Eva Chen, Instagram director of fashion partnerships, knows how to tell a story wisely through clothes. “My work on Instagram is two glorious things: fashion and shopping”. But when she became a mother, she was eager for a children’s book that reflected her first generation American Chinese background, which is why she wrote I’m golden (Feiwel & Friends, February 1), a children’s book illustrated by Sophie Diao. “I tried to write a book I didn’t have as a child. I didn’t feel reflected in most children’s books.” Chen, formerly chief editor of Lucky magazine, has written other children’s books, but this one strikes more at home. “I just wrote my personal experience, about the first time I was bullied, about how I sometimes felt like a translator for my parents.” She wrote the book during the pandemic while she was pregnant with her third child, an experience she called a “hormonal bath of emotions at all times.” In the end, however, he hopes I’m golden starts a conversation, “kind of breaking the ice and helping explain to them how some people might feel.”
Your new children’s book, I’m golden, touches the immigrant’s experience. What prompted you to write it?
I tried to write a book I didn’t have as a child. I didn’t feel reflected in most children’s books. There were many courageous and strong female protagonists, as in The babysitting club, there was an Asian character, Claudia. And I remember it was my only Asian icon. But it wasn’t really about the immigrant experience. I am a first generation American. My mother and father are Chinese. They moved to the United States in the 1970s. It was just a prototype American story, my father worked for a Chinese restaurant delivering food. They did not speak the language and, during COVID, I remember the first time I heard the words “Chinese virus”, I felt such fear hearing them. I was like “Oh my god, this is going to go wrong”. Asians will be a scapegoat because many people cannot distinguish between an American Vietnamese, an American Chinese, an American Korean, etc. I was like, anyone Asian is going to be a target. And indeed, within a few weeks, there have been attacks particularly on the elderly. And in many cultures, not only in Chinese culture, but in many cultures, elders are sacred.
The fact that many of these hate crimes specifically targeted older Asians just made me so worried. Then there were more attacks and then Atlanta, the horrible shooting at the spa, and I just remember feeling a little helpless, to be honest. What can a person do? People would ask me, “What are you telling your children about being Chinese? What are you telling your children about their racial identity? Should we tell them to hide it?” I was like, no, if anything we need more fiction.
We need more conversations, we need ways to talk about our heritage and background in a child-friendly way. Babies respond so powerfully to images. So the book was born very quickly. I feel like it’s probably a six week span. I just wrote my personal experience. I wrote about the first time I was bullied, I wrote about how I sometimes felt like I was a translator for my parents. So it happened very quickly. I’m just so excited that it’s out in the world. Even when I think of the cover, illustrator Sophie Diao and I literally spent so much time perfecting the girl’s body language on the cover, because at first we were like, if she was there holding a Golden Flame because she reflects in its particularity? And I was like, I want her to feel like she’s basking in herself, basking in her beauty, basking in her strength and power. Whether you are Asian-American or Chinese-American, or just want to know more about the immigrant experience, I hope it is a good teaching tool for teachers and parents. And I hope children enjoy looking at photos, even if they can’t read.
How do you try your hand at writing a children’s story that is easily recognizable and still struggling with those who will try to politicize it?
This is the amazing thing about children, they see things on different levels that you might not expect. For some children, they might read this book and simply say, “Oh, this is a little girl’s story.” For others, it may be about experience. Everyone will read in a different way. Think about the book The tree that gives by Shel Silverstein. It’s the saddest book I’ve ever read. You read it and think, “Oh my god, this is really messed up. This tree is sacrificing itself. This tree needs self-care.” When you’re a kid, you don’t really read it on that level, you might just read it on a superficial level. So my hope is that it’s not meant to be a political book in the first place. It aims to open the door to conversations. I think the best children’s books are the ones that spark a conversation.
What was it like dealing with everything about COVID-19 while writing a children’s book AND being pregnant? This is a lot!
How many emotions, let me tell you. The first few months of COVID were really tough when schools suddenly closed. The teachers were trying to adapt to reality. Parents were suddenly working from home, two feet away from their kids who were really excited that their parents were home. Being pregnant during COVID was certainly tough because I was already so cautious. And then your body becomes this hormonal bath of emotions at all times. I got the vaccine when I was pregnant, which some of my followers had feelings about. I live in the Union Square area and walked past a sign that said “Stop Chinese, Stop Japanese, Stop Enemies”. I don’t even remember what else he said, but it was very “stopping these races”. That same old fiction about making America double-quote, “great again.” This is still happening. I remember getting comments like, “What hate against Asians? There is no hate against Asians.” Oh no, there is hatred of Asians. And my kids will soon start asking questions. So I hope a book like this can somehow break the ice and help explain to them how some people might feel.
You are the head of fashion and shopping partnerships for Instagram. What does it entail and how has Instagram changed the way people look at fashion?
So my work on Instagram is two glorious things: fashion and shopping. Probably the simplest way to explain [what I do] she is basically thinking about how to help the fashion community and people in fashion, whether it be a makeup artist, a model or a stylist, understand how to use Instagram more deeply and effectively. There are so many different ways to use Instagram now, right? There are Reels, there is IGTV, there are stories, there are guides, that a lot of people don’t know and I think it’s a hidden gem. There is of course the feed, DM, the list goes on and new features are constantly coming out. So it’s really helping to educate that community. In terms of shopping, there is a new feature on Instagram called Instagram Checkout where you can tap to shop with one click. I used it. It is very satisfying. As if you had just bought this outdoor brazier called Solo Stove. I just touched a button and bought an outdoor firepit. I remember interviewing for the job and co-founder, Kevin Systrom, at the time was like, “What’s your dream status for fashion on Instagram?” I remember saying that I want to be able to see something my friend is wearing and literally touch and buy it without leaving Instagram. It took six years, but now we’re there and it’s so exciting. Working on that experience was a really great and fun part of my job.
When you tell people you work for Instagram, you need to get some crazy responses. What are the wildest questions you get and how often do people ask you to check them out?
I get a lot of questions, mainly from family members. “I was blocked”, “I forgot my password” or “I had an Instagram like nine years ago and I don’t remember my username”. So it happens a lot. I also get questions that aren’t even about Instagram. I think there is now an aura of technology around me. Then I will get questions on how to fix a laptop, how to figure out what your Apple ID is. I’ll say, before COVID, one of my favorite things to do when traveling would be to look around and see what people were doing. So often they were on Instagram, DMing, you could see them like to like a post or scroll. Even now, when I’m sitting next to someone on the subway, it’s really interesting to watch how people flow or what they do and how they engage. It’s always really fun for me to watch how other people use it and hear the impetus for small business.
The pan-Asian impact on fashion, music, film and TV has been so impressive in recent years. What do you see happening in 2022?
If you think of some of the most extraordinary designers, whether it’s Peter Do or the greats like Vera Wang, for example, I think the Asian impact on fashion is so, so clear. I hope 2022 becomes a turning point year for Asians across all industries.