Ophelia Chong, cannabis entrepreneur and artist, talks to Resonate about the importance of telling the truth about cannabis users through images.
In this 3-part series, we talk to three Asian American parents who are leading the cannabis revolution in medicine, art, and entrepreneurship.
Over the past 40 years, the movement to legalize cannabis (also known as marijuana) and the increasing availability of medical cannabis research have created growing acceptance for the psychedelic plant. However, the Asian American community still holds strong anti-drug sentiments. In a poll conducted by the Los Angeles Times in 2016, Asian Americans were the least likely to support cannabis legalization.
This is even more true for the older generations. However, despite the perception that most Asian American parents or elders don’t “get it,” there are a few who have stepped forward to voice their truth about cannabis.
Part II: The Artist, Age 57.
On Ophelia Chong’s Facebook profile, she describes herself as “Small. Yellow. Different.” Her profile picture is a caricature of herself. With one raised eyebrow, a devilish smile, and dark square glasses that take up one-third of her face, she is clearly someone who can’t be tamed.
Although she was surrounded by other Asians who chose more conventional or stable careers, like banking or medicine, Ophelia chose to live the life of an artist — as photographer, creative director for Sundance Film Festival, teacher, and art director at California College of the Arts.
Ophelia’s latest project is Stock Pot Images, a stock photography company that captures the authentic and colorful stories about the people who inhabit the cannabis world. After seeing that most images of marijuana users tend to be recycled stereotypes — ex. images of white men with dreadlocks taking rips from 6-foot bongs, half naked women hot-boxing a car, and other images characterized as “weed porn,” — she realized that due to the prohibition of cannabis, many stories of the cannabis world are invisible. As an artist, her goal is to bring back visual proof of these stories from uncharted territory.
Today, when you search “Asian” on her site, you can see photos of a marijuana nug rested on the belly of a happy Buddha statue, a smoking joint on top of a bowl of fortune cookies, cannabis leaves decorating a pink fish on a plate depicting two men in Red Guard uniforms.
Her favorite photo series is one called, “A Chinese grandmother tends to her cannabis plants.”
“You can find it nowhere else,” she says. “Can you imagine getting an 85 year old Chinese grandmother to sign a model release form?”
Of course, some stories are harder to capture than others, especially in the Asian community. “It’s hard enough to get a 22 year old Asian student with a joint because of the stigma. They’ll say, ‘I smoke and my friends smoke. We all smoke, it’s cool, but I don’t want my parents to know.’
This might be because in Chinese culture, there’s a strong emphasis on obeying the law and respecting the family. Ophelia tells me that in the Tiger Balms theme park in Hong Kong, there’s a ride called the Ten Courts of Hell that houses dioramas of youth getting their hands and heads chopped off for not listening to their parents, or for not doing their homework. Knowing that art mirrors culture, the theme of the park is very telling.
Ophelia decided to take a different approach with her kids. Because she was in the entertainment industry, she was often around people from diverse communities, so she understood that cultivating a culture of openness and acceptance — even for cannabis — was important. She communicated a lot and early on with her children about the plant and the legal consequences surrounding underage possession and consumption of the plant.
Her mission to tell the truth about cannabis through art is not just limited to capturing the lives of other people or communicating to her kids about the psychedelic plant, it’s also about expressing her opinions about cannabis through comedy. She’s recently started reviewing different cannabis products through Facebook Live videos. In her latest video, a review of cannabis cookies, she’s dressed up in a yellow life vest and a large black helmet with a red star on the front, pretending she’s in a spaceship on her way to outer space. After taking a bite of a chocolate chip flavored cookie, she faces the camera with wide eyes and says, “Oh my god, this is so good!” She pauses and chews some more, “I can eat these so it won’t be a Donner’s Party on the way to Venus, man.”
She describes herself as “jook-sing,” a Cantonese word that has traditionally referred to a Chinese person who was born in, or who more strongly identifies with, Western culture. The terms “banana” or “Twinkie” communicate the same sentiment –yellow on the outside, and white on the inside. “Jook-sing” is a bit more nuanced. When used literally, the term describes the middle of a bamboo — although the bamboo rod is continuous, the hollow middle is separated into different partitions by hard horizontal membranes of the plant.
For Ophelia, each partition represents one component of her identity — an Asian, Canadian, artist, mother, cannabis enthusiast and entrepreneur. Each aspect of her identity is unique in and of itself, but must be influenced by the rare medley of all her identities. Everything that Ophelia is, can be seen in everything she has ever produced.
“In Chinese culture, you use the whole animal…you eat everything, except maybe the hooves. It [Stock Pot Images] is similar in that everything I’ve ever done is being utilized, and nothing is wasted. Everything I have learned can be used for whatever career I choose next.”