A Laotian American's View of Golden Gate Park

Posted by Ben Fong-Torres

Ben visits an artist who paints whatever he likes, and listens to lots of flower drum songs.

Somboun Sayasane is an anomaly among painters. Hes self-effacing, modest to a fault, and generous with his time and talents. And he loves to sing Chris Isaak, John Lennon and The Bee Gees.

I know this because, since 1991, Ive seen Sayasane at Yet Wah, a San Francisco restaurant that includes a karaoke bar.

Now, after all these years and songs Sayasane has published a book, The Park in the City: Impressions of Golden Gate Park . Its a beautiful, personal celebration of one of the world best-known urban parks, and it gives me all the more reason to introduce him to you.

Sayasane, who is 57, is an American, by way of Laos, and, as a refugee from that country, has reason to appreciate much of what he encounters.

And whenever he sees something he likes, hes likely to paint it.

Everywhere he goes, hes always drawing, says his friend, Henry Arnold . Hes a tremendous artist, and hes a very good-hearted guy.

I first met Sayasane at the Yet Wah. Hed read an article Id written about karaoke, and began showing up with a couple of friends. As a regular, Id begun producing a newsletterthe Yet Wah Tusi (get it?)for fun. It was a mix of news, gossip and slander, with a circulation of maybe a dozen. Somboun began doing cartoon sketches of the singers. Despite our artistry, the Tusi folded, due to a lack of time and ink cartridges. But Sayasane, who was an art teacher in San Francisco, drew on. He began painting scenic mural backdrops for parties at Yet Wah, beginning with a wedding that I officiated in 1998, of Martha Rodriguez and Stompin John Stadlberger . His light, airy watercolors of the Golden Gate Bridge and of hearts and flowers was the perfect backdrop for the daytime ceremony.

Outside the Yet Wah, Sayasane essayed even more spectacular works, including murals that have taken up entire sides of school buildings. On a more personal scale, he began painting every church he could find in San Francisco; hes up to more than 120. He found an entire neighborhoodBernal Heightsfascinating, and began painting various aspects of it.

Art runs in Sayasanes family. His mother was a weaver of traditional tapestry. In Laos, he recalls, I spent lots of time in a village deep in the jungle with my grandfather. The village was surrounded by a beautiful jungle. I began painting when I was very young. My grandfather taught me to love nature. His home village, he says, was tiny. There were no more than 25 houses and fewer than 200 people. There was no school and there were no shops. studied at the Vientiane School of Fine Arts; he also attended the National Art School in Bangkok. After becoming a draftsman in the Laos Armys Corps of Engineers, he saw the United States for the first time when he came here for training in the late 60s. He studied at the San Francisco Art Institute and gained refugee status in 1975, when the Communist Pathet Lao came to power in his homeland.

In San Francisco, Sayasane was both a painter and an art teacher, specializing in Asian painting techniques at the DeYoung Museum, in Golden Gate Park. It was during that stint, in 1978, that he began to explore. Id walk up to Stow Lake; its very peaceful, and you get to see all kinds of people. Inspired by a local Chinese artist whod done black and white sketches of the park, he began doing paintings of various parts of the 1000-acre expanse. At three miles in length and half a mile in width, Sayasane had a lot to take in.

In the last four years, he began turning his collection of watercolors into a book. Comprised of 57 full-page color plates, it is self-published and is available at various Bay Area bookstores and, in Golden Gate Park, at the Conservatory of Flowers, which happens to grace the cover of his book. It is most easily available through www.somboun.com.

If I had to come up with a quibble, itd be that Sayasane chose to not include any text about his work, beyond a concise prefacemostly about Golden Gate Parkby his good friend, James Corley . The paintings are indexed, with titles, in the back of the book. But Sayasanes story merits telling, and itd be interesting to know how and why he chose to paint what he did. For example, he offers the Polo Fields from four vantage points, each reflecting the playgrounds at different times of the day. He has an obvious love of flowers, and offers detailed drawings of the lush plant life that enriches Golden Gate Park. But the paintings go unexplained.

The park is special for everybody, he says. They (the books readers) can have their own thoughts and dreams about it; without conflicts with my input. They can enjoy it more. Any comments I make would just be personal. The pictures are very representing of my visions. That should be enough.

Today, Sayasane is a teachers aide, in a special education class. He continues to provide special artwork for friends events and community fundraisers.

And he continues to sing. Soon after our chat, hes up on stage at the Yet Wah, where he shows that hes also an impressive and expressive singer. Like his art work, his voice is modest, not flashy; quiet, with coloring in just the right places.

Who knows? Maybe a CD is next. With no liner notes, of course.

Brave Art

The Art of Gaman , the book that I wrote about a few months ago (in fact, you can check it out here, comes to physical life at the Museum of Craft and Folk Art in San Francisco beginning in early November. The book is Delphine Hirasunas tribute to Japanese Americans who were placed into internment camps during World War II and who created artas well as more utilitarian objectsfrom whatever they could find, and, later, from other outside sources. From jewelry to furniture, the results speak to the perseverance of the wrongly-interned Americans under adversity. In fact, gaman means, roughly, enduring the seemingly unbearable with patience and dignity.

Hirasuna, a former college classmate of mine, did an extraordinary job with the book, and shes taken the lead in putting this exhibit together. It runs from November 2 to January 21 next year atg the Museum of Craft and Folk Art, at 51 Yerba Buena Lane. For more info, go to www.mocfa.org.

Flower Drum Songs Galore

Andagain, this is for you who are in the San Francisco area, or planning to come herebe sure to include the Chinese Historical Society of Americas museum in your Chinatown itinerary. Right now, theres an exhibit there of Arthur Dong s collection of probably every Flower Drug Song -related music album in existence. Dong is the director of several award-winning documentaries, but it was a little-known fact that, over the last nine or so years, hes located and acquired 40-something recordings. They include the original soundtrack and original cast recordings from the film and Broadway versions of C.Y. Lee s original novel, but also albums by the various stars of Flower Drum Song , James Shigeta, Miyoshi Umeki , and Pat Suzuki . He has numerous renditions of the plays songs by jazz and pop artists.

For his first venture into curating a museum exhibit, with co-curators Irene Poon and Lorraine Dong , provides listening stations, blowups of several album covers, and a painting by Dong Kingman , whose watercolors of Chinatown help open the film version of Flower Drum Song .

Its a fun celebration of a signature Asian American work, and its at the CHSA Museum through December 17. For more information on the museum, go to www.chsa.org.

Enough site addresses. Well, one or two more. To hear a couple of Ben's parody songs, try him at www.myspace/fongtorres, in the music sector of that site. And to visit his home page, go to www.benfongtorres.com