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Wong, Martin (1946-1999)  
 
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In contrast to Canal Street, virtually all of Wong's Chinatown paintings are set in San Francisco. However, Wong does not depict San Francisco's Chinatown as he could have known it. Instead, he depicts the tourist Chinatown of the 1930s and 1940s.

In visualizing this version of Chinatown, Wong drew inspiration from Hollywood films, as well as from stories of family members, especially his beloved Aunt Nora, who had been an emcee at the Lion's Den nightclub in the 1930s. His use of stereotyped images of Chinese culture provoked charges of racism from some commentators. However, Wong brilliantly succeeded in celebrating his multiple identities as queer, Chinese, and American through his fusion of popular and personal motifs.

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Anthony Lee's study of the Forbidden City Theater during the 1930s and 1940s provides insights that can be applied to the interpretation of Wong's Chinatown paintings. As Lee explains, the fusion of American popular culture and Orientalist fantasies at nightclubs in San Francisco's Chinatown club created spaces in which queer Asian-American entertainers, such as the dancer Jack Mei-Ling, could enact transgressive sexual and gender identities, unnoticed by the largely white clientele, who focused almost entirely on issues of race.

Wong's Aunt Nora features prominently in many of Wong's paintings of Chinatown, including in Ms. Chinatown (1992), where she reclines in the foreground in a pose evidently derived from Édouard Manet's famous Olympia (1863). In Grant Avenue, San Francisco (1992), she stands in the left foreground--closely resembling photographs taken of her in the 1930s. Gazing out over her shoulder is a portrait of the artist as a young boy, as he appears in family snapshots of the early 1950s. Thus, Wong freely blends different decades as well as diverse cultural constructs.

In the right foreground of Grant Avenue, a handsome, muscular man embodies the erotic ideals of the adult artist. Turning around to gaze in the direction of the viewer, this figure is an Asian translation of the men on the streets in Wong's paintings of the Lower East Side. Underlining his homoerotic appeal, Wong shows this man eagerly sucking on a Popsicle while holding a cigarette.

The stylized, gilded buildings in the background are based upon structures still located on Grant Avenue, but Wong has rearranged them. The vivid red sky emphasizes that this is a theatrical recreation of the San Francisco street. Wong commented that he intended the bright colors and simplified forms of this and other Chinatown paintings to compensate for the lack of Chinese-American themes in the large-scale murals, commissioned during the 1930s by the WPA for major public buildings throughout the United States.

Wong exuberantly conveys queer male sexual energy in many of the other paintings associated with his Chinatown series. For example, in Incident at Waverly Lane (1992), he shows Kato with an emphatically erect penis, practically bursting through his pants, as he jumps above a stage-set version of a street in San Francisco's Chinatown.

Quoting from his earlier Big Heat, Wong again represents two firemen passionately kissing in Sanja Cake (1991). Here, the two men are displayed within a heart, lined with brick walls, which recall the backgrounds of many of his paintings of the Lower East Side. In turn, the brick heart is placed at the center of the wrapper for the popular Chinese-American product, labeled in English and Chinese. Thus, Wong here creates an intensely erotic image that fuses many cultural referents, all of great personal significance to him.

Like Canal Street, many of Wong's San Francisco Chinatown paintings visualize the artificiality of gender conventions. For instance, In the Studio (1992) inverts the traditional relation of male artist to female model. Poised with brushes in hand before canvases on easels, two women clad in traditional Chinese garments prepare to paint a seated male model, nude except for his shoes and socks.

Final years

In 1994, Wong was diagnosed with AIDS, and, as his health declined the following year, he decided to moved back to San Francisco. Although he continued to paint, the level of his production declined.

In 1998, a comprehensive retrospective exhibition--held at the New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York and at Illinois State University Galleries, Normal--contributed to his growing reputation as a major American artist.

Martin Wong died on August 12, 1999 at the San Francisco home of his mother, Florence Wong Fie, who tenderly cared for him during his final years. To celebrate his life and art, the Museum of the City of New York held a memorial program in his honor on November 1, 1999.

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