Sunny Shanni Chen 陈珊妮
Photo: Katrin Braga / MU: Paula Lanzador / H: Sabrina Fetterkind
I was born in a city called Nanjing in the 90s, and my ancestors are from Sichuan and Hubei. At three years old, I had memorized all my fave ancient Chinese poems so I entertained strangers by reciting them whenever an opportunity arose. I also loved singing karaoke in our family-owned restaurant on the regular. Starting from that age, my mom signed me up for community piano lessons. Then, after-school English lessons.
My parents and I flew across the world to Burnaby, British Columbia, when I was six years old. I moved three more times before completing elementary, so I learned how to find the humour in everything. After a year, my paternal grandparents immigrated to Canada. They raised me and my lil sis. We didn't have much and lived in a 2-bedroom apartment together, across from Metrotown. At school, I sang in choir and joined a hip hop dance group. My mom invested in my passion for the arts and I started to dance ballet, but stopped when we moved to Langley to accommodate her new job. We lived in a basement suite that year, and my mom signed us up for a toy drive so we could celebrate Christmas together. By age 12, I'd written over 10 pop songs. In high school, in addition to enrolling in the International Baccalaureate Diploma Programme and working part-time at Pizza Hut, I trained and performed with my concert choir, chamber choir, and senior vocal jazz group, as well as played flute and piccolo in concert band. My mom was diagnosed with depression and took a year off work. Nonetheless, I was lucky to travel across North America and compete in festivals with my high school. My first time stepping into a professional studio was at Disneyland's Anaheim Heritage Festival. I was 15. Our concert band recorded an excerpt from a Disney film score. I still remember listening back and thinking, "Wow, people get to do this for a living?" Also: "This sounds like a Disney movie!"
When I was 17, I obtained a student loan and moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia. I needed to escape the dysfunctional environment at home, which imbued me with anxiety and pain growing up. My absent biological father had left us, and my mom projected her stress and trauma onto me. I was tired of being shamed for wanting to pursue arts as my career. Living on my own at a young age, I worked in nightlife and film while studying psychology, creative writing, sociology, and more. For fun, I auditioned for a lead in my university's production of Rocky Horror Show and, that fall, debuted as "Janet Weiss". It changed my world. Forever grateful to the UBC Musical Theatre Troupe for my first opportunity to shine onstage.
From then on, I knew I wanted to create and perform for the rest of my life, to be a part of something bigger. The truth is, I didn't grow up with a role model who looked and felt like me, a weird and witty Asian femme who could sing, dance, skateboard, play in a band, direct, lead, close deals, or do all the things I think are cool. I did those things anyway, and continue to learn from non-toxic peers and elders. I continue to work towards healing from generational trauma and systemic oppression, and provide support for others. Someday, I want my future child to look around and see well-rounded, healed, outspoken, and confident gender diverse people who represent us authentically on TV and in movies. People with unique stories to tell, and fire underneath our footsteps.
I live and work on stolen lands belonging to xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) Nations. I dedicate my life to advocating for equity, nurturing community, and sharing stories whenever an opportunity arises.
Even though I'm disconnected from my extended family in China (due to political, language, and technology barriers), I'm grateful my work is reaching QTBIPOC worldwide. At the end of the day, I love this rainy seaside city, and continue to do everything I can to make it inclusive and safe for everyone to thrive in. To quote the classic film High School Musical, "we're all in this together".
P.S. I uploaded my DNA data to WeGene and discovered I'm 12.22% Naxi/Yi. I'm reconnecting with ancestors, and piecing together my family's stories.
P.P.S. F***草 the model minority!
Photo: Taylor Kare
"You may encounter many defeats, but you must not be defeated. In fact, it may be necessary to encounter the defeats, so you can know who you are, what you can rise from, how you can still come out of it."
Hi, I'm an interdisciplinary artist (singer-songwriter, creative director, writer, actor, and more) and consultant. My pronouns are they/them and she/her because I'm nonbinary.
I hold a BA in Psychology, with a minor in English literature, from the University of British Columbia, committed to healing (for our) community. In 2018, I co-founded MAGES with Chimedum Ohaegbu and Kyla Yin James: a protective, accessible space where marginalized creatives collaborated, learned digital skills for free, and practiced self-care and wellness (formerly FEMMES; on hiatus indefinitely). As a creative & wellness consultant, I'm able to guide trauma-informed wellness exercises like DBT, mentor emerging artists, and provide other services.
I write, direct, produce, and/or manage projects, such as sound_therapy Music Festival, or my debut music video for survivors' anthem "Ocean Girl" (2018), where skaters cruise the seawall and dance in the sunshine, set to an early 2000s vibe. Without formal training, #OceanGirlMV was the first time I tried my hand at directing and producing.
I'm the showrunner/executive producer, casting, and lead on Open Ethnicity (IMDb), a dramedy about women and people of colour in the arts, set against the backdrop of "Hollywood North", i.e. Vancouver's film and TV industry. We're like Broad City and GIRLS meets Frances Ha, featuring local stars.
In fall 2021, I released my debut album ilyimy to critical acclaim (Exclaim!). I'm developing End of a Cycle, my original play on Chinese fascism (set in the 1940s - present), intergenerational healing, and mental health awareness - told through time travel and dance battles. I'm the casting director and associate producer of "Sunflower Girl" (dir. Holly M. Kaplan). I pay for sliding-scale counselling.
My work has been featured in SAD Mag, Bloom, Contrast Collective, CREEP Magazine, The Ubyssey, and The Garden Statuary, and exhibited at Latitude 53.
For more information or inquiries, please contact me.
Photo: Corey Poluk (Fox Cabaret)
Photo: Ashley Sandhu / Featuring Sassy