“So, you’re Chinese, right?”
I’m 12 years old and sitting next to the only other British-born Chinese girl in my year. In a secondary school with 150 girls in each year, that might make some kids feel isolated. For me, this feels largely normal. The current conversation though, with a row of curious white friends on the other side of the lunch table to me and other-Chinese-girl, is one of the first times that I feel… not normal.
“Well, kind of. My parents are from Malaysia. And their grandparents travelled there from China and stayed. But I was born here.”
The look on all my white friends’ faces goes from ‘curious’ to ‘?????’. I can practically hear the steam coming out of their ears as they rearrange their mental label for us. Someone tries again.
“So… you’re Malaysian then?”
Me and other-Chinese-girl, whose parents are also from Malaysia, look at each other and visibly try not to roll our eyes with frustration. We sigh.
“Noooooooooooooo. British. Like, I was born in the UK! I guess Malaysian Chinese?”
The faces across the table are still scrunched with confusion. I can hear them adding “?????” to the end of that “Ok…”
The thing is, so was I. Their curiosity and incomprehension of the complexities of global immigration was being mirrored by my dawning awareness of my overlapping identities – and of the strange in-between-ness that came from that. I was Chinese, but I spoke Cantonese badly. My parents were Malaysian, and I loved the Malaysian food, but did that somehow confer an iota of being Malaysian down to me and my siblings? I was… British?
So many question marks, and a whole lifetime of figuring out and coming to terms with everything they represented.
A few months ago, I started hearing about an exhibition by photographer Mike Tsang which dealt with that subject of in-between-ness. “Between East and West” explores the identity and heritage of the British Chinese through photo portraits, archival family photos and oral history interviews.
It’s a surprisingly small exhibition, comprising ten portraits with the interviews on boards beside them, a table of family photos of the subjects digitally reproduced, aged and resized, and a gallery copy of the exhibition book. The book includes extended versions of the interviews and five more subjects who (probably for lack of space) aren’t in the exhibition.
The variety of professions and heritages is amazing, and certainly a lot less stereotypical than the wider public’s usual perceptions of the British Chinese community. The portraits show us individuals who, through Tsang’s informal portraits and interviews, give the audience a sense of what the British-born Chinese are doing and what different generations are feeling. They are policing our streets, working in the House of Lords, setting up architectural businesses, producing music, acting.
Themes emerge as you go further into the exhibition. The incredible global reach of the Chinese diaspora is one – immigrants from Hong Kong and Commonwealth countries like Malaysia, yes, but also those from Mauritius and Guyana. The total invisibility of the Chinese community in public arenas like politics and the media is another.
Several subjects mention this invisibility – this silence – in their interviews. A few reasons are speculated on, which include, “We should be more assertive” and “We don’t really have central organisations and we’re too dispersed”. The mainstream media’s lack of interest in portraying minorities as complex humans as opposed to stereotypes is not mentioned.
This exhibition is, by its very existence, breaking this silence. The visibility of certain subjects is particularly significant because they’ve never really been seen before in a public sphere. Who in mainstream media would be interested in the stories of mixed-race or adopted British Born Chinese trying to negotiate the identities they were born with? Who in mainstream media would acknowledge British-born Chinese working in the arts, or those in the LGBTQ community?
Tsang allows these people to be comfortable in their environments in his portraits (theatres, the House of Lords, outside town halls), and the archival photos show their family lives in all sorts of ordinary, lovely, funny situations. For a short time at least, the disparate Chinese community in Britain is visible like you’ve never seen them before. Let’s hope there’s more to come.
“Between East and West” is on at the Atrium Gallery in LSE Old Building, Houghton Street near Holborn station until April 1st. The project book is available to purchase from the Waterstones opposite the gallery on Clare Market and Portugal Street, and also from www.betweeneastandwest.bigcartel.com
The London School of Economics and Political Science, Atrium Gallery (LSE Old Building), Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE
Gallery open Monday to Friday 10.00am–8.00pm
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Wei Ming Kam is a bookseller and blogger who writes about diverse books, travel and food at www.raremediumwelldone.co.uk. She’s breaking her way into the publishing world one step at a time, and is currently working at Curtis Brown Creative. Tweets about books, publishing and politics at @weimingkam
This article was edited by Sunili Govinnage