Valerie Soe

Trying to Get It Right: Why I Make Video Art

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Why do I make art? Mainly I'm tired of all the shit that passes for entertainment on television and in mainstream movies. I'm annoyed that with upwards of fifty channels available on the average cable tv system, there's still nothing to watch. Do we really need all those reruns of The Partridge Family and Speed Racer? As a species we surely must be able to come up with something more thought-provoking than that. With that attitude I've gone about making my own tv, since I can't find anything I like made by the people who supposedly know how.


My mom's family is from Phoenix, AZ (late of Canton), living there since the early 1900s after moving from the ancestral home in China. After so many generations in Arizona they've pretty much settled in and learned to adapt to that peculiar environment. One of the things my aunts are famous for is their cooking--somehow my uncles all managed to marry women who are fabulous cooks, and visiting Phoenix always includes rounds of family dinners, where all manner of cuisine abounds, fromWaldorf Salad to tortillas to Chinese food.

But one of the problems of living in Arizona in the 1950s and 60s and trying to cook Chinese food was the lack of proper Chinese ingredients. My aunts wanted to keep making all of their favorite foods, but the inflexibilities of the supermarket precluded such activities. So instead of giving up and giving in, my aunts adapted. They added to their culinary repetoires, mastering machaca tacos, and ambrosia and Thanksgiving turkey. They also learned to substitute various ingredients for those absent Chinese ones--in one case using Swan's Down cake flour in place of rice flour to make steamed rice noodles. The results were delicious and were a testament to my aunts' ingenuity and perserverence in retaining their culinary heritage.

To me this is a metaphor for my involvement in media production. In some cases I adapt and absorb lessons and techniques from commercial production, since I don't need to reinvent the wheel. In other cases I mix and match what I need to suit my taste, discarding the excess. And in others I make it up as I go along, coming up with whatever combinations and devices fit the concerns I want to explore.


My work deals both explicitly and implicitly with issues found in a soicety in transition from a predominantly white European culture to one whose growing Latino and Asian population affects and influences everything from the food we eat, the music we listen to and the way in which we view the rest of the world.

I primarily utilize an autobiographical, experimental approach to explicate broader social and political concerns such as recial discrimination and bigotry, intimate interpersonal relationships and the ostracization of those falling outside of society's behavioral conventions. I use text, found footage, installation, interactive elements and autobiography to look at these concerns.



(1986, 1.30 min.)
Briefly explores the title phrase, taking a common misperception and turns it on its head. It hopefully provokes the viewer to confront his or her own prejudices and misconceptions about Asian Pacific Americans and the contradictions inherent in those beliefs.

"A cogent, inarguable refutation . . . . draws a fine contrast between the personal and the social . . ." --Video Guide

Scratch Video

(1987, 4 min) Looks closely at the problem of allergies, irritatants and contact dermititus.

"Disturbing and yet also quite funny, the tape probes a personal and bodily alienation . . . " --High Performance

New Year, Parts I & II

(1987, 23 min.)
Uses the Chinese New Year celebration as its backdrop, which was created for a two-channel video installation. Juxtaposing hand-drawn illustrations and found footage, New Year explores the conflicts of a child caught between her Chinese American background and the stereotypes of Asian Americans perpetuated by Hollywood film and television images.

Black Sheep

(1990, 6 min.)
Uses the technique of direct address in short vignettes that which tell the story of my "black sheep" uncle, examining the creation of difference within and without a marginalized community.


with Chan Cheong-Toon (1990, three-channel video installation)
Features footage of Mr. Chan Cheong-Toon, regularly seen at a traffic island at the corner of Broadway and Columbus in San Francisco's North Beach singing furiously in Chinese to whomever cares to listen. Through interviews with Chan as well as with his many observers the piece addresses the projection of individual desire onto a single subject as each interviewee offers his or her interpretation of Chan's intentions. The piece also explodes the myth of the model minority, contradicting the fallacy that Asians are quiet, well-behaved and aligned with social conventions. Also included in the installation are a number of names on the gallery wall of various Asian Americans who in various ways have distinguished themselves, emphasizing the diversity of a community too often stereotyped as one-dimensional.

"This beautifully simple installation . . . raises complex questions about tolerance, personal freedoms and rights." --Los Angeles Times


(1991, 6 min.)
In Destiny, the war at home was the subject of this short, impressionistic response to Operation Desert Storm, examining the jingoism and the silencing of dissent in the United States during the conflict in the Gulf.

Cynsin: An American Princess

(1991, 10 min.)
Follows the career of Chinese American actress/model Cynthia Gouw, tracing her transformation from an outspoken, socially conscious young woman to the Top TV Spokesmodel of the year on television's high-gloss amateur hour, StarSearch. Considering the fact that her prize as the StarSearch queen netted her $100,000, the answer to the old adage "What's a smart girl like you doing in a place like this?" is all too evident to a bright and ambitious, attractive young woman like Cynthia.

"This is a wonderful piece--witty and incisive!" --Ruby Lerner, Executive Director, Atlanta Film and Video Festival

Picturing Oriental Girls: A (Re) Educational Videotape

(1992,12 min.)
Picturing Oriental Girls is fiiled with geisha girls, china dolls and dragon ladies populating a visual compendium of representations of Asian women in American film and television. Juxtaposed with text from mail-order bride catalogs, men's magazines and popular literature, these clips from over 25 films and television programs explicate the orientalism and exoticism prevalant in mass media images of "oriental girls."

"Fast and angry . . . . Soe trashes the two-dimensional China doll/geisha girl cliches . . . " --San Francisco Chronicle

"A serious point, delivered with a light touch." --The Montclarion

"Soe uses found footage of the James Bond ilk for her incisive investigation . . . . a powerful piece . . . " --Mill Valley Film Festival

Heart of the City

(1992, 2-channel site-specific installation)
Heart of the City looked at the significance of food in maintaining cultural heritage. Patrons and vendors at the Heart of the City Farmers' Market were asked to recite their favorite recipe in their native language, with the help of translators speaking Cantonese, Cambodian, Vietnamese, Laotion, Spanish, Tagalog and English. The edited interviews, along with a second, silent video channel playing quotes about food, were then exhibited at the Market.

Mixed Blood

(1992, interactive video installation)
Mixed Blood takes a personal view of interracial relationships in the Asian American community, examining some of the motivations behind cross-cultural intimacy, and the attitudes and reactions from Asians and non-Asians involved. Combining interviews with over 30 concerned individuals, text, and clips from classic miscegenation dramas such as The World of Suzie Wong and Sayonara, this videotape explores the complexities of intimate emotional and sexual choices becoming public and political statements.

"The stories unfolded by the speakers are thought-provoking and require careful thought and a sensitive response." --ReFlex


(1994, participatory performance) Risk=Fear+Need investigated the relationship between individual phobias and the concept of risk-taking. Participants were asked to share their faviorite phobia and categorize it according to an element (earth, air, water, fire). They were then given nametags to wear for the duration of the afternoon on which were written their phobia, creating a group therapy session of sorts in which everyone's fears were named and thus confronted.

Walking The Mountain

(1994, video installation) Walking The Mountain was an ofrenda to my aunt Lula, who died from a nosebleed at age four in Phoenix, AZ. The installation, consisting of sand, cacti, magenta taffeta, video and text, recounted the sad fate of my grandparents' cherished second daughter, born into a climate too arid and dry for her genotype. The piece used cacti hanging on the wall and surrounding the video monitor as a metaphor for human tenacity, and lamented the inability of Lula to adapt successfully to her new homeland. On the righthand wall the legend "STAY HYDRATED" reiterated the first rule of human survival, one which Lula was unable to maintain because of her environment, age and circumstances. This is part of a work-in-progress entitled The House Of Ong, which will examine more deeply the myths and stories of my family in Phoenix.


Valerie Soe's videos are available from the following distributors:

#200---2678 W. Broadway
Vancouver BC V6K2G3
(604) 732-1496

CrossCurrent Media
346 9th St.
San Francisco CA 94103
(415) 552-9550

Women Make Movies
462 Broadway 5th Fl.
New York NY 10013
(212) 925-0606

Video Data Bank
112 S. Michigan Ave
Chicago IL 60603
(312) 541-3550

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Special thanks to David Knupp for helping with graphics on this page.