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SoMa’s ‘TNT Traysikel’ spreads cultural pride on three wheels

Artist Mike Arcega and filmmaker Paolo Asuncion met at an art gallery in SoMa several years ago and were surprised to learn their brothers were friends in Manila. Their friendship—and mutual passion for motorcycles—led to their collaboration on a custom-built motorized tricycle, with a sidecar attached and a built-in karaoke machine. 

The mobile, musical sculpture not only roams the streets of SoMa now but has become a symbol of Filipino American identity in the community and a repository for its stories spanning oceans and generations. The colorful contraption will be out for a spin on Thursday, July 29, for the Exploratorium’s Art for Action after-hours event, where attendees will be able to sing “SideCaraoke” and see the springboard for the friends’ forthcoming documentary in all its bespoke glory. 

Having trekked across the Golden Gate Bridge earlier this year, the TNT Traysikel has become a vehicle for local Filipino Americans to belt out songs and celebrate their stories. | Photo by Mark Baugh Sasaki

You could call it a coming-out party to the wider public for the tricycle, which Arcega sees as a signal for the Filipino American community in the South of Market neighborhood. When the SOMA Pilipinas cultural district was made official in 2016, it was clear the Filipino community lacked physical representation, Arcega told Here/Say.

“People were looking for some iconic thing to create a cultural presence in the community,” he said.

Filipino-Korean singer-songwriter and DC Comic's 'Birds of Prey' star Ella Jay Basco poses in front of the TNT Traysikel at the Asian American film festival CAMMFest. | Photo by Mike Arcega

Grant funding and support from the San Francisco Arts Commission—which has been pushing to bring innovative Filipino art installations to the SOMA Pilipinas cultural district—aided Arcega and Asuncion’s purchase of a bike and sidecar that was “just bare metal” about two and a half years ago, Asuncion said.

The two friends collaborated with painter Michelle “Meng” Nguyen and the Handsome Asians Motorcycle Club to customize the vehicle and started riding it around San Francisco, particularly in SoMa, under the moniker TNT Traysikel. According to the artists, TNT is a Tagalog acronym for Tago ng Tago, which translates to “always hiding” and is used as a codeword among Filipinos for an undocumented person.

The Handsome Asians Motorcycle Club was essential in TNT’s early restructuring. | Photo by Mike Arcega

The rig’s full karaoke machine plays songs in English and Tagalog (the standardized language of the Philippines), and riders can don a helmet with an embedded microphone to belt out their song of choice.  Standard microphones can be used when the tricycle is parked.

While the tricycle started as just a moving, musical art piece, it has now transitioned into an oral history project on wheels and a source of mobile joy, offering Filipinos across the Bay Area an opportunity to re-connect to their cultural roots, Arcega said.

In April 2021, the tricycle made an epic journey across the Golden Gate Bridge as part of a trek organized by the Northern California Pinoy Riders to celebrate the state’s gradual reopening from COVID-19 shelter-in-place restrictions and sport some cultural pride.

The Hon. Neil Frank R. Ferrer and Marie Soleil Tropicales belt out the song ‘Manila’ by Hotdog on the sidewalk in front of the Philippine consulate’s Sutter Street office.  | Photo by Mike Arcega

“We started driving it around and anywhere we went, people would just approach it, admire it, and then turn to us and start telling us a story,” Asuncion said. Prompted by the tricycle, Filipinos spanning first-generation to fifth would dive into the history of their immigrant experience and their cultural connections.

Asuncion recounted one interview in which one of the NorCal Pinoy Riders recounted the story of going through his grandfather’s belongings after his death.

The rider’s father and his four siblings had approved visas to go to the U.S. because of his grandfather’s service in World War II. But for some reason—perhaps because of the family’s economic status—the grandfather never told his family about the visas and their access to the U.S. When the documents were discovered after his death, the family pooled their funding to send one sibling to Chicago, where she worked at a White Castle drive-thru window until she had saved enough money to bring another sibling over. The siblings continued working and saving until the whole family was reunited in the U.S.

Arianna Lady Basco and Maddie Dimayuga sing karaoke from the sidecar at Kapwa Gardens in SoMa. | Photo by Mike Arcega

“The sacrifice and hard work involved to move here is typically overlooked,” Asuncion said. The TNT Traysikel project aims to spotlight such stories and document them.

Once the artists realized the clear, emotional response to TNT, they saw an opportunity to use it to create a more in-depth documentary series. The two friends are utilizing the spontaneous interactions with the tricycle to identify interview subjects for their documentary, which will be filmed over the coming year. Some interviews will be within the tricycle itself as part of a karaoke session, while others may occur in a more stationary setting. 

 The Filipina Bayanihan Choir admire TNT at SoMa's Kapwa Gardens while the tricycle project films its upcoming documentary. | Photo by Mike Arcega

The stories invoked by the tricycle not only tell Filipino immigrants’ stories but also explain why so many Filipinos are migrating to the United States, Arcega said. 

“Most people haven’t learned — or don’t remember — that all of the people in the Philippines were Americans,” when the U.S. colonized the islands in 1898, he said. “The U.S. is and has been present in the Philippines since then… even the educational and government systems are based on the U.S. system.” 

But Filipino contributions to American culture have been mostly invisible or unrecognized, he added.

“Even many Filipinos are ignorant of this history,” Asuncion said.

The TNT Traysikel is filled with bespoke touches. | Photo by Mike Arcega

Just as Filipinos reclaimed and converted military jeeps left by Americans on Manila’s streets after World War II into customized Jeepneys, putting a “traysikel” on American soil also announces the Filipino presence and claims space, according to the artists.

Although the work is mainly mobile, the artists are collaborating with Saint Joseph’s Art Society to develop stationary in-person events. Saint Joseph’s church used to host the largest Filipino congregation in the U.S. before the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake rendered it unsafe for occupation, Arcega said. It reopened before the pandemic as a sort of members-only space, but the tricycle project is one of its first big efforts to expand Saint Joseph’s to the full SOMA Pilipinas community, he added.

The TNT Traysikel outside Oracle Park at twilight. | Photo by Mike Arcega

“We have an opportunity to continue [to] shape the culture rather than just assimilate,” Arcega said. 

The forthcoming documentary, supported by a grant from the San Francisco Arts Commission, will share stories of those who may not otherwise have the opportunity. The tentative release date for the documentary is summer 2022 when the TNT Traysikel will have an appearance at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco’s Civic Center. 

Until then, you can catch the tricycle at the Exploratorium later this month. 

Interested in helping the TNT Traysikel’s documentary project get off the ground? Proceeds from the sale of t-shirts and patches via the group’s Instagram will go toward the making of the film. Follow @tnt_tricycle for updates. Tickets for the Exploratorium’s ‘After Dark: Art for Action’ event can be purchased here.