Sunny Shanni Chen 陈珊妮
Photo: Katrin Braga / MU: Paula Lanzador / H: Sabrina Fetterkind
I was born in a small city called Nanjing, 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, where they enrolled me in Grade 1. I moved three more times before completing elementary, so I had to learn how to be funny. After a year, my paternal grandparents moved to Canada as well. They raised me and my lil sis. We didn't have much and lived in a 2-bedroom apartment together, across from Metrotown. 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 school. My first time stepping into a professional studio was at Disneyland's Anaheim Heritage Festival. I was 15. Our school 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 applied for a student loan, moved to Vancouver to attend the University of British Columbia, and escaped the dysfunctional environment at home, which caused me a lot of stress and pain growing up. My absent biological father had left my family and there was a lot of tension. I was also tired of being told I couldn't pursue art as a career by my mom (and according to my biological father, I had no talent, and my singing voice was embarrassing). 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. I am forever grateful to the UBC Musical Theatre Troupe for that opportunity to shine.
From then on, I knew I wanted to 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, who could sing, dance, skateboard, play guitar, direct, lead, or do anything I thought was 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 oppression, and provide support for others. Someday, I want my future children to look around and see well-rounded, outspoken, and confident gender diverse people who represent us on TV and in movies. Underrepresented people with unique stories to tell, love in their hearts, and fire underneath our footsteps.
I live on stolen lands belonging to q̓ic̓əy̓ (Katzie), q̓ʷɑ:n̓ƛ̓ən̓ (Kwantlen), and Semiahma (Semiahmoo) First Nations, colonially-known as "Surrey", and work on lands belonging to xʷməθkʷəy̓əm (Musqueam), Sḵwx̱wú7mesh (Squamish), and səl̓ilwətaɁɬ (Tsleil-Waututh) First Nations, colonially-known as "Vancouver". I dedicate my life to healing, advocating for equity, nurturing community, and sharing stories whenever the opportunity arises. In fall 2021, I released my debut album ilyimy to critical acclaim (Exclaim!). I'm developing Open Ethnicity series (IMDb), casting/producing "Sunflower Girl" (dir. Holly M. Kaplan), and paying for counselling.
Even though I'm disconnected from my extended family in China (due to the pandemic, language and technology barriers), I'm grateful my work is reaching BIPOC of marginalized genders 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 I'm 12.22% Naxi ethnic minority. Still discovering who I am, and reconnecting with ancestors.
"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."
I'm an interdisciplinary artist (singer-songwriter, creative director, filmmaker, actor, writer) and consultant. My pronouns are they/them and she/her. As a creative and wellness consultant, I guide trauma-informed wellness practices, mentor artists, and more. In 2018, I co-founded MAGES with Chimedum Ohaegbu and Kyla Yin James: a safe and accessible space where marginalized creatives can learn and collaborate on digital media, as well as practice self-care and mental wellness (formerly known as FEMMES; on hiatus).
I hold a BA in psychology and English literature from UBC, and commit to healing (for our) community.
I write, direct, and/or produce films. Check out my music video for survivors' anthem "Ocean Girl" with a cast and crew of queer folks of colour. Skaters cruise the seawall and dance in the sunshine, set to an early 2000s vibe. View the daytime teaser below, featuring a remix by Holly BB (LA/NY).
I wrote the screenplay for Adewolf's "Dynamite" music video. I'm the creator, showrunner, and lead on Open Ethnicity, 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. It's Broad City and GIRLS meets Frances Ha, featuring Vancouver's diverse up-and-coming creatives.
My short film "Miracles" (2020), created in April during the 1st lockdown of COVID-19, screened at Reel Youth Film Festival and was published in Bloom's digital zine. My work has been featured in SAD Magazine, 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