#45 Uplifting Our Chinatowns and API Creatives with Harry Trinh
In this episode, we’re joined by Harry Trinh, a queer Asian American art director and experiential designer based in NYC, and the Head of Creative of Welcome to Chinatown.
In this episode, we chat about:
- His latest work with Welcome to Chinatown
- Pivoting from corporate life into his mission-driven work
- Understanding the value of community-centered work and raising the bottom-line
- The history of Chinatowns and unlocking our community’s potential through partnership
- Introducing creative career pathways for API folx
- Harry’s introduction to creativity and design through his family
- How queerness is intertwined with liberation
You can find our guest at:
- Harry Trinh: https://experienceharry.com/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/harry_trinh/
- Welcome to Chinatown: https://welcometochinatown.com/
- Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/welcome.to.chinatown
You can follow me at:
- Instagram: @stevenwakabayashi
- YouTube: @stevenwakabayashi
- Subscribe to my weekly newsletter: mindfulmoments.substack.com
- Visit our website yellowglitterpodcast.com
Harry Trinh: If you aren’t familiar with Chinatown, especially in North America, they were built because there was some horrible, deeply dark experience that happened to the Chinese American community. And they had to come together in this built environment, they had to cluster together to be safe. But as generations grow up, you know, we recontextualize that space a little differently.
We’re like, oh, this is our home now versus just a place of shelter. And then we’re bringing in knowledge from essentially the outside of the neighborhood. How do we bring those really strong tools back in our community? How do we elevate them without Whitewashing them. How do we elevate them without losing the storytelling, losing the authenticity, whatever that would be.
Steven Wakabayashi: Hello everyone, my name is Steven Wakabayashi, and you’re listening to Yellow Glitter. Mindfulness through the eyes and soul of queer Asian perspectives. This episode we’re joined by a lovely special guest, Harry Trinh. Harry Trinh, he, him, is a queer Asian American art director and experiential designer based in New York City.
He is currently the head of creative for Welcome to Chinatown. Harry has a BFA in Interactive Arts and Graphic Design from Maryland Institute College of Art and focused much of his work during school investigating the aesthetic choices of Asian American Chinatown’s architecture and its social effects.
Currently, Harry’s focus is to be a part of the building of the visual identity of Asian America through branding, visual storytelling, and collaboration. His work has been featured in Mold Mag, GQ, New York Times, The Cut, The Infatuation, and CBS News. Welcome to the podcast, Harry.
Harry Trinh: Thanks, Steven. What a beautiful intro for me.
I usually just say Hey, I live in New York. And that’s it.
Steven Wakabayashi: You have such a fascinating background. And we were introduced through our talk that we had recently over with our friend at Comcast about API inclusion, connected about your work. And I was immediately like, We’ve got to get you on, we’ve got to get you talking about your work, and just taking a few steps back, just taking a look at the work that you’ve done with the organization, the community, has just been so, so special, and I just want to start from there.
Welcome to Chinatown, your latest project. For the listeners, what is it?
Harry Trinh: Yeah, so Welcome to Chinatown is a non profit that focuses on Manhattan Chinatown’s small business and entrepreneur community. It was founded by two fabulous Asian American women that both live in Chinatown. Their names are Vic Lee and Jen Tam.
Both are powerhouses in both in their day jobs and also within the Chinatown community. It really started mostly when COVID started surging, mostly in Asia and China. It’s the same time when we had a lot of COVID anti Asian rhetoric happening in the news. And both being, Chinatown residents, they noticed this huge stark in, in the lack of foot traffic in Chinatown.
So, if you’re not familiar with Manhattan’s neighborhoods, they’re very tight and close. And Chinatowns is connected to Tribeca and Soho and Little Italy, so… They quickly saw during this time, which was around January, February of 2020, which is also coincidentally Lunar New Year, Chinatown was empty. Like their favorite restaurants were empty.
Places that would be bustling, places that would usually be full of people being curious about the culture, the history, the festivities. It was very empty. But then, literally blocks over, one or two blocks over, bustling as normal. So they really stepped up. They recognized this like very serious problem that was happening.
And then of course, the whole world shut down, which hit Chinatown very differently, but also the same as everyone else in New York City. But I think on top of that, there was a lot of fear that was frankly, like, you know, toted by a lot of media about, like, misunderstanding of what COVID and how it spread.
So there was a lot of times where people were still avoiding Chinatown because they thought that’s how you caught COVID, because of the proximity to Chinese and Asian Americans. I joined them kind of very much in the beginning. So in a previous life, I used to work in workspace design. Designing offices for tech startups and kind of do cute little boutique offices.
And because of COVID, the company laid us all off because no one wanted an office anymore. The designers are, of course, cut first because no one needs a beautiful, you know, office anymore because no one’s going to coincide. So I was connected to Jen and Vic because I was also the co founder of the Asian American Employee Research Group in my company.
So a little bit about that. That’s like essentially activism within the corporate space. So companies will set aside either budget or scheduling or both to have specific groups. activate programming to kind of like keep people kind of more invested in the community that’s built in the, in the corporate space.
Because of my work through my corporate eurogy, that’s what it’s called. Activism, I met them because they were also co leads of their Asian American ERGs in their respective companies. We were in a huge social media network together and when I got laid off, I was kind of like reflecting on, at that time, I was thinking about how can a creative, like a designer or illustrator, can contribute to Chinatown, especially in this time of need.
And just by coincidence, they were putting on the social media network, Hey, we started this thing that’s called Welcome to Chinatown. We’re trying to support the small businesses in any way. We need a designer to help redo our website and branding. So it really started from a small project. And then as I continued working with them, it became this very integral part of my life where the first three years of me part of the organization, I was volunteering.
So I was still doing freelance work. But it really informed me how much it meant to me to contribute back to the community that I grew up from. And as the years went on, I noticed myself taking on jobs that were aligned with being Asian American, being with small businesses, and then the last job I took, I won’t name the company, but it’s this very prestigious event design and production company in New York City.
We worked on big galas that were for non profits and foundations, which I actually really enjoyed. But what I remembered the most that was kind of the tipping point was that, we were throwing this beautiful, I mean, hundred million dollar like gala and this very big venue space in New York City to raise like, you know, basically triple the amount of money.
And what kind of ticked me off was that all these very well to do folks that would come there to donate their money also invite folks that are in their network to enjoy the festivities, but literally what happened was that you sit down for the dinner service and not even halfway through the service, People will donate, which is great, but then they will all leave.
Like, they would never enjoy and take the time to admire the artistry that kind of went into the catering, the design, the entertainment, the overall experience that people were putting into, which were many, many companies, many, many extremely talented designers and technicians and performers. So that’s where I kind of really flipped the switch.
I don’t think I can really put so much energy and so much time in a place where people don’t really appreciate it anymore. Even though, the organization you are supporting is doing a good thing. I think, the clientele that it was feeding into was very toxic. And then, by coincidence, my co founder, where we were talking about what are the next steps in the organization?
How do we make this sustainable? How do we pivot from this reactionary organization to something that’s looking at the longevity of the community even more? So at this point, we were already founded the first small business grant program that’s specifically for Manhattan, Chinatown. We’re already working with the at least 60, 70 businesses at that time already, trying to figure out second sources of revenue, how to make their business a little bit more future proof.
So we’re already doing all these things. But we were already thinking about people were already wanting to see the next steps of us and we were already taking active steps of like, okay, what does it mean for key volunteer members to really dedicate a full time job to this because that is how you get an organization to the next level.
It’s the commitment of time that you can carve out for people. So I was just venting to them. I was like, oh my God, I hate my job. And yeah, Just by coincidence, they’re like, Oh, you know, remember a few months ago, you were just like kinda saying like, Oh, it’d be really cool to do this full time. They like took this to heart.
And literally a month later, I left that job, started, well, you know, moved to Welcome to Chinatown full time, which essentially I was already doing, but then I can actually focus all my time doing this. And here we are now.
Steven Wakabayashi: That’s amazing. I mean, I think one, it definitely speaks to founders that you’re working with and their dedication to collaborating with you, the community, their word.
To me it’s just like, it’s so beautiful in that lens. But also, what I want to ask you a little bit is, you know, especially looking at your portfolio, looking at your work, you’ve had such amazing repertoire, and I feel like You can go work wherever glamorous places you want to work at, right? And given the experience that you had with the galas and just being in that space where some designers are just enamored, right?
They’re like, I want to work on the biggest, most glamorous stuff. I’m just curious, what, what keeps bringing you back, given, that maybe some of these projects are not as glamorous, but more community centered? Is there anything that stands out to you? Is there any specific story that maybe has stayed with you to keep you doing the work that you’re doing?
Harry Trinh: Yeah. So. So. Go back a little bit. So when I was an undergrad, I did a lot of work about Asian American aesthetics, architecture, and that intersectionality of that, and where that overlapped. But actually, me at that time, looking past undergrad, I was exactly where you’re talking. I was like looking for the coolest design studios and agencies or companies to work at that were like, That kind of fulfilled this, show stopping, really punchy projects.
And, you know, honestly, I was there before, like, you know, I, I don’t want to toot my own horn, but, like, I’ve worked at Disney. I’ve made consumer product packaging goods that still lives on in Target. I’ve done all these things that I’ve kind of, checked my boxes. But I think it was very much the journey of having the taste of contributing back to a community, back to your own community, and seeing how much impact it can have.
I think when I, when I was in my, the job before, Welcome to Chinatown, the workspace job. We did this huge fair in one of our public spaces we had, which was called, at the point, it was called Night Market. Um, so we brought in small businesses from Chinatown, small businesses from other API communities.
All of us were coming from different parts of the company. There were people that were in operations, I was from design, someone was from tech, and we brought everyone together to kind of give back to the community and give a platform for these small business owners because we knew that We had the capital to do it.
We had the space to do it. We had the idea to bring them all together. And also, I think we had the level of how to curate them and make sure they’re complementing each other. So after doing that, I really recognized that yes, I love somehow bringing in my almost like kind of like magnetic attraction back to the community.
And even though the budget of course was small, it was humble, we built it, we like hoisted things up on the ceiling and like we were going out and like finding like discount shopping trips to buy all the props and like we kept it really simple. But yeah, like I, I think about like my portfolio work I’ve done for plenty of clients I’m very proud of and the reaction I get from those projects is that I don’t hold so deeply or such in a high pedestal of The outcome of it, actually what I hold in that, in those projects is actually the emotional reactions and connections I have with the client.
So they feel very seen me listening to them as a designer, like, Oh, like, you know, you really love this color, or you really have this visceral reaction to this type of space, or this type of texture, or this type of sound, and me just helping them recontextualize their thoughts. Them knowing that someone’s trying to be empathetic of them.
That’s what I always remember from all the projects I’ve worked with. I love the folks that were actually, honestly, frankly, relatively difficult clients. But at the very end, they all knew that we were all trying to work together. And because everyone was trying their best to communicate as clearly as possible, and also trying to deliver something that everyone would be proud of.
Those were the best projects, I can say that, like, you know, when I did, so I worked on an office space for Milk Bar, it was a space that they had temporarily because they were building this beautiful Milk Bar, cafe in the hotel that was, like, in Manhattan, and I remember talking to, the founder and the COO and, Just like learning about their stories, but also listening to like, what did they personally like, trying to understand the employees and their lived experience in that space.
And I don’t really remember too much the actual project itself. I remember when I see it, but what I really remember is actually the reactions I get. It’s like, oh, wow, you really listen to me, because at that point, I think, first, because they were still relatively a startup environment, that they never thought about thoughtfully designing a space.
Then on top of that, someone is listening to them and actually coming to their level and being like, Oh, I want you to enjoy the space that you’re, you know, you frankly have to be here because this is your office space. This is your second home. So, you’re incentivizing people to kind of enjoy the work that they’re doing, and also not feel so tense about it all the time, because before the space that they had was essentially underground in a basement for them to have.
An office space was a huge upgrade, and on top of that, we can kind of like really help them celebrate the wins and celebrate the ethos of the company and celebrate the individual personalities that contributed to the company. That was so inspiring. That’s my lasting impression. And then, to answer your second part, to go back to designing for glitz and glamour versus designing for community.
I think, honestly, designing for a community, yes, it is a lot more hand holding, usually folks, aren’t used to working with designers or design agencies or clients, they don’t really know what to expect, so there’s a little bit of a learning curve just because If you aren’t familiar with Chinatowns, especially in North America, they’re mostly built from necessity.
They’re not built from pleasure. They were built because there was some horrible, deeply dark experience that happened to the Chinese American community, and they had to come together in this built environment. They had to cluster together to be safe. So they’re always in this fight or flight mode because that’s how the community is founded.
But as generations grow up, you know, we recontextualize that space a little differently. We’re like, oh, this is our home now versus like this place of shelter, or just purely shelter. And then, we’re bringing in knowledge from essentially the outside of the neighborhood, we get to see how much further it goes because they’ve never had it before or it’s very seldom.
And we understand that as millennials that are, shopping in maybe a Nordstrom or Fifth Avenue or Soho, like, we see how other creatives, other companies are really activating their spaces, but how do we bring those really strong tools back in our community? How do we elevate them?
How do we elevate them without whitewashing them? How do we elevate them without losing the storytelling, losing the authenticity, whatever that would be? So I think just being able to give back in that way, and also it inspires a whole generation of people, inspires someone that, is Asian American, that never thought about being creative, or what I actually found which was really really humbling is that I’ve met so many incredibly talented business owners that are chefs or they’re curating their store, but they never work with the designer because everything was very fight or flight.
So the moment they see it all come together. They’re enamored by it, but then they’re also inspired to do their own work too. They’re inspired to like, oh wow, like, I never thought changing the color temperature of this space made such a different experience from a customer standpoint.
Or made a difference because I’m here every day. Doesn’t have to be bare bones all the time. It can be designed in a very intentional way that is contextual to the community, does make sense with who is running it, who is going there. I worked with businesses where we’ve like done one element and then they kind of ran with it.
We started with like maybe designing some merchandise that they can sell and then it turns into they made something else. Then they started plating their food a little differently. Then they maybe changed the sign. Maybe they, then they hire a designer to do their branding. It’s such a snowball effect that like they just keep on getting more and more excited.
And it’s almost like they kind of rediscovered why they started this business. Besides for the fact that they need to sustain their like livelihood. They’re reminding me of like, Oh my God, I started this business because the food I make reminds me of my childhood, or it reminds me of the place that I had to flee, or there’s this one shop that I work with, which is called Ting’s Gift Shop, and the work that we’ve done with them has been very gradual, but the work we do with them reminds them why the store is important to them, so the store was curated and sourced from their late mother, so she just passed away, And it’s the daughters that are maintaining it now, but they didn’t really understand how her mom curated and sourced a lot of the objects.
But then I come in and I was like, wow, these things are beautiful. It’s just how you kind of display them makes a huge difference. How you talk about them is very different. So as I’m getting excited about the pieces, they’re getting excited. They’re doing more research. They’re jumping forward and being like, Oh, what else can we do now?
How can we, how can we tap into the Welcome to Chinatown network? How can we do as much change as we can within our two people running the store? So I think to kind of, you know, a very lengthy way of saying this is that the impact of to put your energy back in community goes so much farther, even though on paper you’re given maybe less time, maybe the impact quite literally is smaller, like it’s not as big of a project, not big of a budget, and there’s less people maybe seeing it, but the intention of it. is so much bigger. The how much it feeds your soul and your drive to continue creating is so much more important.
I’m pretty sure everyone is feeling this in some way or the other is that you know as we’re at least North America. is shifting from back to work and office. People are really considering and thinking about what does it mean to be back in the office? What is office culture? Why am I even doing this? I feel very lucky that I don’t have to question that all the time.
Sure, there’s some days I’m kind of like, I don’t want to be in the office because I don’t want to see anyone because I’m tapped out. But it’s not because of like the work I’m doing I don’t believe in. It’s just because I’m personally very socially drained. When it comes down to it, I still enjoy the outcome that I do, even though there’s some tasks that I maybe don’t like.
Steven Wakabayashi: Wow, I think you touched on so many things, but my big takeaway is really the work that you and the folks with you are really touching at is the core of creativity itself, right? Where oftentimes, the glamorous, all these things, it seems like it’s creativity with all the privilege, whereas…
Sometimes, constraints and designing around constraints, elevating around constraints, I think is really the ethos of creativity, but also the aspect that creativity, everyone deserves creativity in their lives, right? And that we shouldn’t be so guarded, especially as a community, as practitioners. And when we raise the bottom line and the creativity of it, we improve it for everyone.
And I think what you’re doing, and you’re even seeing it, right? Where it’s like you insert just a little bit, right? Plant those seeds. And all of a sudden it begins to blossom and guaranteed it’s not just ending with the people you’re working with, right? It’s probably with their families, their colleagues, adjacent businesses that they’re working in.
And so I think what I will, you know, say is I think the impact goes actually maybe potentially far beyond you’re aware of, whereas the other one is immediate. I can see the immediate impact, right? But we’re tilling the soil, planting the seeds. And these seeds could be for even generations to come, right?
Harry Trinh: Yes. To kind of note on that, I’ve definitely had some comments where I think before, like a lot of these older businesses that have kids and stuff, they’re all the businesses with our parents, or maybe like they have nieces and nephews. It’s sad. Before, they would never consider, having their kids, be a designer.
They’re like, what is the point of design? What is the point of, you know, essentially drawing or making objects? And then after working with them, they recognize, and we have, we always have this really heartwarming kind of discussion. They’re like, I literally didn’t know there was someone that… can basically read someone’s mind, collaborate with them, and then make something beautiful out of that.
I’m like, yeah, I know my family, we’re very much like all black sheep all together, so we all did something weird and crazy. So they were very supportive of me being a designer, despite all the pressures they’ve given me and like a lot of these parameters, but it’s because they had examples, like they saw other people that were doing creative things that were off the beaten path, where I think like a lot of Chinatown communities and families, they just want to ensure the next generations lived experience, it’s much more comfortable.
It’s less about surviving and more about thriving. The most direct path to that is, you know, taking a more traditional job that is maybe being a banker or a lawyer or a doctor And not saying those jobs don’t have merits, there are people I know that are in those jobs that love them, but they choose those intentionally.
Where there are folks that are kind of like shepherded into those spaces that don’t necessarily love it, and then they start questioning why don’t I like this? I see you doing your thing, you love it, you found a space that… You are an adult living in New York City, steening a life, but also feeling very fulfilled from your day job.
I think that’s like kind of the, one of the takeaways I get a lot is that after a while, all these, I love it when I go to Chinatown, I kind of stop by my usual spots and we have a conversation. And they tell me after seeing you doing this design work, I’m like much more open to it for the next generation to do it because now I see the value in it.
Also, I see how fulfilling it is for you and ultimately they want the next generation to have that experience is to not just work for a paycheck, but work to have meaning to have feeling to. allow them to explore themselves a little bit more because they were not given that opportunity.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah, that resonates a lot with me specifically.
I battled a lot of internal family struggles with trying to figure out a career and it’s just so fascinating just to see even like my trajectory where I started programming in my own little bubble all through middle school, high school, was trying to be a doctor in college.
It was interesting. It was my college medical school advisor that asked me to take a gap year and try something different. And I think she had an inclination of, she’s like, how do I say this is not for you without saying it’s not for you, right?
Take a gap year. It’s popular. Yeah, right?
And I was like freelancing and I just fell in love with like it as a career, but I never.
The irony is just never seeing it has a potential for me because I wasn’t surrounded by your work that you’re doing now, or just people who are doing it as a career or sharing the work in a way that allows people to see themselves in it. And I just, I think it’s just so important why, you know, zooming out.
The importance of sharing even the creativity or the beauty of creativity with our communities is not just for career pathway and all this, but even changing the potential of lives all around us.
Harry Trinh: Yeah.
Steven Wakabayashi: You know?
Harry Trinh: The more that people are exposed to different pathways, the more intentional they can be with. I never thought I would find this person in my life, but I know someone that loves accounting, they love numbers, they love pushing those numbers, making little charts, I don’t know how to do that, but I love the fact that she found that for herself, and she also was a volunteer for Welcome to Chinatown, so she used that superpower to give back to the community, but she was also a teacher listening to herself. That is so important. I think we underestimate and don’t value enough our inner monologue and just that feeling of oh, I don’t think I should do this. But this seems weird, but on paper sounds like the safest. Every single time I had to do a big life change, it It was like a gut feeling.
This is right. Like, yes, I have enough savings. I have some backup plans, but if I don’t try this now, I will regret it and I don’t know what’s gonna come out of it.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah, absolutely. And what’s allowed me to also be more compassionate with even like looking back, and some people are like, Steven, don’t you carry bitterness because you just didn’t get to go straight into it, and it’s so much more complex than that where, I read a ton into API history and also started learning about how to immigrate to the United States at one point, you had to have a certain career, right, and that’s why there’s all these layers of complexity where our communities in trying to survive, like you mentioned, like in creating Chinatown, but even to be a Chinatown or to be a part of a Chinatown here in America, You had to survive through generations of this country quite literally pushing you out, forcibly removing communities, taking away homes, taking away assets, taking away rights, and then coming back to, are you a specialized role?
Do you have a purpose to be here, right? lawyer, doctor, engineer, right? And I think as a part of this process and why I think especially for even people who like a second generation or first generation naturalized citizens here in the United States have a really important part to now start taking on more risks, right?
That our generations, our predecessors couldn’t. And starting to take on some of these things so that we can transform our communities inside out.
Harry Trinh: Yeah, no, it’s so much going, I think, historically going against any immigrant community that comes to another Western country is exactly what you’re saying.
There’s so much on a more geopolitics level, so much pushing against this listening of oneself. So, you know, thinking about, there’s this huge, discrepancy between the income or the, how much money the API community has. On paper we’re like, very high in a percentile, but like, if you really look at it from different groups, from different parts of Asia, there’s a huge discrepancy from folks from, South Asia, folks from Southeast Asia.
East Asia, what we think Asia is. So like there’s so much nuance in there. And even like within my friend community, some folks, their parents came here because like they’re given the opportunity because they were a doctor or they’re a chemist or like my family came out of a war that America contributed to.
So like that’s our, our way into the US. But because of that, historically, the Southeast Asian community is a lower income because it’s folks of a war torn country. And it causes a lot of tension between folks that are maybe like, more higher income, but still within the API community. So there’s a lot of, a lot of things going on, a lot of things moving around and then kind of also trickles into Chinatowns too.
There’s many generations of immigration coming in, people are coming in from different perspectives and different. Let’s see, like, global tragedies are just reasons why to immigrate, but, you know, it goes back to, as a society of an API community, we have to foster our communities a lot more.
We have to funnel energy back in there. So hopefully for the next generation that grew up there, they can have a more introspective, more meditative chance in life to make themselves happier . And at the same time, if there is a new wave of Immigration from this horrible tragedy is that they still have a space to come to, so they still have a neighborhood or a community that has these built in resources that allows them to feel at home, even though they’re, thousands of miles away from where they started.
Steven Wakabayashi: Absolutely, yeah. I just want to, I just want to plus one up, just… The more we learn about our community’s history, the better we can be, and especially here specifically in the United States, the API community has the biggest wealth disparity out of all the different ethnicities, and oftentimes we look at media and we see the glamorized version of Asian identities, right?
Thinking about the biggest blockbuster was Crazy Rich Asians, right? That really paved the way, but at the same time, kind of… Put a single narrative in front of people as Asians with a lot of privilege, and while that exists, there is also a high, population of Asian folks here in the United States facing homelessness.
Yes. And in record numbers, it’s actually one of the biggest percentages, right? Becoming homeless here in the United States, which I think is so important. I want to make some time for your story next, just into creativity, into your career. And you mentioned a little bit about your family being a collection of little black sheep and I’m just curious, what, was your journey into creativity?
Is this something that started when you were really young? Is there something that inspired you to start designing, being creative?
Harry Trinh: Sure, I mean, I think it goes back definitely at least one or two generations before me. So to give you a little background, my father now retired, used to own an audio repair shop in our hometown of Richmond, Virginia.
So he dealt with a lot of creatives. He dealt with musicians, DJs, and people that own nightclubs. It was really cool. And looking back at it now, I’m like, man, I wish I learned a little bit more of that. And at home, he was a very enthusiastic gardener. Like we would spend Weekends, digging giant holes in the ground to put a koi pond, plant a weeping willow.
We would do all these crazy things, I learned a lot of my Cantonese through him, because we would go to, Home Depot or Lowe’s to, buy plants and wood and nails. I learned a lot of the working, like, my working vocabulary through that, so I know how to explain, like, how to build a wall, and how to, like, plant, how to talk about how much sunshine it needs, so I know all that.
That was my father, very creative. Now he does. As a hobby, he bakes a lot now, makes like these beautiful cakes, and he also makes these beautiful like plaques that have Chinese calligraphy on them. He just does a bunch of stuff, which all stems from him wanting to be like kind of a renaissance man.
He’s very much a Gemini. He just loves everything. And my mother, she, her extended family .. Is in Los Angeles. She dropped out of school in 8th grade, so she immigrated here from the Vietnam War, along with my father, they were not together yet, so she actually became kind of like a, like a very introspective, philosophical person, because, she decided to not go to school anymore, because there was too much bullying, there was too much racism going on, and she recognized that her mother needed help, because she was a seamstress, so she was doing that, taking care of the family, so all of her sisters, all her siblings.
But on her free time, she would read a lot. So all the books that she read, it’s nonfiction, it’s all about philosophy, mental health, religious studies, and she’s kind of taking that pretty far. Like I remember growing up, we had books everywhere. We had books in the staircase, books in the living room, in the dining room.
In the hallway, we had all these books she would collect, and she would kind of pick them out, read them, and then she would listen to all this, like, crazy music, like, she would listen to, one day it would be, like, French pop, next day will be Euro Trance dance music from 2000s, like, all this craziness.
And then all of her and her side of the family, they’re very creative, my mom always tells me this beautiful story where I asked her once, I’m like, hey, Why do we love decorating? Like I asked her once, like, I’m like, I love decorating. And this is when I was like in middle school. We would decorate a change of our house for the seasons and holidays.
That’s how we bonded because we lived in Richmond, Virginia. We had nothing else to do except for push around furniture. And she told me it was that because her mom, my grandmother, also loved decorating. She like very much cared about the appearance of her home and it representing her principles and her values.
So that really had this crazy ripple effect because like now like One of her sisters, she studied as a fashion designer. And then one of her sister’s daughters, my cousin, who I’m good friends with, like she’s, she’s very high up in, in the design creative world in streetwear. And, you know, we all talk about these like, All three of us always talk about all this creative juices always flowing around because we always just hang out and just be like I even remembered like when I would used to stay with them in California every summer we would do craft projects together we would like buy polymer clay make these little miniatures bake them in the oven and keep them and like we would also go to Chinatown and buy all these trinkets and Kind of imagine how it would look in our home.
It was so fun. So I think, just instinctually, my family, especially my mom’s family, were able to listen to their, like, kind of going back to the original part. They were listening to what they’re good at. They were listening to, to really spoke to them. And those people Ended up really paving my path because then they recognized oh wow, you’re really creative.
You love building things, you love painting, you love sewing, you love just using your hands a lot. So they really fostered that with me. So really, I was always around creativity, even though it wasn’t very formalized. And I think the crazy, okay, so, oh, this is where my childhood gets really cheesy and very American all of a sudden.
So because I was in Los Angeles for many, many, many summers, living in my grandmother’s house. One of my dear cousins at the time, she worked at Disney. She would take us to Disneyland every year. And, and remember this, I also grew up in LA Chinatown, which is very theatrical, very beautiful. For all you listeners, I highly recommend you just Googling LA Chinatown and how fanciful and problematic, but so beautiful it is.
There was one year I remember, very distinctively, we went to Disneyland. I was always enthralled to go in there because it was so immersive, remember, back in 2005 where everyone didn’t have a smartphone, you’re just so immersed in whatever was happening around you. And I stood where the castle was, where Main Street was.
Everything was just so impeccably designed and so particular. I just realized, I’m like, wait, someone made this. There were teams of people that made this space. And from there, I was like, I have to do this. This is my calling. This is me in middle school. Just kind of like, I need to do this.
I don’t know what this is. But I need to be someone that gets to create these experiences, these spaces, these emotions, because… This is the reason why I feel like I was kind of placed here because everyone, you know, lives through built environments and why can’t I be that person or, you know, contributing to that built environment, making everyone else, else’s life kind of like more beautiful.
So yeah, that’s like my very American story of going to Disneyland and just being so, so enamored by it. Ever since that, like, I became more and more critical of it. I think that, I still go there. I, I drag my husband there, even though he deeply dislikes it. I tell him, I was like, you’ll enjoy it one day.
But I tell him that, you know, I go there not to be a big fan, but I go in there as like, I go in a perspective as this is a big immersive art installation. We can learn from this. Like, wow. The level of detail from What smells you put in there? What sound you put in there? How do you, how are you merchandising?
How are you putting, how are you putting things to make you want to buy something? That’s so smart. But at the same time, you know, like if you look more and more into that space, it’s all pulled from art history. It’s all pulled from these like very basic principles of, color theory, scale, just like painting techniques, like all these things are very, very rudimentary, very primary things you learn as a designer and artist, and then it just magnifies by a million because it’s in the built environment.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes. I think it takes a bit of a creative eye to have that appreciation, right, in Disneyland and not to be enamored by oh, there’s so many things, but even to your point, it’s like, they’ve really thought through everything from even like, how the whole park is laid out, how the streets are laid out, even The design of flow of traffic and where that leads and the ebb and flow, right, of emotional rollercoaster.
Yes. It’s quite fascinating. What’s, like, uh, interesting insight? Like, a little bit of a nugget that, you’re like, oh, yeah, some listeners might not know.
Harry Trinh: Oh, my God. I will. I will warn you. I have a million of nuggets. One that is really fun is that when you go into Disneyland in California is that the buildings are built not to one to one scale.
So it’s not big. It’s actually very small. And it’s meant to kind of create this almost hugging effect and also because the buildings are small. It makes the building at the very end, the castle, look bigger. It’s called forced perspective. So, it’s actually a very tiny building. It’s not very tall. Like, honestly, being in New York City, you’re pretty much living higher than all the buildings in Disneyland.
But, it feels very grand because They’re forcing your perspective so that maybe the, so the buildings in Main Street, the first level that you’re at is basically human scale, that one to one, because you’re, you have to functionally be in that space. But the second level, the third level, they get progressively smaller and smaller.
So it feels like, you know, everything’s kind of shrunk down a little bit. Because it’s going smaller, the castle in the very, very end of the street looks very big too. Especially when you just walk in, you’re like, wow, this feels really giant. But really, it’s only about 70 feet tall. It’s not very big. Also, another fun fact is that my personal favorite attraction is the Haunted Mansion because I was born in October, so I love anything spooky.
It’s that the building facade also has two stories, too. And to create artificial shadows, they use different shades of white to kind of push kind of like the shadows more. So, a place that will potentially already have shadows, they chose A darker shade to make it look even more menacing, a little bit more eerie, a little bit darker.
So even on a very bright sunny day in Southern California, you’ll see these shadows kind of like lurking in the corners of the building. So next time you look at there, there’s certain areas that are, it’s very, very subtle. You’re at this point, you’re going to be taking a Pantone book and like looking at it.
There are multiple shades of tan and green and gray just to kind of make that very moody feeling. And, you know, those are the little things that make me so excited about, like, anything in design is that, like, these little subtle things that are very intentional from the designer’s perspective.
Steven Wakabayashi: I love that.
It’s a, it’s a play on perspective that almost changes the senses that we have, right? Where it’s yeah, the senses we have hasn’t changed, but it, we use different visual indicators to have. Well, I was at a restaurant yesterday where it was trying to use fluorescent purple lighting to change the way the food was presented.
And we were like, cheese looks like neon fluorescent warm,
but it was just such a fascinating conversation starter where we started talking about colors, textures. And it’s just so funny. The only difference was the light bulb was different, you know?
Harry Trinh: Yeah, , I was working with this artist, this, Taiwanese American artist. She does paintings that are inspired by night markets in Asia.
And she was doing this installation where, basically, let’s say, the painting itself had a neon sign. She just… Basically extended the painting through lighting. So she was like, there’s a pink neon sign, I put up pink neon lights kind of in a direction of where the, the lighting would go. And it was, it was so simple, but so, how do I even say it?
It was so impactful and so convincing. If you were, you know, two or three glasses in, like wine glasses in, you’re like fully convinced that you’re in this night market.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah, yeah, for sure. It’s just sometimes in awe of what people can see.
Harry Trinh: Yeah.
Steven Wakabayashi: I’m curious, for you, you’ve talked a lot about your Asian background, your Asian experiences coming to life.
I’m just also curious, your queer side, your queer identity, has that also played a role in your creativity, your journey, the work that you do today?
Harry Trinh: Yeah, I think my queerness in my life actually was very liberating, so I think I knew, I knew that I was very different from the very start of my childhood. And didn’t really put a word to it until maybe like middle school and then high school was really embracing it and really facing the demons of it too.
But what I recognized was that being queer also allows you to break out of a lot of kind of preconceived notions of what an adult needs to be, what your future needs to be, what your life needs to be. I think that really liberated me to be a designer, being creative, because there was no expectation of me to be anything else except weird, and that’s how my dad said it, he just thought I was weird.
He did not even pick up the fact that I was like, this very gay child like, prancing around with all these frilly clothes I was a very gay kid and like, it’s very funny looking back at it. And my parents just thought I was weird, which was funny. But yeah, going back to the point was that I took it from a perspective of just like, and even to this day, I think queer folks have this really special ability or privilege to put in layman’s terms that we can pick and choose what we want to keep within our social structure and what things we can get rid of that is toxic, doesn’t work with our principles, our morals. It’s very liberating. And I think also later on in life, I think when I was younger, like a lot of my artwork was not about being queer.
It was about kind of investigating spaces, building things, and then investigating Asian American spaces. So I never really thought about my queerness. In my artwork, and it really started coming out or being more of an influence as I recognized that there was a need to carve out queer Asian American spaces.
So all of a sudden, I was given the opportunity to create a pride campaign for my nonprofit I’m part of. And all of a sudden, we were able to take these very traditional symbols that are associated with heteronormative weddings and gender norms and really flip it, really contextualize it, recontextualize it to something that makes sense for a queer community, but also benefits the general community itself.
If things are less gendered or less in a box, like it’s way, it’s much more freeing. And also people can kind of like reimagine these very old, you know, these almost a little bit disconnected objects or symbols, are designs, and recontextualize them into their everyday life, because it becomes contemporary, because you’re viewing it from a contemporary lens.
Steven Wakabayashi: I love that. Queerness as a liberatory power to transform everything around us, including ourselves. Yes. Yeah. And as we’re starting to come to the end, of our podcast, I wanted to ask you, what is something that you want our listeners to learn more or take away about Chinatowns?
Harry Trinh: Sure, I think for at least North America, Chinatowns are seen in these very old, almost museum like spaces that maybe are, depending on what level, just no kind of true.
But, I think there is a place. Or people to always carve out a new space for themselves is that they’re able to recontextualize what Asian American or Asian diaspora means for them. They can recontextualize maybe their growing up experience in Chinatown. I think a really great example of that is Potluck Club in Manhattan, Chinatown.
It’s founded by second gen Chinatown American kids that all grew up, did their own path and came back and now they have this beautiful restaurant. It’s just a recontextualization of Cantonese American cuisine through the perspective of, you know, a native New Yorker, a native Chinatown kid. I think people should feel inspired to maybe if they can take a leap into listening to if they want to put something out in the world. Like, you know, start small. It can be maybe just like drawing an idea down like, oh, I have this idea for this object or this story or this sound or this music. How do you, how can you do that? So for Chinatown, I think that there’s always space for that.
There’s always space for you to first be intentional and thoughtful about what you’re contributing to the community, but also know that Your contribution is building Chinatown for the next generation. From a more actual item, I think that depending on where you’re listening from, try your best to support that community.
It can be something as simple as getting your friends together to go to lunch together or dinner together. Or it can be as, you know, a little bit high commitment of like contributing to a community center there or a non profit there. I think overall that Chinatowns and similar neighborhoods like any ethnic enclave neighborhood needs your support.
And it only is going to survive because there’s people still wanting to contribute to it. It cannot become, to kind of pull it back together, it cannot become a Disneyland-fied version of that space. Get people to still live there. It’s a reality for a lot of people. Citizens, people, small business owners.
People that even travel right through it, it’s still, it’s still a lived reality for them. So yeah, like, I think my two takeaways is always to don’t be afraid to try to contribute, which can mean maybe something more self fulfilling. Maybe you toy around with an idea of a business, or idea of an object, or idea of contributing maybe a piece of music that can go back into Chinatown.
Or it could be something a little bit more passive, a little bit more casual, where it’s just like, oh, let’s like, patron Chinatown a little bit more, support the organizations that are doing the work that keeps the Chinatown running. And sustaining for the next generation.
Steven Wakabayashi: That is beautiful.
And speaking of sustaining for generations or even sustaining for yourself, is there anything that’s inspiring you lately? Bring you joy?
Harry Trinh: Oh, me? I don’t. Maybe I see so many things every day, it’s kind of a little exciting for me, but also at the same time, for your, listeners, I’m also planning my own wedding, which is also very stressful at the same time.
What has been bringing a lot of joy to me is actually taking time to be very intentional about researching what a Chinese wedding is. And kind of going back to my queerness is that being intentional, what we’re stripping away that we felt very misogynistic, very gendered, and keeping and celebrating the parts that we feel that are very unique to our culture.
We are doing a tea ceremony, which we’re very excited about, and typically, Chinese weddings are made with the idea of the bride to be becomes part of the husband’s family, there’s like this huge separation, and she cannot see her side of the family for that much time anymore. We don’t have that issue because we are both men.
And also, we don’t live in an era that we need to give away people. We’re listening to our hearts and listening to our community around us. So being able to really take something very concrete, which is, a traditional tea ceremony, and even the idea of a wedding, and being able to strip away all the things we don’t want, and possibly challenge a lot of our families Idea of what a wedding is and their expectation of us too, like, we, they know that it’s going to be a beautiful presentation because I work in design. But also, I want them to kind of have this conversation and I will talk with them, I still talk to them about it, about like, why are we omitting certain parts and celebrating other parts?
And how can we, be more intentional and also a little bit more healthy about these traditions. I guess one last thing is that a lot of queer folks, and I see it a lot, unfortunately like to reject a lot of their kind of cultural heritage because it’s unfortunately connected to a lot of homophobia because someone that’s, you know, that’s a little more homophobic will always kind of pull back to, well, this is not traditional.
This is not how it was. And I think that’s a horrible way to ostracize someone, because when it comes down to it, regardless of what creed or race or identity you are, you’re always going wanting to kind of reflect back on who you are and that’s your lived experience. So being able to take that back of like what tradition is, I think that’s been really inspiring.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yeah, a few points coming up for me, but the first thing I’ll start with what resonated immediately in my gut was the rejection of our culture and through the lens of homophobia and trying to escape it. And personally for a long time I was trying to erase a big part of my Asian identity because I associated a lot of traditionality to it, a lot of gender norms and all these things.
But as I learned more about history, having more compassion for our communities. We see that one, there is no ethnicity that is or isn’t homophobic. I think it really is largely dependent on communities, subsets within it. And there are also Asian people who are very prideful, welcoming, inclusive, and I think sometimes What deep work that I had to do personally was really coming to terms with the colonialization aspect of it, right?
Where we want to reject and create these reasons of holding xenophobic or rationalizations of denigrating our own communities, maybe through thinking it’s through this acceptance of it. But in reality, it’s… It’s a lot more complex than we think and culture is what we get to define of it, right? And I love, love, love, love this exercise of the wedding.
What also came to mind was you mentioned it’s stripping away what you don’t want, but also it is holding more intentionality of the stuff that you do want and you want to honor. Going to the essence of it, once you strip away of all these almost like performative things, right, like things you’re doing because this is the way you have to look and you have to invite XYZ and where are these ABCDE, I think when you get rid of all these things on the external, outside, you end up with what is at the essence, what is at the core, and what maybe Being Asian or a relationship, a ceremony really truly means at the core for you, right?
Harry Trinh: Yeah, I’m very curious of your listeners because I think, you know, me and Steven, we live in New York City. So we see this very specific perspective of queer life, especially in the context of a very white centric dominant culture. And there is a world where I still have friends that are still deeply battling this.
Oh, like, I don’t want to speak my native or my family’s language. I don’t want to eat that food. I don’t want to associate more friends with that because of this hurt that he had that was connected from that, from that community. And then there’s other spectrum where there’s folks that are beautifully celebrating the intersexuality of culture, identity, sexuality. Like, there’s another group called, I’m pretty sure you know, Steven Bubble_T. Oh my god, everyone come to New York anytime soon, definitely look them up. They throw these beautiful, very intentional, queer, Asian spaces that are Yes, they’re dance parties, but I think they’re holding space for us and people come represented like people were coming dressing in traditional garments, but they remix it on how intentional they feel about it. I have a really good friend, her name’s Ji Hye, she’s a queer Korean Asian entrepreneur, and she was telling me a lot about traditional Korean dress hanbok, it’s very feminine, and she felt very uncomfortable in it, until she happened to stumble upon a men’s hanbok, which is a little bit more Androgynous?
And she wore it and she was like, wait, this feels right. And she’s so prideful of like, of her cultural background, her queerness, her spirit. And oh my gosh, she’s so refreshing. That was like one of the moments that really clicked to me that like, you know, this is how you are intentional about your identity, how you represent yourself.
And there’s so many, unfortunately, there’s so many, forces out there that kind of like, stop a lot of people from recognizing that as, we can go on and on about this, but like, queerness is considered a Western idea in Asia because it’s brought in, because it’s currently like that. But homophobia is actually something that Christian missionaries brought to Asia. Before that, we had homosexuality that didn’t have a word for it. It was not a term. It just was there. You know, it’s just there. And people were just part of society. And then all of a sudden, this very, Christian perspective came and wanted to formalize things because they felt it was barbaric, blah, blah, blah.
And it all comes full circle, which is, I think, it’s very, it’s very, in a very toxic full circle because now, all of a sudden, being queer inclusive is seen as a Western product now, but if you look way, way, way back, being homophobic was a Western product. Yeah, it just frustrates me. But anyways, I think there’s, there’s so many people that are examples within your community, within your friend groups that are paving the path to how to fully embrace yourself and being intentional because you can be intentional, you can strip away from what you want and what you don’t want and be more introspective about every piece of your life because we are kind of, in concept, you know, we can break away from heteronormative everything, that’s the best part. And it just, it’s on us as individuals and as a community how much we can break out of that.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes. And I felt like you gave a sigh as you were going through the history that I was just like, Oh, I was like, I get it. Yes. For listeners, we’re just on a video also here and I was just like snapping and I was just like, yes. The fact is like queerness has existed since the Aon mm-hmm of time and the fact that it is a westernized concept erases queerness and the existence of queer people all around the world, everywhere, whereas they maybe have not had a term for it previously. And queerness as a phenomenon doesn’t exist only in westernized concepts, but it has has existed for generations and generations for God knows how long.
And the random fact that I will put down is it’s just Roman Catholicism, right? And the Greek myth, like Greek communities, and when Rome took over Greek, And how Greek had normalized homosexuality as a part of a culture, right? And they had, if you, for listeners, if you go in a deep rabbit hole, where you learn that they paired men up with each other to have relationships so they could fight at war, quote unquote, better, right?
There’s this aspect where, like, you know, they would have relationships with other women, femme folks, and it was totally normal to have interrelationship with both as a part of just normal society. And when Rome finally took it over and institutionalized heteronormative culture, and then as they started colonizing the rest of the world, just like you’re saying, placing the concept that there is a right or wrong, and if we look into indigenous culture, and even in Indian culture, where there is this aspect of this third gender, I think third is not even a way to describe it, it’s like this non aspect of this binary and it was so normalized as a part of just existence and being, and this has been around for generations within their community.
I think we, when we start to think the aspect of acceptance, the aspect of homophobia, and its ties to Western, just world, I think. Going back to, it’s a lot more complex than we think, and I think in honoring our own queerness, we can make room for the queerness of our own ancestors. Who knows if our ancestors have all been queer too, right?
We’re like, maybe, maybe there’s a lot more queerness than we think, and and I just, I’ll just say, you know, I, I honor your history, I honor your ancestry, I honor your lessons that we’ve bestowed on us today and I also honor the beautiful wedding that you are intentionally creating and I think it is, it’s just so beautiful and my heart’s just singing and I’m just getting goosebumps but I also think it is also a beautiful opportunity for you to give back to your parents in a way that they had least expected.
Harry Trinh: Yes, they’re gonna have lots of questions but they’re also, it’s been very funny, they’ve been also… Very recently, very hands on, but when it comes down to it, I think they’re just happy that we’re taking the next step to really solidify our relationship. And yeah, I’ll keep you posted how they all feel by the end of all of it.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes, please do. Part two, post wedding insights.
Harry Trinh: We’ll bring photos. Yeah.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes. If, people want to follow you, get to know more of your work, how can they find you?
Harry Trinh: Sure. I’m on Instagram, um, Harry, H A R R Y underscore Trinh, T R I N H. I don’t post too much on there to be honest. But very occasionally I’ll post things.
You’ll get little snippets of like, Welcome to Chinatown backstage on my Instagram stories. So, feel free to follow me there. And then, a plug for my non profit. We also have an Instagram called Welcome T O Chinatown. Just periods between the words. If you wanna support us there, we always post about our events.
So if you are in Manhattan, feel free to swing by. We have a lot of very intentional programming that talks about entrepreneurship within the community, Asian identity. And also, the intersectionality of the many communities that are in the neighborhood and also a little bit outside the neighborhood. And also, if you’d like to donate, you can go to our website at welcometochinatown. com slash donate. Um, you can also learn more about the initiatives we’re working on. So I’m very excited to have you, Steven, in our new space, our Innovation Hub. And for all the listeners, if you want to… Support the Innovation Hub. You can also donate that way too, through the website. The space is going to be built to basically house all the workshops, all the programming to really bring Chinatown’s small business owners, entrepreneurs onto a next level. So anything from digitalization, succession planning, marketing, storytelling, and then also the new folks. So like, how do we foster a hospitable environment for new people to come online? You know, we have a handful of new businesses that are a reflection of the values and the wants and the needs of the community, and we need to continue that.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes, and I will definitely vouch where, if you donate, you’re not just impacting this organization, but you’re impacting many, many people, all the businesses of the local Chinatown, and also their families, and their colleagues, and all the people. And that’s the beauty of community work, that’s the beauty of your work, Harry, where it’s not just this once and done beautiful thing, but it really is this perpetual giving back that continues onward and if you enjoyed this conversation you can learn more about us visiting our website at yellowglitterpodcast. com. If you enjoyed this episode in particular, feel free to leave us a rating and review. This is how others discover our show and our episodes and we would love to hear your thoughts.
So leave us a review when you have a chance, and again, Harry, just so much gratitude for your work, coming to chat with us, sharing a bit about your background, your livelihood, your interesting journey, and just really appreciate you and everything you do.
Harry Trinh: Oh, thank you, Steven. I really appreciate you carving so much space for all the queer folks in your podcasts and, you know, outside of this too, so thank you so much for including me.
Steven Wakabayashi: Yes, and for listeners, hope you got a ton out of this episode. I know I did. We’ll walk away with, just a heart full of, thoughts, insights, and Some perspective shifts. And with that, we hope your day can be a bit more mindful and a bit more grateful.
And hopefully you can support Chinatown and API communities around you. And with that, our episode is finished. Thanks, Harry. Thank you, listeners. Thank you. Bye now.