It’s the first Friday of the month and swarms of people gather on street corners and around store entrances. As the sun sinks and the night begins, the crowds continue to thicken. While Chinatown seems an unlikely place for art exhibition, hundreds gather here once a month for First Friday, a town-wide celebration of the arts.
The Art Board, an eclectic art gallery across the street from Marks Garage on Nu’uanu Ave., serves as the entrance into a small, intimate gallery known as Pygoya Gallery. As people view the art on display, Rodney E.J. Chang, the featured artist and owner of the gallery, sits inconspicuously in the corner. During the work day, he’s Dr. Chang, your friendly neighborhood dentist. But Rodney Chang is much more than a doctor of dental surgery.
Chang’s journey into art began in the rocky first days of his public school education. He explains, “You learn to stop daydreaming in first grade. I struggled with numbers and letters, but when you put those jars of paint in front of me, it was like a fish coming to water. So I had no choice but to do this.”
The final shove into the art world came by way of a bully. One day, Chang had the misfortune of having to wear his sister’s red rain coat to Chinese lessons in Chinatown – not acceptable for a boy in the second grade. On top of this, he was scrawny, making a perfect target for bullies.
After having his lunch money demanded of him and his head repeatedly slammed into a flag pole, Chang was ready for other options. When a one-eyed woman offered music lessons to him and his brother, he had no hesitation choosing music over Chinese lessons. Thus began his career in music.
Like many others, the ‘60s for Chang meant rock and roll. A part of a local seven-man rock band known as the Harmonics, he once played for a crowd of 9,000 at the Waikiki Shell. The group was completed by a devoted horde of 30 obsessed female fans known as the Harmonelles.
With the ‘70s came disco and on Friday nights Chang transformed the waiting room of his dentist office into a night club featuring a disco jockey and a live radio broadcast. In 1979, he was featured on NBC’s Real People, where the combination of his dentistry skills and his passion for disco dancing led to the nickname “Disco Dentist.” Some say Chang can still be spotted dancing Saturday nights away at Rumours Night Club in Honolulu.
However, music and dance were not to be his only creative outlets. In 1985, a time when personal computers were a rarity, Chang ventured into the world of computer-generated art. His fellow fine artists looked down on the practice at first and wondered why Chang, who received a master’s degree in Studio Art at Northern Illinois University, didn’t as well. Because he was “pushing buttons and not a brush,” some even claimed that he was not a real artist. But despite this initial lack of enthusiasm from the art community, Chang pressed on and continues today to rely heavily on computers to create his out-of-the-ordinary works of art. He has been featured in museums around the globe: New York, Shanghai, Estonia, Law Vegas, and Vienna among others.
To bring all of his creative thoughts and ideas together, Chang decided to try his hand at writing. In typical unique fashion, he opted out of journalism and instead chose to pursue his love for sci-fi. Chang has written three novels to date, with topics ranging from ancient Hawaiian culture and art to Roswell and the Salem witch hunts. He also has an upcoming book entitled “The Artist Who Thinks Too Much.”
Chang is one of many colorful artists featured during First Friday exhibitions. He is living proof of the success of Chinatown’s First Friday, which was pioneered with the intention to spruce up the atmosphere of a once-seedy neighborhood. In a section of town where the only deals done used to be illegal ones, First Friday Art Nights have begun a movement towards a cleaner and more inspiring Chinatown.