Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai – Spoken Word Artist

Brooklyn, NY

Being Taiwanese American provides us with a rich history and powerful metaphors enabling us with the capacity to understand multiple struggles around the world.

tsai.kelly4Who are you?

My parents first moved to the U.S. in 1968 and 1969 to Akron, Ohio in the midst of the racial tensions and political unrest going on at that time. My mother was the middle daughter of a politician from Shanghai who moved to Taipei in 1949. My father was the youngest son of an agricultural family that worked in the sugar plantations and refineries in Tainan. My father became a chemical engineer, and my mother after studying social work became a computer programmer. They moved from Ohio to Massachusetts to Illinois. As a child, I was always drawn to writing and performing since it gave me the release, opportunity, and platform to constantly express, define, and re-define who I am in a culture that so often negates the possibility of my existence culturally, politically, and spiritually.

What do you do?

I am a spoken word artist based in Brooklyn, NY. I grew up in the Chicago suburbs and got into writing and performing spoken word poetry through a high school English teacher who introduced me to the poetry slam scene in Chicago. Since then, I’ve gone on to perform at over 400 venues worldwide including 3 seasons on the award-winning “Russell Simmons Presents HBO Def Poetry.” I also collaborate with filmmakers, choreographers, musicians, theater artists, visual artists, cultural and political organizations. My first spoken word film, “By-Standing…” was directed by the fabulous Karen Lin and went onto win the Media That Matters Film Festival War & Peace Award. My third film, “Black, White, Whatever…” was a Featured Video and has gotten over 250,000 hits online. I’ve also been listed on’s 30 Most Influential Asian Americans Under 30 and profiled on HBO’s documentary “East of Main Street: Asians Aloud.”

Why are you proud to be of Taiwanese heritage?

Being Taiwanese American provides us with a rich history and powerful metaphors enabling us with the capacity to understand multiple struggles around the world. The movement for the self-determination and recognition of Taiwan is not only our story but resonates with the diverse struggles in Puerto Rico, Palestine, and elsewhere. The history of how our people persevered through 2-28 and the White Terror period, the pains of having our history (and language) functionally erased through genocide and censorship, and then reclaimed — is powerful in exploring how the truths need to be told around the world for healing and redemption to be achieved. As a 2nd generation Taiwanese American (and in the case of my family – one side KMT “Mainlanders,” the other side DPP “Taiwanese Taiwanese”), my experience is one of reconciling opposites — ameliorating opposition and making sense of the causes and consequences of conflict.

What does the future of Taiwanese America look like to you?

We are already EVERYWHERE! Making a big impact in different fields all across the country — so I hope that we can keep our network growing with pride and make sure that 2nd, 3rd, 4th, 5th generation folks and onward keep doing the knowledge to connect who we are with our histories, legacies, and linkages to Taiwan… and across the pan-Asian Pacific Islander American diaspora, people of color, and diverse communities across the globe. To never forget where we come from and let it powerfully propel us into the futures and possibilities that are forged by our hands, hearts, and movement.

Any additional information you would like to share?

To check out my work as a spoken word artist, visit my official website at for bios, pics, poems, videos, MP3’s, weekly blog, online store, FAQ, and monthly email list. You can also find me on:
Twitter: @yellowgurlpoet
Facebook: Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai

To watch the recently released HBO documentary on the Asian Pacific Islander American experience that I’m profiled in “East of Main Street: Asians Aloud,” watch it online at:

And I’m really craving a roasted yam straight from a night market street cart right about now.


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