More Thoughts on Being Half-Chinese

More Thoughts on Being Half-Chinese

Two years ago, I wrote a short caption to one of my photographs containing some thoughts on being half-Chinese. It ended up becoming one of the most-read things I’ve written on my Flickr, and – thanks to Flickr Stats – I know that it continues to receive dozens of views each day as a direct result of people Googling terms like “half-chinese”, "half-asian girls" and even “what will a half-chinese baby look like.” (one example of an answer to this question can be seen in this photograph: my little cousin Lewis.)

Last month Ankur, a Glasgow-based production company which nurtures Minority Ethnic talent in Scotland, invited me to give a talk and be a part of a panel discussion at their festival Where Are You Really From? The following is a transcript of the talk I gave there, with additions to what I had prepared added as best I can remember. (The bullet points denote a moment where I moved the slideshow along: disregard these.)

Researching and writing this talk has been a revelatory experience for me in many ways. I started with the title I had been given – "From Ethnography to Intercultural Practice" – and imagined I should prepare something quite scholarly. I looked out my old university notes, I scanned my bookcases for all I could find on cultural studies, art history, critical theory. I was getting excited because, since I graduated, I don’t very often have reasons to engage that kind of deep, rigorous study, and I realised I had missed it.

But then it occurred to me that I’ve been invited here as an artist and not as an academic. I thought then that I should give a more personal response to the theme. "Is your own cultural heritage an influence on your work as an artist?" Whether I think of "cultural heritage" as artefacts, objects and places, or a collection of less tangible properties like language, lore and traditions, it seems that the ways in which I understand or interpret that heritage has everything to do with family. Add to that my "work as an artist" and it doesn’t get much more personal. Thinking along these lines had me looking through old family photographs and retracing lots of my childhood in my mind, and in the end I thought ‘this isn’t right either. This isn’t for an a public talk, it’s for my psychoanalyst!’

So I struggled to find the right voice, wavering between the academic and the personal, the scholarly and the confessional. I think what would be best is if I explain the dry facts about my cultural heritage, about the work I do as an "artist", and then examine and analyse the points at which they intersect.

My Dad left Hong Kong in 1982 and came to Scotland to study • . His sister had arrived here a few years prior to that, and Dad worked nights in the Chinese takeaway she had set up in Ayr. A couple of years later, that’s where he met my mother, who would pop in at the end of a night out for some food. •

Fifteen years after that, my parents gave me my first camera, and I took it everywhere with me, photographing everything and everyone that interested me. When I was seventeen I went to Glasgow University to study English Literature, and by then I had a fully manual camera, but I had never taken a course in or read a book about photography. I hadn’t even read the instruction manual for the camera. I learned how to use it through practise, through trial and error. I knew that if this number was higher then this would happen, but it meant that this other number had to be lower, and if that number was lower than I had to do so and so.

In my second year I entered an essay competition and won a place on a student exchange to Pakistan. • When I returned and the university saw the photographs I’d taken there, I started to work for them, but it wasn’t until I was in my final year that I’d developed the confidence to consider a career in it. When I graduated, I turned down the offer of a traineeship at a law firm to pursue photography, scraping by by working part-time as an administrator in the law firm and doing photography jobs of any kind whenever they came up. In my social life I was making friends with lots of people in the arts, and through an actor friend I met the theatre maker Stewart Laing, who commissioned me to photograph one of his shows. • I’ll be eternally grateful to Stewart for that, for the leap of faith involved in asking me, at that time so young and inexperienced, to photograph something I’d never photographed before, because it turned out to be my first real break. When other theatre companies saw what I’d done for Stewart, I began to get a lot more emails from people in theatre and, now, I work regularly for almost every Scottish theatre company I’ve heard of. • • •

So that’s more or less where I came from and where I am, but I’ve never really been comfortable with describing myself as an "artist". In my professional life I mostly document the art that other people have made – actors, directors, set designers and lighting designers. But I think the closest thing to art I make comes from my personal work, which is contained in my Flickr stream • – – a collection of 3000 images which I add to most days and which comprises a document of my life over the past seven years: all the friends I’ve ever made, all the interesting things and people I’ve ever seen as I passed them in the street, all the different cities I’ve ever visited. • • • The reason for my hesitation to call myself an artist – the reason that I’ve never held an artist residency, the reason I rarely exhibit – is that this work doesn’t directly or intentionally question or challenge anything: it’s documentary, it’s portraiture, its only thematic link being that I saw it: it says nothing more than "Here is a person, in a place, doing what they’re doing. Make of it what you will." Despite my background in literary studies, I’ve never been comfortable deconstructing or intellectualising my work. The photographs I like best stand on their own as images, and don’t need an essay of text to explain what they’re "really" "about". Susan Sontag writes in her collection of essays about photography that "The ultimate wisdom of the photographic image is to say: There is the surface. Now think – or rather feel, intuit what is beyond it, what the reality must be like if it looks this way." This is the only text that should accompany my work. •

So to return to the theme, I ask myself how these two aspects – my photography, such as it is, and my family, my upbringing, my culture, my heritage – are related. This involves quite a lot of self-analysis and family background, which I hope I can make interesting and not too self-indulgent, but I’m going to go ahead with it and see where it takes us.

My day-to-day upbringing wasn’t much different from that of most children brought up in working-class Scottish families. • Mum took care of the house and raised the children, Dad worked. The main difference may be that, like many Chinese fathers, Dad really worked. Fourteen to sixteen hours a day, six days a week. He never took holidays – we went on family holidays without him – and he never took sick days, even when he was very ill. •

My Chinese name is Ga-Ken. It’s quite common for the first part of a Chinese man’s name to be Ga – it can translate as "most" – followed by an adjective. For example, Li Ka-Shing, the name of Asia’s richest man: sing means honest, so whoever named him "most honest" believed that honesty was the most important quality, the quality they wanted him to have. When I was 11, I got my first report card from secondary school and it described me as "an industrious pupil". Dad didn’t know what industrious meant, so he looked out his English-Chinese dictionary, and was overjoyed to discover that I had been described by the name he had given me: "most industrious, most hard-working." •

Another school report card leads me to my point. By the time I was fifteen, my reports reached the consensus that "Tommy excels only in those subjects in which he is interested. If he is not interested, he will not work hard." I’ve read that children often don’t take after their parents with regard to attitudes to money. If a child sees her parents arguing or worrying about money, she may resolve never to be like that herself, to be careful and sensible with her money. Conversely, if her parents are constantly telling her "no, we can’t have that, it costs too much" she may resolve never to be like that herself, to be liberal and carefree with her money. I can relate to that when I think about Dad’s work ethic. I’m not saying I can’t be hardworking, but, as my teachers noted, only if it’s something I care about. Dad’s kind of hard work – on his feet for fourteen hours a day in a small, overheated kitchen doing repetitive tasks to cook takeaway food – is not something anyone is interested in. He did it to provide for his family. Now, as an adult, I see that, and have so much respect for it – I think it’s heroic – but I hated it as a child, simply because I missed him. Dad’s weekly day off was something I would get excited about two days beforehand, like a mini-Christmas every week. Although he retired when I was seventeen – he wasn’t even forty – his absence throughout my childhood resulted in a tense relationship between us throughout my teenage years and for much of my adult life. It was only three years ago that I began to get to know him as a person – to understand his likes, his dislikes, his hopes and fears. And perhaps that explains why I felt I had to do something I loved: I didn’t want to be like him. Because, when I do work and work hard, it doesn’t feel like work because I love it. I went to university to study something I love, and ended up making a career of something that began as a hobby and became a passion, even an obsession. •

I studied English Literature because I found that I could learn more about life and about what it means to be a human being by reading fiction than by studying psychology or history or philosophy directly. This aspect of my personality was encouraged by Mum from the youngest age. Although she herself had left school at sixteen with hardly any qualifications, she taught me to read, and bought me novels so I’d keep doing it; she bought me pencils and paper to draw with. While she watched her soaps, I would lie on the living room carpet filling out pages of paper with stories that came out of my head, and when she saw this she bought me a typewriter. My love of stories began with playing video games with strong characters and storylines before moving to novels and, eventually, to a degree in Literature. They also paved the way for a love of photography. • When I tell people I studied literature and that I’m a photographer, they typically say "oh, completely different, then!" but I don’t believe that. I was once in an interview with a graphic designer, and when I told him about my studies he asked "do you take photographs in an English literature kind of way?" At first I didn’t know what he meant, but the more I thought about it, the more I realised that I do. I’m interested in stories, and in the work I do I’m interested in how we tell a story by capturing the light and colour of a single moment and placing it in that space.

My Mum told me a story about a time when I was four years old, and the two of us were walking down Ayr High Street to meet my Dad as he finished work. When I saw him outside the takeaway, I screamed "Daddy!" and ran towards him. Two passing women observed this and one said to the other "That’s no a chinky’s wean." I’m not sure if I just constructed a false memory around the story as my Mum told it, but I feel like I remember that, like I remember not knowing what it meant. But before I was even old enough to realise I was mixed race, I believe it had begun to influence the creative work I do now. I first visited Hong Kong when I was two years old, but I don’t remember anything of it and wouldn’t have understood where we were going and why. • But by the time I was in my first year of primary school, Hong Kong had become very important to me. One of my earliest and happiest memories – a memory I know I really do possess – is the day Dad returned from a trip to Hong Kong. From that day on, I spent my childhood trying to understand where he had been – what Hong Kong was – but I didn’t look at informational books or documentaries; I experienced Hong Kong through the sweets • and toys • and comics • and films he brought back with him. They were so exciting to me, so unlike anything I’d seen before, and I couldn’t get enough. I spent hours looking through comics that I couldn’t understand, drawing the characters in stories of my own. While my friends wanted to be Power Rangers, I wanted to be a vampire-fighting Taoist priest. • I wanted to speak the language, and would imitate the lines spoken by my favourite characters in Chinese films, whether I knew what they meant or not. I wanted to eat with chopsticks all the time, and they were the first items I took in to "Show and Tell"; the same day that one of my classmates pulled his eyes into slits and imitated the sounds of Chinese dialiects at me. This first encounter with playground racism wasn’t enough to dampen my enthusiasm for my Chinese heritage, or to "play it down", an option which my Mum’s red hair and fair skin has sometimes left open to me. • Some people I meet are surprised to find out I’m anything but “white", whereas to others it’s obvious from the start that I’m half-Chinese. But I remember as a child wishing to look, if not be, fully Chinese. I remember being jealous of my cousins, also half-Chinese, who were and are darker-skinned and more obviously Chinese. I’ve always been surprised that my sister never shared an interest in Chinese culture, language, food, thought, art: she is, I think, largely indifferent to the fact of her mixed race.

But, for me, Hong Kong pervaded my imagination and almost every aspect of my inner life long before I ever went there as anything but a baby. In my mind, it was a magical and lively place filled with colour, excitement and happiness. The reality, which I discovered when I was sixteen and have returned to almost every year since, was, for me, exactly that. Hong Kong is where I have taken most of the photographs I consider to be my best, whether these are portraits • , street scenes • or professional commissions • . But could it have been anything else? Even if I had found it a dull, drab and boring place, would I have taken everything I’d imagined for so long and projected it there? Have I? Do I still?

I was approached a couple of years ago by a directing and writing team who were in the development stages of a television production. My role was to be a visual consultant, but I ended up working as a cinematographer for the first time when we produced a trailer. • • • When the trailer was shown for the first time at a development weekend run by The Playwright’s Studio, the visuals were described as showing Glasgow in a new way: not its usual portrayal as a dark, gray place, but colourful and vibrant: it evokes Bladerunner, they said. It doesn’t take a great leap of the imagination to see in Ridley Scott’s futuristic imagining of LA, Hong Kong in the present day. • And so it occurred to me that the image, the myth of Hong Kong I had created in my mind as a child: I took that and projected it not only onto the real Hong Kong, but to my home in Glasgow, and to everywhere. I photograph the night, whether in Glasgow or Lisbon, in shades of blue with flashes of neon; I photograph the sky and the grass in the same cartoonish, vivid hues as I had seen in Japanese animation. •

I have rarely been influenced by photographers. Frank O’Hara once remarked that, other than his own, he didn’t really like poetry unless it was so good it forced him to admire it. I feel more or less the same about photography: photography books take up only a small corner of my bookcase, and I don’t make much effort to go to photography exhibitions. I do however, spend lots of time watching films, and analysing and appreciating their cinematography taught me much more about light and colour and composition and feeling and storytelling than any photography has. The single biggest influence on my work and my visual taste has been the films of the Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar-Wai and his cinematographer Chris Doyle. • I was lucky enough to meet and work – and mostly drink -with Chris Doyle while he was in Glasgow earlier this year, and again some months later when I visited Hong Kong. • I watched many of Wong and Doyle’s films in my early teens, during my quest to create Hong Kong in my mind, and it was then that I first fell in love with the image, first realised its power. • Wong’s films often deal with urban alienation, • with protagonists who inhabit a city with an identity crisis, a city which moves and changes so quickly that they turn inward; they daydream, they sleepwalk. And, in my portrait work, I am attracted to these same qualities: • whether a candid portrait I’ve taken on the underground or through the window of a bar, or whether someone is sitting for me, I am looking for an arrangement of elements: light, lines, colour and most of all an expression which suggests an inner world. • In my photographs, people tend not to be doing anything: they’re thinking, reflecting. The films of Michael Mann have appealed to me for the same reason: they tend to be about deep and lonely men in dark and lonely places. I’m often told that what is most distinctive aspect my style is my colour palette, and it’s no surprise that Wong’s and Mann’s films, Doyle’s cinematography, are notable for the same reasons, using washes of colour to reflect an emotional state. • •

The identity crisis that afflicts modern Hong Kong comes largely from its history as a British colony and then a transfer of power to Beijing, under which Hong Kong exists as a "Special Administrative Region" with its own devolved government. • Dad told me that, growing up, he felt confused and unsure about where he was really from. Was he British? Chinese? Which flag should he wave, which national anthem should he sing? There is in Hong Kong now a growing tension between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders, and a growing movement for the city’s independence. • The parallels with Scotland’s situation are obvious: "Hong Kongese, not Chinese", "Scottish, not British." I support both Scottish independence and Hong Kong independence, but for pragmatic, political reasons: reasons of governance, and nothing to do with flagwaving or patriotism. I think that to be mixed race predisposes one to being a "world citizen": I’m reminded of Thomas Paine’s remark that "The world is my country: my religion, to do good."

My conclusion was to summarise the ways in which I consider being mixed race to have been a blessing – and I’ll still read it, because it’s still true – but having seen the short films Arpita has shown us, I see how much it relates only to my own experience. As one of the characters in the second film said: “It isn’t even about being from Britain or not: it’s about the colour of your skin.” I’m a big fan of the X-Men comics, which tell the story of people with genetic mutations which grant them superhuman abilities or gifts, and who are consequently ostracised and persecuted. They are an excellent allegory for all kinds of minorities. In one storyline, a cure for these mutations is developed, and many mutants want to take it, to be “normal”. In one scene where some of the X-Men are questioning how people could betray their beings, their natures, in this way, an X-Man called Beast, who as one consequence of his mutation is covered in blue fur, says “that’s easy for you to say”, or something to that effect. And I realise that it may be easy for me to say, to call it a blessing to be mixed race. Because, unlike the Nigerian girl we saw in the first of Arpita’s films – who doesn’t feel at home either in Scotland or in Nigeria, who doesn’t feel fully accepted in either culture – I have often “passed” for being Scottish, for being white, without comment or question.

My case, then, is a happy one. I hope it is clear from everything I’ve talked about that being mixed race is a huge part of who I am: it has, if subtly, affected every aspect of my life. I don’t say I’m proud of it – I think it’s foolish to be proud of something that was merely an accident of birth – but I consider it to have been a blessing: to have been exposed to an entirely different culture, language, cuisine, philosophy; to have had my imagination stimulated by knowing that my origins were as much in a distant land as here where I was born and raised. The mixed race person can travel without travelling, and if Mark Twain is right when he says that "Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness", then to mix races and cultures is to spread tolerance, understanding and open-mindedness.

Thank you.

Glasgow, 2013.