– 2021 Gary Ware: Interview with Marci Kwon, pt. 6

Chinese Culture

Benjamin Fie, Martin Wong, and Florence Wong Fie at the opening of “Chinatown USA,” P.P.O.W Gallery, New York City, January 5–February 6, 1993. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation and P.P.O.W.

KWON: What was Martin’s interest in Chinese culture?

WARE: Well, certainly Aunt Florence told stories [about her years in China]. She wasn’t as reticent about her life in China as she was about her life with Anthony. She talked about the store [in Guangzhou] where they lived upstairs. And she talked about Jan Ho, her father. She talked with me at length about him as well. She told me her father determined that his daughters [would] get a good education. He said, “That’s all I can give you. I can’t give you money. I can give you a good education in school, where you’ll learn as much as you can.”

The other thing is that she was able to read [Chinese] characters. Even though she couldn’t speak Mandarin, she knew enough to be literate. She could read the characters. No matter what dialect you spoke, you could read the characters. So when Martin would look at these paintings, he would say, “Mom, read that for me. What does it say?” And she read slowly. I would watch her read sometimes, and she would, with her hand, she put her hand on each character one after another, and go one, two, three. And she would slowly read out the characters. He was always very interested in that, watching her. I think that was a big connection. “My mother can read characters.”

Gary and Martin in the Yerba Buena Gardens, San Francisco, November 20, 1997. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: You mentioned Florence would translate characters on Chinese paintings for him. Were they looking at things in a book or would they go to museums?

WARE: All those things. He would ask her to translate things that he saw on scrolls when they would go to the Brundage Collection in Golden Gate Park and the de Young Museum. They had a good Chinese collection. So he would ask her what the script or characters on the scrolls or landscapes were. He also had these books on Chinese history and Chinese art, so he would ask his mother to translate what he saw in the books, too. She was always kind of reluctant. She said, “Oh, my characters, I am not that good.” But she could read them.

When I first started going to museums with him, one of the first places he dragged me to was the Brundage. He wanted to go see the Brundage. “Oh, you gotta go see the Brundage.” Even though he was a quick study and a quick museum visitor. He never liked to spend too much time in a museum. He liked to go, but with him you went to a museum to see specific things. And then you left. You didn’t just wander around in it. You went to see this or that.

KWON: What was he interested in at the Brundage?

WARE: Calligraphy. And landscapes. Part of the thing he liked about landscapes was—you know, the landscapes often have buildings. He liked how the buildings were nestled in the landscapes. And he was really interested in Japanese stuff, too. They had the grass writing and a whole different kind of calligraphy. He also talked his mother into buying a stamp for him, a seal. He got them in Chinatown.

Martin Wong in his apartment in NYC with his painting “Quong Yuen Shing,” 1992. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin Wong in his apartment in NYC with his painting “Quong Yuen Shing,” 1992. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: When would he go to Chinatown?

WARE: He and Aunt Florence would go down and shop in Chinatown. They liked to go through the antique stores and buy groceries. They didn’t actually live there.

When I first met him, when he was eighteen, there wasn’t a Chinatown at Richmond District yet. Clement Street didn’t exist yet. So they would go down to Chinatown, and it was like an excursion. It wasn’t like a home. It was a place you went to do things. I always had the feeling that Florence used to be amused at his attempts to absorb as much Chinese culture as he could. She said, “He can’t speak Cantonese," and "He’s never been to China," and "He’s such an American,” which all first-generation kids are.

KWON: How do you think this inflected his Chinatown paintings?

WARE: Well, his relationship with Chinatown, although different from mine, was similar in the case that we were both visitors to Chinatown. We didn’t live there. It was a place we went to visit. And even when he was growing up in North Beach, it was still a place to visit because it was on the other side of Broadway. So in some ways, he felt like a tourist there. But he was a tourist with more knowledge than the average tourist because he had Aunt Florence, who could read the signs and tell him what the signs meant. She was funny. She said, “I don’t know why they bothered putting up signs with Chinese characters in Chinatown.” She said, “Most of the people here can’t even read them.” In a sense, Chinatown was, other people have said this too, an American invention that was invented for the benefit of tourists. But he wasn’t offended by that, I don’t think. I think he embraced it the same way that you would embrace Disneyland. Or like in Disneyland, you go to Adventureland and you go to Fantasyland and all these places.

I mean, when he saw the lanterns and the street lights in Chinatown, he knew from talking to Aunt Florence that this was American stuff, much the same as the stuff on the menus in the restaurants was American stuff. You had to go out to dinner with her in order to get something authentic, whatever authentic is. As much as she liked American food of all varieties, still she knew that Americans wouldn’t walk in and know to buy dou miao [stir-fried pea shoots with garlic]. Unless you knew the words dou miao and asked for it, you would never be able to get that yourself.

He and his mother would go down there and go shopping. He was familiar and made friends with a number of the shopkeepers, especially with jewelers, because that’s where they hunted for jade thumb rings and also where he got his seals made. He had those seals custom-made for him by one of those jewelers. So even though he wasn’t somebody who lived there, he certainly was an educated visitor. And I think he and Aunt Florence both had such a taste for kitsch. They liked kitschy stuff of all varieties, and they had a large collection of kitschy Chinese stuff in the house, too. They had these ghastly Chinese figurine lamps.

Martin painting “DC-3,” September 6, 1992. From the album “Artist in Action,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin painting “DC-3,” September 6, 1992. From the album “Artist in Action,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: Were you surprised he made paintings of Chinatown?

WARE: No. Because he loved the parades. Every year they would religiously watch the Chinese New Year’s parade. That was always on TV, and he would watch it for two hours. Later on when they got a VCR, Aunt Florence would record it so she could watch it over and over again. Once again, she said, “This never happens in China.” She said people in China have moved on. “The stuff that you see in America is old-fashioned,” she said. So she reminded us over and over again. It was funny. She said, “When I came back to America, I was surprised” at how people here were still celebrating things that were old hat in China.

KWON: How were the Chinatown paintings received?

WARE: At that time [in the 1990s] he was getting flak from critics, both in New York and maybe out here too, who were criticizing what they viewed as the kitschy side of those paintings, the subject matter of the painting. Once again, they were criticizing not technique or composition but subject, the fact that he was putting up on the canvas this Americanized invention of what Chinese culture is or was or what we think it might be. I think even American-born people were offended by that. They said, “Oh, that’s not pure enough” or “That’s too stereotypical”—which, of course, it is. That’s like taking stereotype to the nth degree. Instead of running from it, let’s take it and run with it and see how far we can go. So he was getting flak about that. And even though he was getting some flak, his attitude was that any press was better than no press because it’s better to be talked about than not be talked about. It’s better to be criticized than not to be criticized. That’s good because he didn’t take it to heart. I don’t think that he took it to heart too much.


WARE: Unfortunately, in the last twenty-some years since his death, he’s acquired sort of a legendary status. Now there’s almost a mythology around him. People say things about him that are what they imagined him to be, but are actually not the case.

Some of this is his own fault. When he was in New York he used to like to call himself a Latino Chino. And so people assumed that his grandmother was of Mexican descent, but that isn’t true. And he never tried to stop people from thinking that, because he was involved with the Puerto Rican club scene there at the time. But his stepfather’s father was an immigrant who came to Arizona as an immigrant from China to work. There were no Asian women there then, so the men married Mexican women. So [Benjamin Fie’s] mother’s side of the family was Mexican. And Ben spoke some Spanish. And Martin was interested in it because everybody loved Ben Fie. You can’t imagine what a nice person Ben was and how great he was.

The other thing was that many people in New York said he was self-taught and that he learned painting when he got to New York City. But they don’t realize that he was painting in junior high school at Ewing Terrace, in the 1960s when he was in high school and junior high school. You know he had three lives: New York City, San Francisco, and Humboldt.

Gary with Martin in his bedroom, March 14, 1995. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

Last Years, 1994–99

WARE: The three of us [Florence, Benjamin Wong Fie, and Ware] went back and saw him when he was at Roosevelt [Hospital]. And we stayed at a halfway house in Manhattan for people whose sons had AIDS. There was a wonderful place. I think it was called Miracle House. Some lady whose son had died of AIDS in New York City set up a halfway house in the city, and parents who had sons that were there who were sick could come and stay.

At that time, he was in really bad shape. He was quite thin, and he was on an IV, and he had pneumonia. Ben and I came back by ourselves first. Florence stayed there with Martin for another few days or maybe a week, until he got well enough to be released from hospital. And then she came back with him. And then they set up his bedroom.

Martin and Gary at the zoo, 1995. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

When he first was at home, he simply lay in bed for almost a year without much of anything, he was so down and out. He was depressed, of course, because he was so laid up. I tried to come while the nurse was there so I could hear what the nurse had to say. But it also helped Aunt Florence and Uncle Ben because they wouldn’t leave the house unless someone was there to sit with him. Aunt Florence had to undertake managing all of his medications. And it was quite a job just managing the medications. But she, in her relentless way, had it all set out. And I would honestly say I don’t think she missed a single dose. One of the nurses taught Ben how to administer the IV for Martin.

As he got stronger, pretty soon, Florence would allow me to take him out. And so I would take him to the restaurants that he liked to go to. And he enjoyed going to the zoo. So I took him and Aunt Florence out to the zoo, and they both had a great time out there. We also would go to Stow Lake in Golden Gate Park, where he liked to rent a boat and drive around the lake.

Towards the third year, he wanted to go back to New York City. I would go with him and spend a week with him in New York City. We’d go back and stay in the apartment. He spent most of the time asleep. He would sleep in the morning until 12:30 or 1 o’clock. And then he liked to go visit his friends, so he took me around, and we visited all of his friends in their apartments. And then we went to some galleries, and we went to the Met a time or two and to the Whitney as well. So I went back there with him over the course of that third and into the fourth year maybe four times.

Martin at Coney Island, 1995. Photo by Gary Ware, courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Gary at Coney Island, 1995. Photo by Martin Wong, courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin painting “Sharp Paints a Picture” and “Malicious Mischief,” September 1997. From the album “Artist in Action,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: Was he painting during these trips?

WARE: No. He wasn’t painting because it just sort of took all of his energy just to go. I think he mainly wanted just to run around and see his friends. And people would come to see him.

Towards the end of the second year, he started getting interested in painting again. So [Florence and Ben] cleared out the basement for him and made a little studio for him downstairs [in San Francisco]. That’s when he painted those pictures of Sharp. Sharp came out and was at some kind of a graffiti exposé down at the Embarcadero. He was painting down there on the spot. When we went down to see him, he was actually in that mask and was working on that painting. He was a full-grown man by that time. And that’s where [Martin] got that composition.

But then [Martin] also painted some other pictures of the kids while he was there too, some other pictures of graffiti kids, and some of those ones that had that wonderful gold outline. They were a set, and they were very poignant, I thought. I thought they were very moving pictures, and they had a lot of heart in them.

“Euphorbia obesa,” 1997–98 in the garden in San Francisco. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
“Euphorbia obesa,” 1997–98 in the garden in San Francisco. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: What about the cactus pictures?

WARE: I belonged to a cactus and succulent society in San Francisco, and we would have sales and shows in the Hall of Flowers in Golden Gate Park. And I would enter cactuses and succulents in those shows. So Martin and Ben and Aunt Florence, and sometimes our friend Virginia, would come to the Hall of Flowers to see those shows and see the plants. So Martin was always interested because they’re very interesting-looking plants. They’re sculptural, and they’re odd-looking things. Sometimes they would come over to my house over in Noe Valley and visit my greenhouse and look at the plants.

So Martin started buying plants. He bought ones that appealed to him for sculptural reasons. And I gave dozens of plants to Aunt Florence to put in her backyard because I had all these extras. Pretty soon, she had a whole backyard full of them. And they had an atrium in the house, and she filled that up full of plants as well. But Martin would buy specific ones because he liked [them as] sculptures. He liked the Lithops, the living stone plants, because he liked the way they looked. And he liked certain cacti because of the mandala shape that they had and the way that whorls of spines were on them.

Those cactus paintings came as a surprise to me. All of a sudden, there’s that wonderful series. They were small and unlike anything else that he’d done but sort of exquisite, too. I give his doctors much credit for keeping him going as long as he did in order to allow him to produce another whole body of work in San Francisco even though he was limited, he actually still had it in him, and he still was producing.

Martin and Gary succulent shopping, 1995. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin picking out cacti and succulents, 1995. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
Martin on the roof of the Ridge Street apartment, April 23, 1997. Photo by Florence Wong Fie from the album “Artist in Action,” courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: Did he ever talk about the plague?

WARE: He was funny. When I first met him, he had a funny way of telling me, this is when we were kids, he’d sometimes just off the cuff turn around and look at me, and he'd say, “You’re going to die.” And I’d say, “Yes.” And then months or weeks later, he would say it to me again. “You’re going to die.” So when he came home during his illness, when he started telling me whenever we’d go out, “Gary, I’m dying,” I wasn’t surprised to hear him say that. He would say, “I’m dying. Gary, I am dying.” And I never would say, “Oh, no, you’re not dying.” No. I knew enough at that time that I just had to go along with him. I'd say, “Yes.” And, “How’s it going? How’s it feeling?” And so we would talk about that. But he would bring it up repeatedly. Almost every time I would see him, he had to say that out loud: “I’m dying.” I think it was his way of coming to terms with it.

He was happy when I would take him newspapers, the Bay Area Reporter, which had a lot of gay stuff in it. But one of the things it had in it was ads from the columbarium. At that time, when so many people were dying, many people, and especially people that had a little bit of money were buying niches at the columbarium. So he saw that ad in one of the newspapers I brought to him to read. And he knew where it was because we used to drive by it all the time. So he said to me, “I’m going to talk Mom and Pop into getting a niche at the columbarium for all of us.” It was great for him because he took charge and was able to do something both for himself and for them. And they went down there and bought a niche with room for three people.

It was helpful for him because one of the other things he used to say—in addition to, “I’m dying”—he would say, “I’m helpless. I can’t do anything. I am helpless.” But taking charge of that business of buying the columbarium niche gave him some control, and he was able to do something that was good.

Martin Wong’s niche at the San Francisco Columbarium. Photo by Florence Wong Fie, September 1999, courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.
The Wong Fie Family niche at the San Francisco Columbarium and Funeral Home. Photo by and courtesy of the author, 2022.

KWON: Did Aunt Florence choose what went into the niche?

WARE: Yeah, she designed the whole thing. That’s all her design. And she had a little list of things that were to go in there. And she was constantly tinkering with it, too, to see how much she could fit in.

KWON: I wanted to ask about one of last paintings, Did I Ever Really Have a Chance?

WARE: Aunt Florence didn’t like that painting. He was at California Pacific Medical Center out on California Street at that time, in skilled nursing out there. He’d started that painting downstairs beforehand, so he asked me to bring the painting so he could work on it at the hospital. And so I put it in my van and drove it out there to him. My job was to carry it down the street—and it was a fairly large painting—and carry it into his room along with all of his paints and stuff that he had to work with. So it rapidly became a source of great interest in the hospital. Everybody wanted to see how the painting was going. So people were ducking in there and seeing it. And he could talk with them about it. He wasn’t that bad at that time. And so he finished the painting in hospital.

It wasn’t a New York painting at all. It was different from the graffiti kids paintings that he did downstairs and from cactus paintings.

Gary and Martin, February 16, 1997. Courtesy of the Martin Wong Foundation.

KWON: I know this is quite heavy, but I wanted to ask you about Martin’s final days.

WARE: I wasn’t there. In 1998, my mother became sick with cancer. So I quit my job at the senior center, and I moved back to Lake County to be with my parents, to help my father with my mother, who was in hospice care at home at that time.

It wasn’t one of the days I was there. Aunt Florence called me, and said, “Gary, he didn’t make it.” And she said, “I’m arranging the dinner at Far East” —I think it was, downtown—“and I will take care of arranging all that.” She said she wanted me to speak at it. So I did. She invited family. Her half brother came, and other people came, too. I think he just went to sleep. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. But I think kind of the way he was when I was with him, he was calm and quiet. He wasn’t agitated. He seemed to be pretty good those last few times that I saw him. And that was it . . .

We were so lucky. In a sense, we were able to make the very best of a bad situation. We got in all kinds of adventures. We got in all kinds of art. And we got trips to New York. We got to go to the zoo. And there was painting done and stuff. Really, when I think back on it, it was more than we could possibly have asked for. With his folks, he was so fortunate that they were in good enough health to take on that care, having someone at home like that. They stepped right up and did it. So lots of points, many points they get for that.

In a way, he was so anxious not to be forgotten. He literally said, “Don’t forget me.” He’s the only friend I’ve ever had who’s said that to me. He was saying it in all seriousness, you know. I knew it when he said it. “Don’t forget me. You won’t forget me, will you?” “No, I won’t forget you. How could I forget you? You’re too much. I can’t forget you.”

Illustration from the Martin Wong Foundation Archives selected by Anneliis Beadnell.