Interview with Wendy Yao: Owner of Ooga Booga

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Wendy Yao at Ooga Booga, ChinatownYoung Voices is a series of interviews conducted by Occidental College students, assisted by the Keck Grant, for Professor Jan Lin's Urban Sociology course. Each interview highlights an individual who has made an impact in their communities.


Wendy Yao is the creator and shop owner of Ooga Booga, a small boutique in Chinatown, Los Angeles, with rare, original, creative, and unusual punk-inspired art, books, zines, music, and clothes.

What inspired you to start Ooga Booga? How did this all come about?

I opened it around eight years ago. I've always been involved in the arts and music and different creative culture, and I realized I liked this kind of a platform for interacting and sharing stuff with the public. Being someone who has always been directly immersed with artists and musicians, I wanted to have a place to share the stuff that they were making -- friends of mine. I had a desire to continue supporting an independent network of creative people who could sustain and contribute their stuff on their own terms.

Can you describe the personal identity or reputation of your business and art here.

Well, it's somewhat malleable, but I think it's very community-based, but it's not only L.A. I work with artists that are in other parts of the country, and also in other countries as well. It's about people with shared values and aesthetics that can be local and national and international at the same time -- you know, when I was a lot younger I would know people in England somehow, like if they came to L.A. they knew to seek you out because we had a shared sense of values and somehow a shared sense of a network of friends that was pre-Internet.

Okay. To what degree do you feel connected with Chinatown? How is your business identity connected to the closer community as well?

Well I've had my personal links to Chinatown for a long time because I'm Chinese and I grew up in the greater Los Angeles area, so since childhood my parents would bring me out here just to eat food or go shopping or meet people or, you know, meet their friends or something like that.

Were they from China?

They're Chinese from Taiwan mostly... my dad was born in China. When I was in high school we realized that sometimes they used to have punk shows here. There were two legendary punk venues, one of which was upstairs in this building, and the other was in a store over there now called Realm.

When I was in college my sister was involved with starting the first art gallery here, on Chung King Road across the street, which blossomed into a pretty active art gallery scene. So I was always around for that. There is an international connection of feeling a sense of community here, and also the rent at the time being very very inexpensive, I had a lot of space here. So that's a connection to Chinatown, it's just something that unraveled naturally.

So do you think the punk scene is still going strong here?

In Chinatown it's not really a thing anymore, because those places have closed down, and it's representing another era. But punk has been something that's regenerated itself for decades now. Nearby downtown or wherever else, people who are involved in punk do stuff around here, they pass through. But it's not a scene, or a hub of punk here.

To what extent do you think punk or hipster culture influences your work here? Do you think both or either of those specifically have more of an influence?

I align a lot more with punk culture than hipster culture; I'm not exactly sure how to define hipster culture, I think that term is very flexible. I guess for me I'm just a lot more influenced by punk culture -- but also not everything in my store is punk, that's for sure. I don't really know what hipster culture means.

It's trying not to be mainstream but following a specific avenue I guess, it's interesting...

Perhaps, yeah, people who are interested in specific things that are, yes, slightly outside the mainstream or into pure things. But there's also a difference between that and straight up nerd culture, nerding out on things -- I'm really into nerding out on whatever I'm into, finding out as much as I can about stuff. But it doesn't have to be a cool thing. For me, it's definitely rooted more in punk, even if the physical manifestation of that currently doesn't look punk.

Performance at Ooga Booga | Photo by SARAH RA RA used under a Creative Commons license

Alright. So to what degree is social media important in your work, like blogs, or Facebook? Do you think that social media keeps you going in the community?

We've only very recently started doing Facebook and Twitter, and even the blog is somewhat recent, it might be only like two years long.

And has that garnered any interest?

It's been a helpful way for people to keep in touch, especially because I've never really loved doing those email blast announcements, you know. I still do them, but you feel kind of spammy. So nowadays with the social media, what I like is that it gives people a more casual way to opt out or keep it at the distance that they choose. Maybe they don't want it in their email inbox everyday, but we can update our Twitter everyday to say what is the new thing that got in. So in that way I'm giving people a bit more flexibility in terms of how much they want to know about our store and they can check in or opt out.

The other thing about the Internet that's helped is with the fact that we have never really advertised. For eight years. And yet we're a destination spot, where people might come from Australia, or Germany -- it's one of the spots they have to seek out and know about. So in this day and age you don't need a big advertising budget in order to get the word out; the word of mouth spreads a lot more easily through the Internet.

So how did it become this well known, especially around the world?

I really have no idea (laughs). It seems that maybe if you're specializing in something and be focused on supporting a certain niche of culture, people look for that all over the world, and they find the few places that really speak to what they care about.

I guess that makes sense, like what you were saying with people with a shared value. They'll connect, they'll find each other.

Yes, somehow even before the Internet we'd find each other. People from other countries would find us through their friends. And vice versa, if I went to another country or another city, I would have friends in the music industry like "Oh you could stay with this person in their house," even though I'd never met them, because we're all friends and we share the same values.

So could you give your impression of the local cultural scene in Chinatown?

It's always shifting, so it's kind of hard to say. This Chinatown is very sparse compared to a lot of other ones, so that's one element of it. The demographics have changed a lot -- there used to be a lot more Chinese-Americans, and now there are more Vietnamese as well; though in my immediate surrounding it's still a lot of Chinese. But if you go a bit more to the sides it's not only Chinese, you know.

Chinese people have also spread into the San Gabriel Valley. So there's this always-shifting kind of Asian diaspora here. The art scene has kind of waxed and waned in this area over the past decade and a half. It's a weird place where I think people pass through a lot. There are the locals who play their Mah-Jong over there every morning, and there are the transients, characters that pass through; I don't know what they're doing. And then the people that come for food, I don't know the demographics, they're just visiting.

Well then, to what degree to you think your work is affected by racial/ethnic transition in the neighborhood, since it seems to be such a large part of it? Do you think it is connected with it, or sprung from that, or is it affected by it in any way?

The kind of things that my store specializes in are not related to Chinatown as in Chinese culture. But I'm Chinese, so I kind of blend in more easily with the neighbors, like we speak the same language, you know what I mean? (laughs) But my store is hard to describe because it's very isolated -- I mean it's upstairs, so it's a destination, as in you go there to go to it. So it's not so directly a reflection of this demographic, we're not relying on the neighborhood people walking around being a certain type of person.

So do you see people who are in this neighborhood, or is it mostly people who are sort of, like you were saying, coming to a destination zone?

Well, when the older generation comes to look as us, they're not going to be like, "Oh yeah, I'll buy that zine." But we have high school kids that come in after class a lot, or local kids that skateboard in the area and come in and hang out and drink their boba in our store. So as far as locals go, it's usually the younger locals, people who are between 14 and 40.

Installation at Ooga Booga | Photo by lukey dargons used under a Creative Commons license

Do you think your store has had an impact on the local neighborhood or its identity, maybe even the building space you're in or just the public life around here?

I don't know, I mean, it's a small space, it's kind of tucked away, but it's also been here now for about eight years, so it's had its time to kind of shape the identity of this area in a way. This area's been active in all different formats, like nightclubs, hip hop clubs, art shows, punk shows, it seems like it's naturally always has given opportunities to people to sprout up whatever they want to do, so I'm just another part or another flavor of that history. What I do here is unique and not what everyone else does. So I'm just one of the pieces of the puzzle, adding to it but not anything that's insanely different from anything anyone else has done in the history.

So what, if any, are your plans for the future? For the store, do you have any changes in mind?

It's been difficult lately, the space is pretty small and we keep having a lot of trouble finding additional spaces to do projects in. So I'm starting to spread out a little bit more to other parts, maybe downtown. I feel the gravitational pull shifting elsewhere only because I've had a really hard time securing any other spaces to use here. That's one thing that sort of changes it. I've been committed to Chinatown for many years, but at a certain point I realize that it's too hard, you're swimming upstream constantly, trying to make something work here when there's no place to do it. So yeah, I'm looking beyond Chinatown for the first time in that many years, to expand.

Do you think that will have an impact on your business, not only expanding but different kinds of people that might make it to your place, or see it? Especially if it's in a larger area?

I didn't even think about that, but yes possibly. I just thought of it as the people that already have come will still be there, but who knows, maybe more people will come if it's more convenient. It's just harder and harder to do events in Chinatown. Sometimes the main options end up being the bars out here, and I still want to do as many things with all ages, so that's one of the obstacles too.

Okay, so I guess the aesthetic of Los Angeles is that there isn't really a centrality, and in a sense, even small spaces can even reflect the greater Los Angeles.

Yes. I think it's easy to do your own thing here, it's definitely given me the freedom to do my own thing, and that's what I like the most about it.

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