Chopsticks Alley founder Trami Cron pictured with dress by Tuan Tran. (Cherri Lakey)
Behind the storefront windows of the former Zanotto’s grocery store in San José sits a new gallery with an elongated, narrow design — not unlike an alley. Its name, then, is fitting: Chopsticks Alley Gallery, which showcases the work of emerging and established Southeast Asian artists.
Inside, the current solo exhibition from Santa Rosa designer Tuan Tran features haute couture designs that fuse Vietnamese culture and recycled materials. Sculptures made from electrical wire echo the traditional weaves of fishing nets. A luminescent dress pays homage to powerful female warriors like the Trung Sisters, who successfully rebelled against the Chinese Han in 40 A.D.
More from San José
In fact, each beautiful and skillfully crafted piece in Mẹ Earth: Past, Present, Future tells a story of Vietnam’s rich heritage and the ingenuity of its people. It’s exactly the type of show that Trami Cron, the gallery’s founder and executive director, wants to see more of in San José.
Born to artistic parents in Saigon toward the end of the Vietnam War, Cron has taken an indirect path to organizing visual art exhibitions. “My mom was always worried about the ‘starving artist’ path for me and encouraged me towards medicine or law,” she explains.
Cron followed the corporate track for a few years, but ultimately left her job in pharmaceutical and medical device sales to pursue her own passions. She’s since become an important advocate for San José’s Southeast Asian residents, a demographic that makes up 18% of the city’s population.
Chopsticks Alley began as an online foodie group, which Cron formed to share Vietnamese recipes and to promote her 2016 book, VietnamEazy: A Novel About Mothers, Daughters and Food. Explaining the name, Cron notes that “alleys in Asia aren’t scary places like here. Alleys are where things happen; they are busy places where people get together over food, gamble, and do other fun stuff.”
As the group grew to 3,500 members, it expanded to include cook-offs, food contests to raise money for unhoused children, and a publication for young people to learn more about their Vietnamese culture.
Then, in 2016, Cron met with the San José Museum of Art, which had received a grant for a Vietnamese community outreach initiative. Cron quickly realized that Southeast Asian artists were underrepresented at the institution, and accepted a position as project coordinator. Since making the jump into visual arts, she has coordinated two exhibitions per year, in partnership with South Bay venues like ArtObject Gallery, Evergreen College and the Triton Museum.
“We just traveled to places, and in many ways it worked out because we brought our work to where the people are,” Cron recalls. “And because of those pop-up exhibits, people learned about us and already knew who we were when we opened this gallery.”
Cron’s curatorial vision for the Chopsticks Alley Gallery is to bring emerging artists together with established elders, bridging the generational gap in the Southeast Asian community. Cron believes that elders’ work is often overlooked or thought of as a hobby, while the younger generation is pushed away from their artistic passions towards careers in engineering and other practical fields.
This de-emphasis on art leads to a lack of representation, Cron explains. “You get to see a lot of voices from other communities, but none from the Southeast Asian perspective — because we’re not allowed to make art,” she points out.
Additionally, Cron believes the generational gap in the Southeast Asian community has left its youth feeling distant from their culture and heritage. “I introduce the elders so that the young people know — ‘Look, we’ve always been here, we’ve always created art’ — and for the older folks to see how amazing the young people are,” she says.
Although the focus at Chopsticks Alley is on Southeast Asian artists, the gallery’s first exhibit, which opened Dec. 2, 2022, Xanh / Are you feeling blue?, included artists from the broader community — something Cron plans to do annually.
As the gallery continues to develop its program, Cron is committed to mentoring young art administrators who can stay with the gallery in leadership roles. She hopes to create a strong foundation for Chopsticks Alley before she seeks out her next passion project: mentoring women professionals in achieving work-life balance and overall well-being.
‘Mẹ Earth: Past, Present, Future’ is on view through May 21, 2023. Details here.
Care about what’s happening in Bay Area arts? Stay informed with one email every other week—right to your inbox.