Ophelia Chong Interview

Ophelia Chong Interview

Puffco: Thank you for hopping on this call with us. What inspired you to start Asian Americans for Cannabis Education?

Ophelia: Well, I wanted to chip away at the giant mountain of stigma that Asians have. I mean, we are afraid of a lot of things. So with cannabis, when I first came into the industry and you probably know this one too, as you walk into a room, any conference event session, you're always looking around and you're going, “ah, man.” You can do the secret Asian hang signal. Like I know you. So because of that, it was obvious why. Because of the stigma attached to it. But also normally most AAPIs will gravitate to something more established. Right? But now we're seeing a lot of people. Lot of Asian-Americans coming from the mainstream into cannabis.
I mean, we've seen this huge shift since 2017. So I began AACE to help my own people understand that anyone that went to a college, Ivy league, or was in a main stream industry could then go into cannabis, but not suffer what every Asian mom or dad fear. That you're going to go to jail, all this stuff, because I had to deal with a lot of Christians, a lot of Asian evangelist, Christians in San Francisco and El Monte. That's why I started AACE because there wasn't enough me, but now there's a lot of us, which is great.

Puffco: Were your parents the same way?

Ophelia: Oh no. I had the most uber liberal parents ever. My mom was a developer in China and spent half the year in China where my dad was an engineer. He stayed home. And I mean, I grew up in a house where my dad took all his Playboys, every centerfold and lacquered it to their master bathroom while my mom was in China for a month. So the whole bathroom, even the garbage can had a centerfold wrapped around it. So I caught my parents smoking weed. My mom wore hot leather, hot pants. So we were very open and my parents have been extremely supportive of what I'm doing. My dad invested in Canopy when it first started and sold it probably when it was like $58. My mom also invested in stock pot there and she also went on Chinese radio shows, helping elderly people understand cannabis too. So my parents are completely the opposite. I didn't have those issues. They were, I mean, they're very, very supportive. That's amazing. And also they're very weird too. I love parents.

Puffco: Are you second generation?

Ophelia: First. My parents came to Canada and my dad just after war. If you remember history in the States and Canada, the Asian, Chinese exclusion law, where we were not allowed to immigrate, as in family, only men who come over and he had to pay a head tax of $500 to work in the country, which back then was like 10 grand. After the war, my grandfather was able to bring my dad over and he went to university of UT. My mom came after that and they met, and they got married. We don't remember the racism up until the fifties and still continuing now as it’s even getting worse for Asian Americans.

Puffco: Are you based in Los Angeles?

Ophelia: I moved here to go to college from Canada and I decided to stay. I got my green card and everything else and then my citizenship in 2000. So now they can't kick me out for touching a plant, so I am stuck here or they're stuck with me.

Puffco: How has cannabis changed your life?

Ophelia: It's the best thing ever. Because when I first graduated, I was a photographer for Ray Gun and so got deep into a lot of alcohol. Right. And I've been sober now for 15 years. Oh, going on 16. Oh, actually in about a week, it'd be 16 years. So going into cannabis was a completely big decision too if you're in AA. So I had to decide to take cannabis and I researched it and it was a medicine. It's a plant medicine. It's everything I learned but basically, I was one of those evil Asians before but then as I researched and it’s a plant medicine and now I use it nightly to go to sleep. So basically I'll roll a dog-walker, I'll have a couple edibles and I watch Netflix I'm out.

Puffco: Tell us a little bit about what you intended to do when you went into school.

Ophelia: Yeah. I went into Art Center. I went in for a BFA for fine arts in painting. Right then the Asian in me thought I ain't going to make money on that. So halfway through, I did a minor in photography and when I graduated, I had one portfolio in a stainless-steel box that I made. I dropped it off to David Carson. I say, Hey, you only can take a look at my work. So he called me the next day. And then I started working exclusively for him and Ray Gun for about three years. And then after he left as well, but then from there I got picked up as art director for World Domination, but then I still shot for Sony all these, Oh my God. They're gone. Mercury Virgin, a lot of tiny little bands as well. And magazines like Blur, Bleach, Lava.
From there I got headhunted into film and I became a career director for Strand Releasing and released about 40 or 50 films. Our films were at Sundance, Toronto Berlin. I worked with Gus Van Sant and a lot of foreign directors too. We specialized in LGBT. Then I also was a creative director at Slam Dance for 10 years. That was the opposing special to Sundance. Then publishing and all the way now to cannabis. So I really basically started in music and I had a lot of bands stay at my house. They were always stinky, dirty, hungry.

Puffco: When was cannabis a part of that journey?

Ophelia: It was never part of it. It started with my younger sister who has an incurable disease. She had come from another country to use cannabis. So I went to get a card at this place with this sketchy doctor who was watching the Superbowl at the same time. He does, “Aha. Aha. Okay, here you go.” Then I walked into a dispensary next door, which was run by a local gang. They had these bags of cookies and weird gummy things. So I bought a cookie and I gave it to my sister. I said, they didn't tell me how to use this, but eat it a little bit.
We know it was 250 milligram cookie, right? So she has a little bit. The first night was fine. The second she goes, “ah, this is really good, ah, I like this.” And then all night was back and forth, back and forth (from the bathroom). She didn't die. But because of that, I looked at her and I said, you know, you're a stoner. And I started crying. I stereotyped my sister. So that's how Stock Pot started because I went to Getty and typed in stoner. And it was the most racist shit I've ever seen in my life. And it's still there. The keywords for a black man holding a joint. The keywords addict, illegal gangster drugs. You know, all these words, a white man, they did not have the same words. So I started Stock Pot that day. And when I closed it, the day I closed it, after I partnered with Adobe, I had over about 3000 images, but 250 photographers from around the world. And the only schedule one model release in the world that had in red, I allow my photo to be used, knowing that I'm holding a schedule one drug. Now where can you get anyone to sign that for a stock photo? We were able to do that because I had to be all the way down the line with them so the models knew what they were doing, but also offer the images to people, knowing that what we were producing was completely authentic. And we had LGBT, I had women, I had children, BiPOC, everybody stock images in there.

Puffco: Was the overall mission about representation and showing a new side?

Ophelia: My mission was to show people like my sister as they are, and not as this stereotypical person lying and giddy images lying in an abandoned building, smoking a joint on a mattress. Right? So that was my goal.

Puffco: Did you face any major challenges as an Asian woman?

Ophelia: No, I was lucky probably because I'm older. I had more comments when I was working in other industries. I ran into very little opposition or racism or sexism in this. Again, it, if you meet in person, it's very hard to say that to me, without my eyes squinting down and just staring at you. I did not experience that in cannabis because cannabis industry is a little more open. Yes. There is a lot of racism that because I have encountered, seen other people do it, but I feel it's a little more balanced because of the history of it.

Puffco: Do you have any advice to offer to any women coming into the cannabis industry?

Ophelia: If you're going to go into cannabis, do what you do best and just add cannabis to it. If you're an accountant, learn the laws. If you're a lawyer, learn the laws. If you're a designer, learn all the BCC laws, which are many, but also do a deep dive study in it. Do not put on your LinkedIn that you're a longtime advocate because I am going to laugh at that. Because if you're using it in the sense that you think you can get work, maybe, but really once you get into the community, you're going to be hard tested on that. So I really believe a woman coming into whatever you do best this at cannabis and doing really deep dive and find a mentor, right.
I'm willing to mentor anybody to learn what the business is about and also the plant. Get into a car and drive and see some farms and actually delve into it. Know the plant. Yeah. I grew 27 plants in my backyard the first year. This witch up in San Luis Obispo who became part of a series of photo, she took my hand and this shook a Mason jar full of seeds into my hand. She said you don't know nothing until you grow this, so go grow it and don't come back until you do. So I grew 27 plants that summer and my backyard was pretty dank. And it was a lot of trimming too. So this year I'm probably going to do about 12 plants. Well, I can do six, little of six big.

Puffco: Were there any parts of your journey along the way where you could see a difference in between what that path would look like for a man and what that path would look like for yourself?

Ophelia: Ah, that's a really good question because that is the general theme amongst most people of color. Is how being white and male steps you up a little higher. Right. And I see every day. Yes, I see barriers to being a person of color in cannabis. And hopefully with companies like Puffco, with AACE, with other companies that are open to hiring more BIPOC and training people, then we'll make a bigger step than the other industries right now.

Puffco: What would you say is the overarching global image of cannabis within the Asian-American community and why?

Ophelia: That's a really great question because there are a few people on AACE who haven't told their parents that they're in the industry or how deep they are into it. And of course China is where most of the ancillary products come. So we have a big device that we're a, we're not touching a plant, so it's okay. Right? We can make everything else, but then touching a plant is completely different. So I, I think there's a very odd divide there and almost splitting the brain in half to try to accept one. So there's a way that the brain has divided in Asia that is okay to do the hardware and produce everything for, but let's not touch the plant.
But right now China has about 10 CBD licenses. They have out there that they're going to be building farms and manufacturing out there. So it's moving slowly. Drugs? It goes back to even for, okay? Confucius believes that when the family system, right, we are a multi-family multi-generational family system, where in your home, you have your children and your grandparents. You're looking after grandparents and the grandparents look after grandchildren. So to do that, you have to have a job and you have to have a job that's legal. If you're in cannabis, your parents are going to, you're not going to be able to look out for everyone. So it's based on a Confucian system of, of honoring the parents in that whatever you're doing here, you got is to support your parents. So if you can't do that, if you drugs, sorry, that's what kind of long, but it's multilayered in there.

Puffco: What are your and AACE’s thoughts on what’s happening right now in the Asian community?

Ophelia: Two weeks ago, I was down in LA historic park. It was, it was a gathering of nonprofit, Asian groups to speak about the hate crimes had been going on with uncle Trin up in San Francisco. And it's been about 2,800 K crimes this year, since last year. So, and also because of the political climate, we are now the new pariah and how ACEE for me, it's just being there to support them because really ACE is about cannabis. Right? And so it isn't really about outreach in a general way. So I, I just go and support, but it is, I mean, when people are attacking 85 year old grandpas walking across the street with impunity, then we, we have, we have a very big issue. It's very sad to go walk out there and think that you're a target because we've been always, I mean, everyone here has probably been called or something. My house was vandalized when I was a child, because we were an all-white neighborhood. So we've all experienced that. But now I'm worried about my parents.

Puffco: What do you see as the main driver of these attacks?

Ophelia: Cause everyone would movement needs a boogie man. They need a need a billon to bring people together and hate is a very easy emotion to evoke into people. And it's very easy to stoke it, right? It's very hard to evoke empathy or love. Right. But hate is instant. Right? So what's happening now is blaming one ethnic group for being stuck at home. And your kid's not at school. Right. It's easy to do that because rather than bad, bad decisions by governments is easy to go. Oh, you're the reason just like what happened after 9/11. How many places were robbed, shattered, burned down because a, they were wearing a turbine? We’re dumped into this one bucket of color and now the light is on us because it's easier to focus less on us than on a real issue. So basically everyone needs a boogie man right now it's us.

Puffco: What are the things that you're most excited about doing in the future?

Ophelia: Helping people create that visual story. Right? It is a gentler form of marketing rather than slapping you in the face with a girl, with some flare behind her hair flowers, and she's smoking a joint. You'll never be that person. Right? So what I want to do is maybe try and take imagery that is attainable, right? This is what the real truth is and try and at it through emotion and bring the love up because I hate I can do easy. Right? But putting a story about love is going to be extremely, extremely hard. So that's my goal to actually find that imagery that evokes that for a product.

Puffco: What is your relationship with plant?

Ophelia: I'm just really happy because I have a green thumb. I love growing things. And so my favorite relationship with the plant is actually I have some seeds popping now is watching that thing grow right day by day. Going to about six feet tall. And every business should look at that too, because your business is not going to go from here to six feet tall in a week. It's going to take years, right? And if you're a patient have to grow a cannabis plant, you're going to be patient of the, grow your business. Because that thing is not as easy as a tomato. It's got a lot. There's a lot of work in that lady, right?
So that is my relationship to the plant. It’s a relationship to everything. Everything starts from a seed or a spore. And it just takes time and you gotta learn and you're gonna make a hell lot of mistakes. I mean, I've thrown out so much stuff, but by the time you get there, you're going to be really good. But every time I failed, I got better. So failure is better. And that's my relationship with the plant. Every time I failed in cannabis, I got better.

Puffco: When do you find yourself smoking? What does it do for your body? Your mind?

Ophelia: Oh, good question. I go out in my backyard, which I haven't got I've I've got like 7,000 square feet of backyard and I have put solar lights, everywhere, color ones that go off and on and change colors. And I there with a joint. I stand there and thinking what my day was like and what my day is going to be like tomorrow. And then I put it out. I walk into the house and I'm done. It's this is a moment of letting go of the ritual of inhaling, exhaling, looking at the sky and going okay. That was done. That was done. That was not. And I up here. I'm not going to up tomorrow. Okay. Let's go. It's a beautiful plant. It takes you into that place where you can just slow down and relax in and not stress.
Well, it's all about growing and sharing. That's the thing about cannabis. Cannabis is sharing. Not that we're going to puff and pass, but it was all in the foundation of sharing, right? I don't own a cannabis company because everything would be free.

Puffco: Thank you so much for your time. We really appreciate it.