Celeste Chan is a writer and filmmaker schooled by Do-It-Yourself Culture and immigrant parents from Malaysia and the Bronx, NY. She co-directed Queer Rebels, created experimental film programs for OUTsider and MIX NYC, ran Writing Rainbow, and toured with Sister Spit. She serves as a board member for Foglifter Journal.
from the artist
Why do you write? What compels you to write?
So many reasons! I often feel I am trying to go back in time to excavate and heal my family’s history. I am trying to leave traces for others, to process what I could not otherwise process, to scare myself, to make an offering, to connect and be part of a greater conversation.
What upcoming writing projects are you working on?
I’m working on a memoir and a novel. That feels scary to say, so now I must do it. Make it real. Accountability!
Describe your work in five words:
Earnest, experimental, imagistic, QUEER, hybrid, and often documentary.
What are some of your artistic influences/inspirations?
I will say that I love Moonlight (directed by Barry Jenkins and adapted from Tarell Alvin McCraney's semi-autobiographical play In Moonlight Black Boys Look Blue). I love Lynda Barry, always. I need to imprint that comic in my mind - art is “not something that you are good or bad at, it is just something that you do.” The first queer book I ever read was Randal Kenan’s A Visitation of Spirits. It is a gorgeously crafted novel. As a young queer, I latched onto the story of a closeted young Black man who comes to understand himself through Einstein’s theory of relativity. I return to The Gangster We Are All Looking For for its form—fragmentary, impressionistic, nonlinear —and content: the melancholy of migration, filial love, how war embeds itself within a family, bodies of water, and the shape of loss. Seventeen years after that first encounter, lê thị diễm thúy’s words continue to haunt me.
Finding Home Against History (previously published in AWAY literary journal)
Wandering the streets of Shinjuku, I fall into a red-lit doorway. Welcome, guests of Club Rainbow. Why are gay clubs always called “Rainbow,” “Unicorn,” “Kissing Rose,” etc.? Cheesy, but recognizable. I walk down basement stairs. Saunter in, my sunburned face and red mini-dress screaming out, “I’m young and alone! There’s nothing and nobody to stop me!” Step out onto the dance floor, and I’m enmeshed in movement. My body sways, face surrounded by light and texture—from greased-back hair to crayon-colored wigs, gold feathers, and rhinestones. Sweat runs down my lip. Attractive. I see ravers in fishnet dresses and magenta pigtails, Rainbow Bright with furry unicorn, Strawberry Shortcake in stripy tights, faeries in stilettos and stockings, all dancing under disco lights. I’ve stepped into FRUITS, that Tokyo street-style book. Stretching my arms through the crowd, I find a silver wall to lean against. I try talking to the women next to me, but it’s too loud.
My tongue is dumb. I am ABC—American Born Chinese.
Fumbling against the wall, I don’t know the culture(s). And there’s so much subculture! What distinguishes Gothic Lolitas from Sweet Lolitas and Rockabillies from Ravers? Novice is my name. From the subways and streets, maps and hostel sheets, I am learning. Here’s how to find what you need. It’s too hot. I take out my bottle, splash some water on my face.
Splat. My grandfather’s head tilts upside down, as they bring buckets and buckets to hit his face again and again. Wave after wave. He’s sputtering, spitting, suffocating. Screaming water. It comes down his nose, into his eyes, mixing with tears and snot and blood. Gasp. Eyes shot. Drown. A baptism. Covered by cloth. Body strapped down to a wooden board.
He came home a new man.
He failed to salute a lieutenant, or maybe he didn’t do it fast enough, or maybe they didn’t like how he looked. Did it matter? He could never remember things after, got his dates and times all mixed up. My dad, who was 6 at the time, doesn’t know exactly what happened. But we were lucky: he survived. The army interrogated, detained, and killed thousands of others.
Waterboarding can dilute your blood.
I guzzle water, and then grab my backpack to go. Exit Club Rainbow. I stop in Shibuya 21 and buy sparkly silver and blue knee socks; nothing else fits my chubby, mixed-race frame. Barely out of my teens, I am a misfit Asian American queer girl, drinking beer out of vending machines and hanging out on Tokyo streets. Manic panic blue mingles with sweat, drips down my neck. It is August. No one’s words stick to my back. There is no sexual harassment.
I ride the bullet train to visit my friend in the country, a small village between Kyoto and Osaka. Mountains loom like giants. I flash my point-and-shoot camera, steel posts and sky and mountain whir together into silver, green, and blue streaks. This odd, indeterminate metallic shot. The train stops, and I get out. Everywhere there is green grass, a narrow road of brown dirt, a cluster of people on bicycles and Japanese conversation. Maybe I am the lone English speaker, among this smattering of 20 people.
I find my friend. Ironically, he’s the only straight white guy around.
We hike up a mountainside to attend a rave. Two people greet us by a clearing of junipers. Nestled against these trees, dozens of paintings glow against the dark sky. Inside, there are 300 people dancing to synthetic beats. Tiny glow sticks and candy necklaces pulse to the music. People twirl ribbons, red satin slashing against brown earth. We join the “dance floor,” where modern hippies greet us with hugs. At a rave, everyone is your friend. Techno thumps till 6am. Day-Glo art vibrates against the night while I count the stars. Sagittarius, the archer, or what looks like a centaur, winks back from the sky. We are dancing with modern shamans, clusters of us in fake fur pants and vinyl backpacks, arms akimbo, legs swaying to the beat. Bonded by exhaustion and endorphins. We are a collective mass of movement.
During the Japanese occupation, my family ran and hid in the forests of Malaysia. “If you don’t go to a relocation camp, they kill you.”
What does safety cost?
Japanese occupiers tortured, killed, maimed, raped, and starved many others. There was never enough food to eat, “we all had malnutrition. My mother suffered the worst. Feet swollen, can’t walk, all because of malnutrition,” my dad said. “We were just happy to survive.”
I am the lucky generation.