Shunyu Huang’s Story Parlor residency explores senses and memories

A SENSE OF HOME: Shunyu Huang enjoys some High Bush Shui Xian Rock Oolong tea at Story Parlor. The beverage helped inspire her "Memory Quilt" Story/Arts Residency. Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

Earlier this year, Shunyu Huang sat down to enjoy a pot of High Bush Shui Xian Rock Oolong tea and was transported.

“As soon as I smelled the aroma and had that first sip, my body was activated,” says the Chinese native, who has lived in Asheville since 2017. “It was like, ‘I know this flavor. I know this scent. What is this?’ But as I remember, I had never had this tea [before].”

Fascinated by the experience, the storyteller and photographer conducted some research and discovered that the beverage was frequently brewed by her neighbors in Zhuhai, on the central coast of southern Guangdong Province in southern China. Many of these local merchants moved to her part of Guangdong from the province’s eastern side, where she says High Bush Shui Xian Rock Oolong is extremely popular. And after sitting with the tea a little longer, she remembered her father hanging out with other people on their street — a childhood memory that sparked a strong emotional response.

Then in March, Huang attended a performance by visiting Japanese storyteller Motoko at UNC Asheville. Motoko told a Chinese folk tale that included the tune “Kangding Love Song.” When Motoko started singing it, Huang joined in from the audience. But again, there was a catch.

“I was like, ‘Wait, I never learned this song, so how do I know it?’” she recalls. “I never studied this song, but I knew that when I was a child, this song was everywhere. It was describing central China where Tibetan people live in the mountains — how great they are, how straightforward they are, how when they see somebody they’re interested in, they just go seek out this person.”

The one-two punch of memories triggered by senses inspired Huang to consider how other people might benefit from such explorations. And she soon found a local partner, Story Parlor, to help turn this vision into a reality. In June, Huang became the art space’s third artist-in-residence for its Story/Arts residency program. Along with a $500 stipend and dedicated rehearsal time, Huang will put on multiple events throughout July, sharing her stories and inviting others within the community to do the same.

Residency revolution

A resident of West Asheville, Huang was no stranger to Story Parlor’s programming. Before their current collaboration, she participated in the first installment of the art space’s 2023 Story Mixer events; each of these gatherings showcases a variety of narrative artists exploring a particular theme.

“Our Story Mixer in January was [focused on] ‘Homeland,’ and it was inviting in local artists who hailed from international homelands to come pay tribute,” says Story Parlor founder and artistic director Erin Hallagan Clare. “Shunyu came and did this beautiful tribute on China through poetry and photographs and song.”

With that positive experience still fresh in her mind, Huang applied for Story Parlor’s Story/Arts residency, which aims to support artists from historically marginalized communities.

MEMORABLE: Shunyu Huang’s “Memory Quilt” events focus on scent and taste (Thursday, July 13); sound (Thursday, July 20); and sight and touch (Thursday, July 27). Photo by Edwin Arnaudin

Local multidisciplinary artist Gina Cornejo was the program’s first artist-in-residence, producing “Dirty Laundry” in July 2022, a public performance in partnership with Stewart/Owen Dance. Asheville-based storyteller and poet Meta Commerse followed in November. She offered a workshop on creating legacy stories about elders. She also provided participants guidance for becoming elders themselves.

“We really look for applicants that explore this idea of story in all art forms, and I think that is really kind of at the centerfold of what we’re doing here,” Hallagan Clare says. “The residency in particular is really geared at bringing community together, especially disparate parts of the community.”

In considering what kind of sensory-themed events to propose in her application, Huang found herself drawn to quilts. She says during and before the application process the woven items kept appearing in her life. As one example, she points to a friend who specializes in memory quilts — pieces made of T-shirts and other items, often belonging to people who’ve passed away. Rather than being displayed as art, the quilts are typically used as a layer to keep warm.

The symbolic power of these quilts influenced the way Huang began to think about the way she’d relay stories during her residency. “The action of being covered by those memories is very strong,” she says, adding that she wanted to create a similar experience, albeit metaphorical in nature. “That’s why I named [the series] ‘Memory Quilt.’ I’m inviting the whole community to make this quilt with me. And I want people to leave here feeling covered by this quilt that we make.”

Sense of place

Each event in Huang’s series will feature a curated slate of artists presenting multidisciplinary stories and memories rooted in the five senses. Thursday, July 13, focuses on scent and taste; Thursday, July 20, explores sound; and Thursday, July 27, looks at sight and touch.

UNC Asheville humanities professor Leslee Johnson will share a story about tomatoes; singer-songwriter and visual artist Ben Phantom will use music and imagery to delve into a memory about pho; and West Asheville native JoeRob, with whom Huang volunteers at Asheville Poverty Initiative’s 12 Baskets Cafe, will share his relationship with trees and wood during the “sight and touch” program. In selecting her collaborators, Huang was inspired by the Chinese proverb “Qiu Tong Cun Yi,” meaning “Strive for unity in diversity.”

“The people that I bring here, if you look at them, they’re very, very different people. They’re from different countries and regions, and their culture is very different,” Huang says. “Some grew up here in the mountains, some are from Tajikistan or Indonesia. It’s kind of like where I grew up. It’s a really diverse place, and we hang out with different people all the time. We don’t think that they’re different — they’re minorities, but we still hang out together.”

The series will culminate each evening in a communal circle where attendees can share their own sensory memories. In reviewing Huang’s application for the residency, says Hallagan Clare, the artist’s inclusion of this nightly gathering truly showcased her commitment to community-oriented work.

Huang hopes when people leave each “Memory Quilt” event, they begin sharing more memories with their friends and families. But she also desires that attendees — particularly her West Asheville neighbors — use the series as an opportunity to let their guard down and open up to each other.

“These are very important people, and I think their voice and stories need to be heard in order for our community to be a little healthier,” Huang says. “Asheville is going to be more diverse, but is it a real diversity? An inclusive diversity or an exclusive diversity? Because sometimes it doesn’t feel very inclusive.”

To learn more, visit


Thanks for reading through to the end…

We share your inclination to get the whole story. For the past 25 years, Xpress has been committed to in-depth, balanced reporting about the greater Asheville area. We want everyone to have access to our stories. That’s a big part of why we've never charged for the paper or put up a paywall.

We’re pretty sure that you know journalism faces big challenges these days. Advertising no longer pays the whole cost. Media outlets around the country are asking their readers to chip in. Xpress needs help, too. We hope you’ll consider signing up to be a member of Xpress. For as little as $5 a month — the cost of a craft beer or kombucha — you can help keep local journalism strong. It only takes a moment.

About Edwin Arnaudin
Edwin Arnaudin is a staff writer for Mountain Xpress. He also reviews films for and is a member of the Southeastern Film Critics Association (SEFCA) and North Carolina Film Critics Association (NCFCA). Follow me @EdwinArnaudin

Before you comment

The comments section is here to provide a platform for civil dialogue on the issues we face together as a local community. Xpress is committed to offering this platform for all voices, but when the tone of the discussion gets nasty or strays off topic, we believe many people choose not to participate. Xpress editors are determined to moderate comments to ensure a constructive interchange is maintained. All comments judged not to be in keeping with the spirit of civil discourse will be removed and repeat violators will be banned. See here for our terms of service. Thank you for being part of this effort to promote respectful discussion.

Leave a Reply

To leave a reply you may Login with your Mountain Xpress account, connect socially or enter your name and e-mail. Your e-mail address will not be published. All fields are required.