He painted murals in Beijing. Now, he dreams of painting Chinatown.
Chenlin Cai, an artist from a small fishing village in China, became the go-to muralist for Chinese and Japanese restaurants around Philly. Here's his next act.
On a walk through the streets of Chinatown with Chenlin Cai, he points out the stuccoed side of the Friends Senior Care Center at Ninth and Arch, marred by graffiti, or the wall across the street, the boundary between a parking lot and the China King, so drab it's nearly an eyesore.
But in his eyes, they're all possibilities.
A graduate of the elite Tsinghua University in Beijing, Cai (pronounced "chai" like the tea) left his budding career behind at the age of 30 to come to the United States. He hoped to study Western art techniques, learn about the American education system, and meet the Chinese people who had made their home so far from their native country. He's an artist. He wanted to be inspired.
Four years later, he's ready to take on a new dream before he returns home: painting murals in Chinatown.
When he was pulled West
It was a friend, Michelle Sun, an auntie-like figure to him who had settled in the Philadelphia suburbs, who suggested the city.
It's the mural capital of America, she told him.
Although he liked to make heady, experimental pieces with a political bent, she knew he also loved to paint murals. He liked how they took art out of galleries and into the public sphere, how they encouraged people to engage with their environment.
Not long after he got his MFA from Tsinghua, he painted one for the South Korean government's Korean Cultural Center in Beijing when the city hosted the 2008 Olympics, and later, designed and executed a year-long mural project to honor the history of Xuchang, a city in Central China.
Cai, as he tells it, with constant apologies for his English, was comfortable back home. He and a partner ran a lucrative business training Chinese high school students to prepare for art school entrance exams. He was getting commissions, showing his work in group exhibits, winning awards. His parents, who never finished high school and ran a clothing store in the small Fujian province fishing village where he grew up, didn't really understand how art could be a career path, but they supported him, though they encouraged him to settle down, start a family. He was nearing 30, after all.
But Cai was pulled West, intrigued by how the adventure could shape his art and teaching style.
There aren't many Chinese here, Sun, now of Berwyn, told him, not like San Francisco or New York, so it'll force you to practice your English. And she would help take care of him, as he had done years ago, when she came from Hong Kong to Beijing to study at Tsinghua and knew hardly anyone in the city.
Cai, a strong believer in guanxi, the Chinese concept of how relationships make things easier, listened and came to Philadelphia in 2014.
‘Call me Jerry’
The early days were hard — he had left behind all his connections, all that guanxi he had worked so hard to build, to come to a place where no one knew his name.
"Jerry," he told them, when he saw how Americans struggled to pronounce his name. "You can call me Jerry, like Tom and Jerry." It was harder, still, that he felt he couldn't fully express himself in English.
>> READ MORE: 12 murals in Philly that speak to the Asian experience
While he worked toward his second MFA at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, he hustled to pay for his living expenses. Every winter and summer break, he'd fly back to Beijing to teach intensive courses at his old business, which he had since sold to his partner. He kept up private lessons with Chinese students who had gone to college abroad, teaching them through the video feature of Chinese messaging app WeChat. He also made pieces that were eventually bought by collectors, such as the one where he collected 400 X-rays of Chinese workers from hospitals around the country and scanned them to create a series of digital collage replicas of a famous Chinese landscape painting.
This exploration of dualities — the horror faced by a Chinese worker set against a peaceful nature scene — is one that runs through much of Cai's work and Cai himself, said his PAFA professor Renée Foulks. Cai, whom she described as softspoken and humble, but also a "ball of energy," has very strong traditional figure drawing and painting skills but he was also developing his own color theory and experimenting with painting on such materials as plexiglass.
When he was in Philly, he found refuge in Chinatown. He'd try a Sichuan restaurant and introduce himself to the owners, offer to look at their children's artwork and give them pointers. Eventually, they'd hire him to teach their kids. Little by little, word got around. He got hired to teach art classes at a Chinese school in Blue Bell. He started getting asked to paint murals inside restaurants. Guanxi.
Now, his work can be seen all across the city, tucked inside Asian restaurants.
There's the gluttonous panda surrounded by wontons in chili oil and Chinese hamburgers at Chendgu Famous Food on Lancaster Avenue, the leaping fish that evoke a yin and yang in the stylish Old City sushi spot Tomo, the dragon boating scene inside Chinatown's Bubblefish that pays homage to the owner's award-winning team.
People are always asking who painted the mural, said Bubblefish co-owner Ping Li, who described it as "a work of art."
Moving to the outdoors
Cai, who now lives in Oreland, hopes to paint his first outdoor mural in Chinatown this spring.
This, he feels, is his purpose, to promote Asian culture in the city. He noticed that in the mural capital of the country, of its 4,000 murals, there aren't many that speak to the Asian experience.
"I can do this for the city," he said.
(Cai applied to a Mural Arts open call in 2017 but didn't hear back. He hopes to eventually work with the organization, too.)
Before he can execute his plan, he has to build community support — on a recent, unseasonably warm fall day after a news conference, Cai was waiting to talk to John Chin, executive director of the Philadelphia Chinatown Development Corporation, to pitch him on working together. Cai has to get building owners on board — the Friends Senior Care Center is interested — and secure funding, but most urgently, he must get approval to stay in the country. Since his student visa extension expired, he's been waiting to hear back about the so-called extraordinary artist visa, which has been harder to secure since President Trump took office.
But Cai is hopeful. It wasn't so long ago that he came to the city, where he had to start all over. Now, when he walks the streets in Chinatown, people call out to him, greeting him, asking him how he's doing, what he's working on. He no longer goes by "Jerry." He wants people to know his real name.