Micronesian Chinese Money in Alaska

I believe there's Art with a capital A, and that refers to the Arts. Museums come to mind as well as ballet troupes. But is Art that macrocosmic an entity? In my experience, it isn't.

My family lived abroad. The arts embraced in Micronesia were very different from those in British Hong Kong. There was little chance to delve into interpretive or classical art. When you weren’t taking the aspects you liked, discarding what you didn't and establishing your own local spin on painting, dance and music, you had to go microcosmic.

For some, this was looking at what was on show at the Naval Air Base for two weeks. For us as children on Guam, it was going microcosmic by focusing on our parents’ artistic abilities.

My mother is the ‘creative’ one in my family. She can sew, quilt and paint. She also made all those fantastic kids birthday cakes: the merry go rounds, footballs, spaceships and pretty dolls. Once, there was an unfortunate birthday cake incident where the frosting failed. My Mom was going to strip the cake and redo it when my brother asked if he could decorate it with all his plastic toy soldiers and tanks. “After you wash them all.” My brother had never been happier. We sometimes make reference to it when discussing a recovered failure “like Andrew’s diorama cake?” She was our sculptor in food.

My father is the ‘magical’ one. The first time I saw snow I was convinced my father had made it just for me. Why? Because I knew he could. He turned a huge shipping crate into a playhouse complete with two shuttered windows, a door that locked and a tar paper roof. We were the envy of the neighborhood. He was our sculptor in wood and paint. 

My parents must have had all sorts of conversations on their children’s attitude to art and how to prioritize our school performances. They’ve watched us progress from finger painting to water colors and our eventual participation in inter school art competitions. Mom took us out to get tempera and water colors when art became a more serious part of our syllabus and Dad took us out to the local hardware store. Our parents were always supportive. Our art was influenced by our travels abroad. It confused the local kids who called our work “odd” when their arts on Guam were confined to local dance, song and occasionally painting.

We didn't do the great museums when we lived abroad as a family. The museums of France, Austria and Holland I did on my own as an adult. I find this odd since my parents were always interested in jade and statuary and these were the types of museums we would go to in Singapore and Hong Kong. We now have several statues at home from our travels through India, Thailand, Korea, Hong Kong and Malaysia. If temples and shrines we visited were memorable, my mother would buy something to remind us of them. (We have an Agra marble-work table after seeing the Taj Mahal.) These were things people on Guam would call “Art.”  At that point, we had never considered sculpting our own memories by ourselves. 

Mom and I were out one day at Fred Meyers in Alaska. The home decor section there is always well stocked and under appreciated. Walking around to find a candle, my Mom stopped and pointed to a large disc beside a shelf. It was a wooden replica of Chinese  trade money. Mom and I pulled our cart to the side for a closer look.

It was on sale – marked down from $15 to just $10.

“You know if you wanted to, we could fasten some of our trade coins from Korea and China to the front of this, if you still have them?” I volunteered, not really expecting Mom to take me up on my offer.

Mom looked at the round wooden statue again. “It almost reminds me of the Yap money that was made of stone quarried in Palau centuries ago.”

“Do we still have our Yap shell money from Sister Mary Joseph?” I asked, thinking of the shell fastened to twine woven handles that I had seen once before. 

“Yes. They’re on the wall above the giant conch shell in the bathroom.”

A woman came by and looked at us and then at the wooden coin statue. “Looks like an old cart wheel to me.” She sniffed in what seemed to be disapproval and tottered off. I glanced at my mother and that sealed it. We grabbed the sculpture and headed over to hardware for the little nails we would need.

Mom and I had it finished in our mind’s eye before we even got the car into park at home. As we walked into the living room with the prone wheel, Mom went into the red lacquer Buddha box I sent from Yokohama Marui years ago. Inside was an old ivory cardboard box held together with a few rubber bands and a prayer. The frayed edges showed bronze coins, green with age, peeking through.

On the dining room table, I carefully categorized the coins: circle, oval, key and tael. I organised them from large to small. Once placed to our satisfaction, I scored the wood and tapped in the nails. As we had done through our Micronesian art experiences, we took the aspects we liked, discarded what didn't work and established our own local spin. Our project was done in less than half an hour. 

Mom looked at it fully satisfied. I likewise patted myself on the back. Our first family sculpture was done and it made sense to us: our global coin was influenced by our travels abroad and paid tribute to the local and traditional arts we had lived with and loved. Not to mention it had a healthy count of microcosmic creative detail.

This article was first published on 25 November 2017