musicians and DJs play, usually for two hours at a stretch – and the other half is a coffee shop that subsidizes the music – also very Brooklyn. I pop into the booth to say hi to the Darker Than Wax boys and chill outside in the lot for a bit, enjoying the music. 17 Nassau Ave Brooklyn, New York
I heard a record I liked, so I head to Halycon (74 Wythe Ave Brooklyn, New York), a record shop tucked into the basement of Output, a nearby dance club, to hunt it down. They have a diverse selection of electronic dance music; it takes significant willpower to keep from stuffing my arms with new releases.
The shopping does continue, however, just up the street at A/D/O (29 Norman Ave Brooklyn, New York), a design center with a well-curated store in an airy 2,100m² warehouse space. They have this beautiful industrial and product design incubator, and the store has everything from custom bicycles to analog turntables to “postmodern design objects”. I leave empty-handed, but inspired, again in awe of my restraint.
More temptation is found just across McCarren Park (Lorimer St, between Bayard and Berry Sts Brooklyn, New York) – now bustling with joggers, footballers, and picnickers – at Sri Threads (18 Eckford St, #8 Brooklyn, New York), a textile archive, gallery and shop specializing in rare fabrics featuring natural or special dyes, many of them from Japan. It’s a great place for design inspiration or if you just want to buy a throw for your living room. You do need an appointment, though.