Shisi Huang, Co-Founder of 3standardstoppage.
We interviewed Shisi Huang, co-founder or “one-third” of the three-person team that comprises 3standardstoppage, a studio, art bookstore, and mixed-concept space located in New York and Beijing. While they are in the midst of relocating to a new downtown space, their books are available for browsing and purchase at Special Special. Huang talks about the brand’s roots in the Bay Area, her own art practice with San Francisco’s Chinatown, and having a natural affinity for hybrid spaces like Special Special.
1. 3standardstoppage’s original location was in San Francisco, and you started it with Xiao and Nanxi after you graduated from San Francisco Art Institute. Can you talk about what those early days were like?
We were schoolmates at the San Francisco Art Institute. Back then, we were hanging out, chatting all the time, making art, and helping with each other’s art-making as needed. It started from a random chat, asking each other, “What should we do after graduation?”
While school was still in session, the three of us had already fallen in love with books. We had a library with the best view of the ocean and a great collection of books. We spent a lot of time there, which brought us together.
We decided to have a space that mixed books, visual art, and wearable pieces by designers. We also curated exhibitions and artist talks. That was the early look of 3standardstoppage. There were three of us. Xiao was mostly on photo and theory.
Nanxi was on documentary film. I was doing photo and installations. The year after graduation, I split my time between the shop and doing my own art projects.
2. What was the shop’s philosophy in terms of what items you chose to stock? How do you choose the artists and designers that you work with?
Nanxi and I have been best friends since first meeting in school, and clothes shopping together was one of our common activities. I guess we were two big shoppers at the beginning. Selections towards designers we carry are mostly based on our own buying experience and aesthetic preference. We prefer unisex designs and brands.
Later, we realized that almost all of our designers do multidisciplinary things. For example, some of them are clothes designers as well as artists. Some of them make furniture and fashion. We figured out that we prefer to work with this kind of team.
3. I was interested in your own personal practice as an artist. In 2018, you were part of this exhibition that seemed to have activist inclinations, “Womxn, Omen, Women in Chinatown” at the Chinese Cultural Center. Can you talk about your work for that show?
That was my last exhibition in San Francisco before moving to New York to run 3standardstoppage full time. I was invited by artist Laura Boles Faw, who was very active in the Bay Area. She used to teach at our school, but I didn’t know her through that. It was a great opportunity. At that time, I had been thinking a lot about my own identity, the dilemmas I faced in a foreign country with an identity between an international student and an immigrant. The included artists had different backgrounds. The other two were born and raised in Chinatown. I was the only one who considered myself an outsider. Chinatown for me was not an authentic reflection of China. It was more like a scenario, or a society isolated from both China and Western countries, where time runs way slower compared to China, that’s influenced by a Western fantasy of Eastern people, and that also functions as a tourist attraction.
From left to right: Laura Boles Faw, Bijun Liang, Shisi Huang, Vida K.
I felt like a flaneur walking around in one of the most historical and largest Chinatowns in the world, building up connections with business owners, chatting about their personal life, kids, and business, collecting found materials all around, and taking snapshots of “Kitsch Chinese Signifiers.” For deeper engagement with the familiarly strange, yet strangely familiar, I created a “Chatting Room” for my project. Using one-way glass, I made a room where I could not see who was talking to me, but they could see me. And then we could ask each other anything.
After we finished conversations in the chatting room, I gave the participant a huge customized fortune cookie which was made in Chinatown. It was offered in exchange for their time chatting with me about what they think people in Chinatown think about, for example, the word “queer.” This stemmed from my research on San Francisco and its relationship to the queer community. Learning from my experiences walking around, I collected many responses about the quality of life and some hot social topics from Chinatown grownups, business owners, activists, and residents.
There is one bar in Chinatown called LI PO cocktail lounge; it was one of the earliest gay bars in San Francisco. I thought that was odd: why would a gay bar open in Chinatown? San Francisco has one of the most well-known histories of LGBTQ+ activism. LI PO was one of the oldest gay bars in the city. I learned that the history of the fights between Chinatown residents and the cops, the LGBTQ+ community versus repressed sexuality, made “conservatively closed” Chinatown neighborhoods protect LGBTQ+ community at the time. As we all know, Chinese people, especially seniors’ attitudes, tend to be very conservative and traditional toward non-normative sexualities. For example, none of my interviewees told me that they would accept their children as a gay or lesbian.
I took a lot of snapshots of Chinatown on my phone, constantly posting to Instagram at the time. The uncanny draws me in. The photos I took in Chinatown didn’t match anything in my memory, yet they were perceptively Chinese things. More ironically, Chinese people could never see my photos because Instagram was banned in China. Later before the exhibition, I found the whole process representing my thoughts more precisely. So I didn’t just exhibit the photos as a photo series. I displayed them as iphone-sized screenshots for people to see before they entered the chatting room, to inspire some topics.
One girl asked me why white guys always have crushes on Asian girls. I can’t remember my response but I was very surprised by it. It was something I never thought about. But later, I started paying attention to what she asked in general.
4. And the title was “Ga Liao (尬聊)”?
Ga Liao (尬聊) is a very interesting Chinese term to me, because I’m not the type of person who can have a conversation naturally with strangers, especially when I am at an art opening where I have to be there even though I am a loner. For example, you meet someone at your own opening and start having a very awkward conversation because you don’t have anything in common yet. This project challenged me to push my own boundaries in social situations.
5. How would you say the shop has evolved over time?
We actually did really well in San Francisco for the first two years. The idea of a studio was all new to the three of us and business-wise, we learned from the beginning by experimenting a lot, which was very fun. But San Francisco was really...how do you say...the people there turned out to be very...simple? (laughs) No, not that way. I mean to say “简单化” (simplified), not diverse like in New York. San Francisco turned out to be focused more on big tech. Large companies like Facebook started moving into the city and raising expenses. It priced out a lot of people in art and design.
We were considering moving to a more energetic and diverse city. So in 2019, half of us moved to New York and the other half to Beijing. At that moment, one of our partners, Nanxi, was from Beijing. Even though for other people learning about China, Beijing seems like a very political symbol, still, culturally, for young people’s culture, Beijing is the city.
post post space, the Beijing outpost of 3standardstoppage.
6. What are some of the challenges to maintaining your own practice and managing a business?
Moving to New York was a decision that was both cautious and impulsive. I have this impulse to move to somewhere where I don’t know anyone. My personal challenge was just starting over. I have had non-stop challenges even until now (laughs), like creating a store and dealing with real estate people. Making new friends in the city. How can I manage everything by myself? It’s always a challenge.
7. It seems like you’re doing well now.
(laughs, sighs) Doing better.
8. What do you see in the future for 3ss?
The New York store will reopen later this year. Our ideal situation would be for our stores to run by themselves. To be financially and creatively independent, which is significant for the consideration of our long-term future. I also plan to do more collaborative projects, curatorial events, music/sound art experiments, and our own publications.
9. Who has been your most interesting customer?
I have had a lot of fun experiences observing customers in the store. Clément Chéroux, Chief Curator of Photography at MoMA, came in a lot. He used to work at SFMoMA, which was what we started our conversation with. Recently, he told me that he has recommended lots of our books to MoMA’s library, and considers 3standardstoppage one of the best bookstores in New York. I was honored and encouraged by his feedback, which came to me during times when I was struggling the most.
Special Special, New York.
LATITUDE Gallery, Brooklyn.
10. Can you talk about how you curated mobile 3ss, which is at Special Special right now?
Our #mobile3ss project was something in my mind for a long time. When Shihui Zhou, the owner of Latitude Gallery, came to me to curate a mini publication collection for their space, that was when the #mobile3ss project became more clear in my mind. A lot of misinterpretation and misunderstanding happened during my initial conversations with Zhou, so I decided to curate a long-running book collection for their space based on the ideas of “mis-reading / mis-understanding.” Later, Wen-You asked me to do a pop-up at Special Special. We actually went to Taipei together once and became very close. For Special Special, I curated what I think represents the full collection of 3standardstoppage books.
I want to experiment with this in the future, to change what we can do for each different space, a site-specific book curatorial project.
Restaurants and grocery stores are places I want to work with. Let guests purchase a book there, as they would a chocolate or ice cream. It is fun to erase the divides between so-called “cultural goods” and consumer goods. There is no big difference between enjoying a book and enjoying a cup of matcha affogato, and it’s even better having them together.
This interview has been condensed and reformatted for clarity. As told to Danie Wu.