‘Simple Interactions’ Bridges the Sounds of Hong Kong and SF’s Chinatown at 41 Ross

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Artist Hoi-yu Tsang is creating self-guided tours based on Chinatown residents’ stories. (Kristie Song)

Hidden within one of San Francisco Chinatown’s many narrow alleyways, 41 Ross is a small creative oasis that hosts interactive artist residencies and community programs. From now through Oct. 31, the studio is inviting visitors to tinker with various handcrafted sound devices, listen to ambient sound transported from Hong Kong, and explore self-guided sound tours based on stories submitted by Chinatown residents — all created by current 41 Ross’ resident artists, the Hong Kong-based Andio Lai, Hoi-yu Tsang and soundpocket.

Soundpocket program leaders Mandy Chan and Vanessa Lai have long been fascinated with the ways sound is replicated and transformed across the world. On their walks around the neighborhood, they listened to the rush of cable cars on Powell and Kearny Streets, along with the high voices of hawkers selling produce on Stockton Street — all reminiscent of the sounds of trams and street markets in their native Hong Kong. Turning corners, they could hear the shuffling of mahjong tiles and the chatter of elderly residents echoing from nearby parks. “And usually you cannot see them — you can only hear the sound,” says Lai. “That’s what interests us. It’s actually the same in Hong Kong.”

Soundpocket was formed in 2008 to provide education and resources dedicated to the ways sound can enrich and shape art and culture. In 2012, the organization launched The Library by soundpocket, an online sound database featuring ambient noise collected by Hong Kong residents. The library has since expanded to include an adjacent project titled Sound Scoop, which includes sounds gathered both locally and overseas. By collecting sounds and making them accessible for all, Chan and Lai hope to encourage people to be more present in their daily lives: to take in what is around them sonically and think about how these sounds can bring about a different kind of correspondence and reflection.

View through door to yellow interior with "open studio" taped to glass
The 41 Ross space in San Francisco’s Chinatown. (Kristie Song)

“We wanted people to try to stop for a little while and listen to what sounds you could hear,” says Chan. “Is an airplane flying around? Is a train passing by somewhere in a few blocks? Is there someone playing mahjong or listening to the radio at home? This is how we can observe our community and the people living in it.”

Chan and Lai will present various sounds from Hong Kong and Chinatown at a listening station in 41 Ross. Attendees will also be able to view a corresponding map on the wall as they listen. Keeping in mind the interactiveness of the space, Chan and Lai also hope that attendees will then seek the sounds themselves when they leave the building — or perhaps keep their ears open for new ones.

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Machine artist and fellow 41 Ross resident Andio Lai wanted to create a project that blended history and technology. Just before arriving in San Francisco, he became interested in Chinatown’s Telephone Exchange from the early 1900s, where residents had to have their phone calls manually patched through by operators working on switchboards. When reviewing old photos, he noticed that these operators looked “the same as people playing electronic instruments” like synthesizers. He decided to gather objects and spare parts from local residents to recreate the patching mechanism and other sound devices for attendees to operate and play with.

Strewn across his table are various inexplicable items: a pair of bright pink doll heads, wooden takeout chopsticks, a tin cup, rusted coins and torn- out sketchbook pages with rough approximations of his plans. Full of whimsy and reinvention, Lai’s work is playful but still grounded in community. By building on everyday artifacts donated by local residents, he revisits a past of old technology through a present that has long moved on from those days.

View over shoulder of man working at table, sketches taped to wall
Andio Lai is building sound devices from objects collected from the community. (Kristie Song)

When defining community, artist Hoi-yu Tsang is zooming in microscopically and thinking about how individuals comprise a greater whole. Since the beginning of the residency, Tsang has been wandering around Chinatown, bright pink sticky pad and neon orange pencil in tow, interviewing local residents. “One question that I will ask everyone is how they define themselves,” says Tsang. After asking about favorite spots and daily routines, she soon realized that many people were excited to discuss their stories — to flesh out the details of their lives that they hadn’t been able to before. In a couple of weeks, Tsang had collected over 50 interviews filled with rich histories and anecdotes tied to various places in Chinatown.

She began to sketch her interviewees’ silhouettes on the back wall in 41 Ross, filling their shapes with the stories they had told her. Attendees will be able to draw out slips of paper that have numbers corresponding to the silhouettes and then set out on self-guided tours based on the oral interviews. They’ll be able to see, hear and experience the places that have been important to so many residents living in Chinatown — some of whom have lived there for decades.

As they enter the last week of their residency, the artists feel bittersweet about leaving San Francisco soon. “My brain is still digesting,” Andio laughs, wishing he had a bit more time to engage with the local community. But in their brief stay at 41 Ross, they’ve been able to sonically expand upon questions of identity and home. They’ve noted the vast similarities between Chinatown and Hong Kong: standing at any intersection in either place, you can hear Cantonese being spoken by locals, early 2000s Mandopop songs coming out of video rental stores, and the rustling of plastic bags filling with produce at open markets. Yet, they realize, there is something inimitable about both locations. And though the differences are minute, it only takes stopping to listen to find them.

‘Simple Interactions’ is on view at 41 Ross through Monday, Oct. 31. The artists will be speaking about their work on Saturday, Oct. 29, 3–5 p.m. Details here.