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Chanel Tang
Portrait of Chanel Tang
Photo taken by Isabella Capezio
Interviewed in February 2023

Chanel Tang is a proud third generation Chinese-Australian, with both of her parents coming from a Cantonese background. She was born in Wellington, New Zealand and moved to Melbourne at a young age, where she grew up in a diverse community to the east of Melbourne. Chanel Tang, along with  Ambrose Rehorek form an artist duo known as CREATURE CREATURE. Their collaborative art practice spans across exhibiting art, murals, street art, design and illustration.

CREATURE CREATURE’s work wholly encompasses collaboration; often representing a message of the significance of togetherness, how states of balance can be achieved especially in the midst of diversity, complexity and multiple layers. Their work and partnership features the beauty of coming together. 
I first discovered CREATURE CREATURE and through that, Chanel, when I was walking in Melbourne Chinatown from the Swanston St entrance. To my left, I saw this large print on the wall, featuring these rabbits gracefully chasing each other in a swirl, with gentle waves behind them swirling in the same direction, chasing around and highlighting this globe of water ebbing in the centre. What I’m describing is CREATURE CREATURE’s Water Rabbit Spiral (Ultramarine), commissioned by the City of Melbourne and The Chinatown Association for the 2023 Chinese Lunar New Year. As I continued walking down the street, I kept on seeing more prints by them, some a bit hidden away in the alleys, some more noticeable to the general public. 

Seeing their art struck me for a long time. Everything was so harmonious and balanced - from the colour palette to the composition, to the actual serene looks on the rabbits’ faces. In my entire time growing up in Australia, it was probably one of the first city-commissioned LNY works that I had seen that truly resonated with me. The Eastern aesthetics, symbols and philosophies, being represented with a Western twist; these pieces seemed like a combination and representation of my own cultural identities, growing up Chinese in Australia. 

When I read that Chanel was a part of CREATURE CREATURE, I knew I wanted to feature her in this interview project - simply because I don’t hear of or see many Asian Australian creatives, especially in the street art scene. Also I wanted to highlight the stunning work that CREATURE CREATURE was doing, especially since it’s so accessible to anyone in the public.

If you’re in Melbourne, I would highly recommend going for a stroll in Chinatown, or going to the NGV and to walk through the Temple of Boom, which CREATURE CREATURE has contributed to. The Temple of Boom will be showing until August 2023.   

I hope Chanel’s story inspires you as much as it did, me. 
As a part of Creature Creature, you primarily operate in ‘lowbrow’ street art which is much more inclusive and accessible to the general public. What do you want people to get out of your art?
I wish there was a better term than ‘lowbrow’ since it does sound a bit derogatory, but, similar to street art, this kind of art grew out of subcultures rather than institutions. I think it does reach more people because the general public can look at it and enjoy the aesthetics on face value - you don't need to know anything intellectual behind it. Even though our work does have concepts and meaning behind it, making it decorative and aesthetically pleasing allows us to reach such a large range of people. Especially with public art, you're making something for the community, for everyone to enjoy.

In terms of what I want people to get out of our art…I think just that general sense of calm and harmony. I think when they look at the work and see the flow and the movement, I want them to have an overall kind of euphoric feeling, like everything is in its right place and that it’s all connected. Like when you, Abby, reached out to us after seeing our art in Chinatown - that’s exactly the response we’re striving for. You didn’t know us or our reputation, but the art spoke to you and gave you a good, warm feeling - that’s all we can hope for as artists, and what we strive for. 
You and Ambrose operate as an artistic duo. How do you think your diversity in thoughts, background and culture has helped shape Creature Creature?
Working as a duo allows for collaboration. The end result is always a combination of our two minds. It just helps to have another person to bounce thoughts off of each other, and for your own individual thoughts to not be stuck in a vacuum. I also think that's another reason why our work is so accessible and appeals to more people, since there are two people behind it.

In terms of how we work together - we’re quite different so we balance each other well. For example, I'm not a perfectionist at all, whereas Ambrose is. He goes into the details a lot more and makes sure the end product is great, whereas I'm much more slapdash and look into the overall composition. That’s why a lot of people have said that our work is both striking from a distance, but also so intricate up close.
Most artists and creatives work part time jobs to get supplementary income to their creative careers. You and Ambrose did the same, until you quit your hospitality job, and Ambrose did as well in late 2019. How did focusing on your art full time impact the trajectory of Creature Creature? What gave you the motivation to go all in?
Going all in was a huge step for us and is for any creative. This is also something that all creatives talk about all the time - the balance of earning money through creative work and supplementary income - it's such a big discussion. It was definitely a big deal when we decided to do it, but we’ve never looked back and we totally think it was the right decision at the right time.

In terms of why we went all in, we were at a point where we really believed in ourselves and our abilities, and wanted to take the leap - while also being cautious. Working full time on our art truly has made such a huge difference to our work, not only because we could fully focus on it, but also because it gave us a sense of confidence and pride knowing that we were doing this as our job. We’re still continuing to live our dream in a way, because we never thought that we could survive as a full time artist.
What do you think is the most misunderstood thing about the creative industry, from outsiders looking in?
It’s not a glamorous job. Especially with some of the work that we do with public murals - you’re outside, you’re in the elements, it’s long hours, it’s hard on your body.

Another thing that I didn’t know going into it, is that a lot of our time is not necessarily dedicated to making art. There’s a lot of admin and business management like taxes and accounting that goes into building an art practice. Luckily, I feel like we are getting better at that part of the art practice over time. That’s why it helps to have another person, because we kind of do treat it like a small business. You never think about this side when you’re younger and dream about being an artist. I will say, it is a great learning experience - learning more about the business side and marketing. We don't particularly enjoy it but we understand its importance.
Do you see many POC artists in the greater Melbourne art community, as well as in your own line of work in street art?
I think it's definitely getting better, the community is much more diverse than about 10 years ago. There’s more POC artists working in illustration, design and exhibition art etc but you don’t see as many in street art just because it is a very public facing position - when you’re out on the street you have to contend with different issues like thinking about your personal safety. People can be very suspicious of you, but most of the time people are lovely and excited about the street art we put up.

How do you mentally deal with the ups and downs in supply of project work that naturally comes with being in the creative space?
Personally, that’s where it's really good to have Ambrose to lean on. And if you’re a solo artist, leaning on the creative community. Working for yourself and being self-employed is so unstable, work is always up and down. There’s going to be moments when you're crazy busy (and complaining about that), or absolutely quiet, and you’ll be freaking out about not getting work and not knowing where your next paycheck comes from. Ambrose and I are really lucky that we have each other, and friends in the same industry so that we can prop each other up.

Creature Creature’s portfolio, aesthetic and themes are ever evolving. Where do you hope to take the art in the future?
I hope that we can keep experimenting. We never like to do the same thing twice. We always like to push our work as far as we can and try new things. One thing we do want to do is go into more sculptural art if we can. We want to create more immersive experiences, especially since we’ve noticed how art has grown beyond a 2D canvas now and expanded such that people are searching for more of an experience when interacting with art. We're still at the early stages of ideas, but we definitely want to explore that.
on culture and identity
As a third-generation Chinese woman, how do you engage with your Chinese identity?
Being third-gen, I am fairly removed from my culture which is a bit sad sometimes. I definitely tap into my identity in relation to food. That’s one thing that has remained consistent throughout my family - the appreciation and love for traditional Chinese food. Personally, I also tap into it through my art as well, exploring different kinds of Chinese aesthetics and influence.
What has your relationship with your Asian Australian identity been like, and how has it evolved?
It's evolved over my whole lifetime. When I was younger, I wasn't particularly ashamed of being Asian but I didn’t want to draw attention to that part of myself. But now, my Asian heritage is something that gives me confidence. I’m much more actively proud of it and express that side of myself much more openly. This change naturally happened as I grew up and became more confident, but it’s also helped to be exposed to the amazing work that other Asians over the world and in Australia are doing. Seeing more Asians express themselves publicly, and it being well-received - it’s been such an inspiration. 

What is a significant cultural memory of yours?
I’ve done a couple of trips to China to meet my dad’s relatives in Guangzhou 广州 which were amazing and a complete culture shock. It was such a fascinating experience, because they don't speak English and we don’t speak Chinese. It was so hard to communicate but  there was still that kind of bond and emotion there.
What is your favourite food from your culture?
This is such a hard question because I’m such a foodie. Comfort food to me is roast meats like roast duck, crispy skin pork, Char Siu 叉烧 (chinese BBQ pork) which is traditional Cantonese food.

I actually have a really sweet story and memories associated with this food. Coming from New Zealand, there weren’t that many Chinese restaurants. If we did have something like roast duck it would be at a fancy restaurant, every once in a blue moon. When we moved to Melbourne my dad told the family that he found this street where every restaurant was Asian - it’s Victoria Street in Richmond. The whole family got in the car and drove there. We just parked on the street, with no idea which restaurant to go to because there were just so many. So we just ended up going to the one directly opposite our car - it had all the roast meat hanging out by the window. And I think that then in ‘95, a plate of roast duck on rice was $5, so we could feed the whole family for 20 bucks. This was a food that we associated with special occasions, so to be able to have it whenever we wanted was amazing. We ended up going back to that restaurant for the next 15 years every fortnight or so. All the staff knew us, and called my dad uncle - it was really sweet.
Who is an Asian Australian that inspires you, and why?
This is a hard question, because even though we’ve come so far, there’s still not too many Asian people in the public eye where we can go - yes that’s my hero, especially Asian Australians.

I do want to give a shout out to a couple of local Melbourne businesses that are run by Asians.

Smile + Wave does a really cool streetwear fashion label. The founder, Sam, was inspired to create the label by her grandma who sewed clothes for her 6 kids, and her Chinese heritage.

Veraison Magazine - it’s a wine magazine that celebrates wine's ability to diversify culture. Their creative director is Asian and brings that perspective to it. 

A couple of Asian Australians that I can think of are Melissa Leong, the judge in Masterchef.  The way she talks about food is so elegant, and I really resonate with the way she connects with her own cultural identity through food. I think it’s so significant for not only us as Asian Australians, but the wider Australian population to see that and be exposed to it since the demographic of the show would be so vast. Also, she's just absolutely gorgeous. Masterchef is such a mainstream show, and to have her up there, also changing the Western beauty standard is so cool and empowering. And also, someone like Penny Wong - to get that far in Australian politics is pretty amazing. It’s hard to say with political figures because that can shift with your ideals, depending on what decisions they make, but Penny Wong has always stood out for me as an inspirational figure.