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  • Ana Clancey

Bao Vo's Journey from Refugee to Artist

Can you share a bit about yourself and how your Asian identity shaped who you are?

Today I am an artist, music producer, and songwriter living my dream of doing creative things every day and having my work be valued. I make it one of my primary goals to collaborate with as many Asian American artists as possible. So much of my life and work is informed by my personal journey as a human, a refugee, and Asian person in America.

I was born in Vietnam, in a town called Dalat. I can only remember as far back as being a new immigrant in Southern California in the mid 80s. My mom was a single parent of five children, and I'm the youngest. We were dirt poor. We had to figure out how the American system worked, learn English, and meet our basic needs. The community who sponsored our immigration helped, and we made new connections in Southern California because it has such a large Vietnamese population, but it was challenging.

I remember seeing my teenage siblings getting their first jobs and learning to speak English. I really respect all of my siblings for going through that process. We used to dumpster dive and collect cardboard and recyclables to redeem for small amounts of money. When I was small, they tossed me into dumpsters so I could fish out whatever we could find that we could use at home, like toys, food, or other household items. All of that really informed the way that I grew up, and I knew that our efforts counted for a lot.

What has your journey as a creative been like?

The first drawing I remember making at age 4 of a bird’s eye view of a neighborhood (1986)

Even as a young child, I discovered that I had a knack for drawing and the visual arts. When I was around 5, I remember I drew this crazy drawing of a bird hovering above a neighborhood in a bird's eye view. The teachers asked how I knew how to draw from a bird’s eye view, and it just came naturally—or supernaturally. My mother recognized and supported me, and even my first grade teacher gave me free art supplies. I stayed after school to do art, and they submitted my work for exhibitions and contests. I ended up being accepted into a program called GATE, Gifted and Talented Education.

As a teenager, I moved to Houston, Texas and went to a regular high school for my first year. There, I met some kids who asked me to join their pop punk band, and I didn’t know anything about music then. That was my first exposure to making music. I picked it up pretty easily, and I didn't realize I would eventually go into music.

One of my inflatable light sculptures from my time at HSPVA in Houston, TX (2000)

While in that band, the drummer attended a magnet high school, called HSPVA, which stands for High School for the Performing and Visual Arts. It was too late to apply, but everyone encouraged me to do so anyway. I ended up submitting my portfolio, and they actually accepted me, which changed my life.

This changed my experience with art because I presented my work during critiques and actually had to verbalize why I was doing stuff. HSPVA introduced me to conceptual art, which blew my mind and definitely changed the way I thought about art. It wasn't purely about the artifact and how skillful the execution was anymore, it was about the idea and the process. To learn that as a teenager made me believe that the world really is my oyster, artistically.

I'm so grateful to have had that experience and to meet all these other kids going through the same process. It was an environment where you just grew because you were encouraged by seeing everyone else grow. That high school was one of the top ten most informative moments in my life.

What was your experience as an Asian American in the creative industry?

During that time as a teenager, my mom told me even though we didn’t have a lot of money, I never had to feel guilty asking about money as part of my creative process and growth as an artist. That's pretty rare coming from an Asian household and a first generation immigrant household. I saw many of my friends feel so much pressure to go into careers that they were not compatible with because of the perceived stability and the obligation to honor your elders.

I never felt that pressure, and how blessed is that? I always knew that I am supposed to create new things that people can engage with, and everyday I know I am doing the right thing. I never have any doubts, which feels so good and I don't think a lot of people have that feeling.

However, I did have a moment after my incredible experience in high school that shattered my ambitions as an artist. I attended art school at the San Francisco Art Institute, and I found it unappealing to see the commercial side of art, hobnobbing with elites and selling fine art. This art was for a rarefied class of people, and that wasn’t who I was.

I got really depressed, and I dropped out of art school because of that. However, the silver lining is when I dropped out of school, I started a music project called Ming & Ping. I just wanted to make some electronic synth-pop inspired by the Vietnamese obsession with a genre known as Italo Disco. The Viet diaspora calls this music “New Wave” for some reason. Our elders were exposed to this genre of music, and that kitschiness was endearing to me. I wanted to make a modern version of that.

Ming & Ping was a viral artist for Asian representation at the time. Can you share more about that project?

One day these electricians came into the cafe where I was working, and their van was parked outside with “Ming and King Electricians” written on it. My coworker joked that that should be my band name. That weekend my imagination went wild thinking, “What if my musical artist persona were twins? What if their Asian identical twins?” That’s when Ming & Ping were born.

An image of Ming & Ping, the fictitious identical twin pop stars I created and performed as for over a decade (2005)

I took some photos of myself and photoshopped together these new wave twins holding hands. I knew this image would be catchy because in American culture during this time, you didn’t see two men holding hands. However, here are these two hot little new wave identical twins holding hands and looking “cool.” I put that on the Internet and gave my friends some of my music to put in their homemade skate videos, and it actually started catching on. That was the beginning of my music career. During my year off of art school, I was also concurrently applying to design school because I wanted my work to impact everyday people, not just elite collectors or museums.

I ended up at the ArtCenter College of Design in Pasadena, CA while working on the Ming & Ping project. I used every class project to create something for Ming & Ping, which generated a lot of content to share, and we began to have a national and global presence. Even though we didn't tour globally, I fully embraced the Internet as a venue and I immediately went into digital design as a career. Ming & Ping were one of the first music acts to use a mobile app to promote our music. We designed a game called Ming & Ping Pong, which is an app where you use the accelerometer to play Pong and the soundtrack was the Ming & Ping music.

The fictional personas of identical twins shielded my work from my own personal identity and allowed me to express myself in a way that was magical and not based in reality. It also gave me an opportunity to create costumes and fantastic sets so our stage show was extremely elaborate visually. For over a decade, I created music while also expressing myself as a visual artist by creating visual art experiences for the twins.

What does community and giving back mean to you?

The Ming & Ping project coming to its evolutionary end and having a design career as a Creative Director in digital marketing brought me to a point where I was not very satisfied with what I was doing. I was using all of my creative capital to further somebody else’s career at a big corporate office. This depleted my creative energies, so I quit everything and reevaluated my values. I realized I do want to be an artist and create music, but I want to share that with the community and work with younger Asian American artists so that they have the resources, knowledge, and support system that I didn't have when I started my music career.

I tried to start a nonprofit and wrote a mission statement about supporting specifically Asian American artists. A few weeks later, Simon Tam from a band called the Slants whom we used to perform with called me up and said their band is retiring but they will replace it with the Slants Foundation. Their mission statement was almost exactly the mission I wrote for my nonprofit, so I decided to abandon my idea and join his. Simon had already gone to the United States Supreme Court in a multi-year civil rights battle, made a lot of connections from that, and worked in the nonprofit space. And so The Slants Foundation was the perfect venue for me to live out those intentions of supporting younger artists from the Asian American community and hopefully inspiring them to incorporate activism into their life and work too.

We've organized events with thousands of people, where we’ve registered hundreds of people to vote. We've given tens of thousands of dollars to creatives, musicians, and writers to produce their work, start their podcast, etc. The Slants Foundation also introduced me to a community of collaborators and friends, and I think that's where I am now. That's the culmination of my journey, and has allowed me to explore who I really am and what my values are in network with other creatives.

Do you have any final words or advice?

I actually never set goals, but I uncover intentions that I’m passionate about. I realized the universe delivers your wins in forms that you never could imagine they would come in. The wonderful place I am in now is a reflection of how my intentions came together in such unexpected forms. I set these intentions years ago then forgot about them. I didn’t write them down, but I fully believed in them every day. If I were to give any advice to people, it'd be to find the most true intentions deep inside you and not worry about how they manifest. Don't set such hard goals as they are actually limiting to how beautiful things eventually take form. Just put a pin on the map and keep moving in that general direction, and embrace the detours and all.

A photo of me accepting the Unsung Heroes award at the Asian Hustle Network’s Uplifted Conference (2023)


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