2.Introduction (False Starts)

In October 1998, I was asked to speak at a seminar for no more than ten minutes on the subject – a question – of ‘A New Vocabulary for Chinese Arts?’[1] I wondered what I could say in such a short space of time that might begin to convey some of the complexity of the issues I believed to inhere in the question, provoked by the very terms of its formulation. Mindful also of the uncertain authority that might be vested simply in my being seated before an audience (contingent to the variable valorisations of artists’ and writers’ words), as well as the doubt that might accompany my as yet mute and unqualified ‘Chinese-ness’ (to be affirmed a demonstration of linguistic fluency and place of birth), I sought to undermine the former and nurture the latter. Thinking about the performativity of public speaking, and tactics towards the unsettling of designations and positionings (among them ‘Chinese’/‘non-Chinese’, artist/academic), I responded with the following text:


10 minutes / 600 seconds
3 parts: a beginning, again and again

ticked off:
small boxes, large head and limbs
will too tall, skin too thick – a tight squeeze;
too many and not enough names
need to borrow some fingers for pies
big boots for the doors, feet for boats
and your ears

running rings around names like so many chairs, ready to occupy any
sometimes (by choice or otherwise) seemingly left with none
the invitation / demand to identify yourself
– a game of Statu(e)s: Knowing When To Appear Silent And Still.

turning holes on their sides

treading through, wearing down
or unravelling the weave of my skin
I could thread through and wear my inside out (an other layer)
my out-side on (around my neck)
show off my square-hole-beads
a trinket, charm – bound to become me?

skipping through the identity parade
can’t say I don’t trip up
now and again, the charm-bind undone
(w)hole words that caught me / cut me up
now cut up by me

me my skin my thread and border – line
now an edge
now a blade

the real thing: an un-simple status, among hyphens
removed from beginnings and roots
(only ever imagined, always only a point, a stop-gap, a rest)

beginning again (yet another departure)
I am (for the sake of a label, an improper place)
a pain in the neck
not cut-out at all

all copy, all fake
made-up and worn by language, ill-fitting
dis-ownership, my dis-position

the im/possibility of new words
to talk about, serve, on behalf of, for
this object
this catch-all umbrella
a dead weight in capitals
doubts, differences quashed
sitting un/comfortably, sweating

Chinese by degrees of tenuity
a finite entity, wing-less
resisting history, gravity

what of particulars?
how you / she / he plays in / off languages
citing and siting your stories with hers
with tongues, mine and his

not replacing, not looking for better
more accurate, adequate, proper
forget rules and rulers for fixing and measuring
but transform by un-naming
make strange, open up
let slip, slide off-balance
re-orient, and again

new vocal-ities
turn sideways and speak
with one foot in, one out
hover over the ‘for’ in the quest-proposition
and consider a pose

‘for’: pre-position
a before and not-yet location
inhale at this hyphen-threshold and ask
who speaks, where from and how?

drop the ‘r’
read backwards from ‘for’ to ‘of’
swap still forms and shoe-horns
for processes, live-ness, flux

a square of light
desire and pleasure of meaning
translation, awkward movements of
learning to gain from the losses

this product – ‘Chinese’ – when will it expire?
a lower case ‘c’ to displace the fixed?
from ‘pre-script’ – to ‘de-script’? with senses:
(throw) into motion, direction



The ideas, themes, images, and strategies that shape this brief paper also shape this thesis. I introduce it with a ‘false start,’ stalling for time, to point to a necessarily staggered – and disputable – ‘beginning’; speaking in answer to a question in turn framed by an event whose name continues to resonate: ’Re: Orient’ – the mythical subject at stake, a re-determining of location, position, direction, and tactics. Much of the writing that follows has been developed from such more or less poetic-essayistic responses to particular discussions and contexts of debate. I say this to foreground the concurrence of discursive frameworks to which this trajectory, ‘A – Y’, of so-called ‘British Chinese’ art, is necessarily contingent; and to emphasise (and warn) that these circuitous navigations – a tangle of routes, not roots – are not attempts to gain entry to a ‘globalised’ art historical “hierarchy of domains of knowledge and of positions” distinguished by ethnic flavour,[2] but depart and digress from contested fictions that exceed inventories and classifications, ventured as preambles through cultural, culinary, cinematic and linguistic landscapes at turns amorphous and seemingly immutable, provocations towards ‘situated’ dialogues and knowledges,[3] rather than ruminations in a void.

That said, this project was initially conceived as an attempt to address what I perceived very much to be a void, a gap or gaps within dominant and marginalised narratives of contemporary art practices. In 1997, offered the opportunity to work with Aavaa, the African and Asian Visual Artists Archive housed at the University of East London, I looked immediately to the scant ephemera and occasional catalogue on work by contemporary ‘Chinese’ and (East) ‘Asian’ artists in the West, in part to confirm anticipated absences, while suspicious of the terms that marked them. As a young artist, writer, and second-generation British-born woman of Hong Kong-Chinese immigrants, with a partner whose dubious ethnicity might be abbreviated as ‘English-Italian,’ and a daughter for whom I already find myself checking boxes marked ‘other,’ my investments in notions of ‘Chineseness,’ ‘Britishness,’ and the issues around identity, history, culture, and language that habitually follow, are perhaps evident, even expected (distastefully and unfashionably perhaps, for some). The questions that motivated my research were: How to position, situate and locate myself or selves, to venture ‘our’ selves, if at all? When, how and by whom might a collective ‘we’ be designated, or indeed dissipated? As ‘diversity fatigue’ threatens to incapacitate as much as ’empower,’ how to engage the ‘expected’ unexpectedly, to interrogate and enact ‘difference’ differently, in terms other than the celebratory, exotic or shocking? How to exercise – to employ, perform, trouble and pain – yet evade pre-empted labels, to avoid reduction to what might be called ‘canned identity’ – the pre-conceived images and soundtracks of genericised cultures and ethnicities playing varieties of seemingly innocuous, ubiquitous multicultural (mall-ti-cultural?) muzak?

My approach has been to attempt to locate myself and my practice obliquely, by proxy, in proximity to others; to identify relevant historical and cultural contexts informing the coincident and divergent aesthetic strategies and thematic concerns of a number of peer practices, whose projects coalesce and diverge at various proximities to, and distances from, my own, and each other’s. Looking for ways of speaking, gesturing, staging and translating, that challenge perceived ‘gaps’ without necessarily occupying them, that complicate designations and discursive formulations as minor or marginal, I read their works (and mine) against a colour-by-numbers diversity in which segments of a wheel / pie / quilt await filling or fluffing with the appropriate cultural / ethnic ‘stuff’. The choice of artists and works discussed – Anthony Key, Yeu-Lai Mo, Lesley Sanderson, Erika Tan, and Mayling To – is reflective of a moment of concurrent if limited visibility, at a particular historical juncture, a result of our collective complicities and resistances to certain curatorial ‘canning’ practices. Sanderson aside (my first and only ‘sighting’ of a so-called ‘British Chinese’ artist as an undergraduate art student), we were all involved in a number of ‘Chinese’ group exhibitions in the mid-1990s. Getting together to co-curate and participate in ‘numbersix’ (TS2K, London, 1998), an attempt to counterpoint ‘ethnicity-led’ shows, we proposed a commonality underpinned less by an indubitable, unwavering ‘Chineseness’ (or for that matter, ‘Britishness’), than a desire to subvert such a notion: to assume instead its complex fabrications and ultimate instability.

The first chapter, ‘A – Y’, takes as a point of departure the work of Lesley Sanderson, and her shifting positionings within and between ‘Black,’ ‘British,’ ‘Chinese,’ and ‘Asian’ curatorial and discursive frames during the 1980s and 1990s, to consider the politics and im/possibily of naming ‘British-Chinese-ness.’ Chapter two, ‘Take Outs,’ looks at the dominant narrative of Chinese immigrants in Britain as evoked in works by Anthony Key, Yeu-Lai Mo, and Mayling To, whose sculptural objects and installations draw on the motifs and mythologies or mores and lores of the takeaway, and the recurring emblem of the flag, to engage contemporary discourses around ‘Britishness’ and ‘Chineseness’, migration, hybridity, cultural commodification and assimilation. From the consumption of exoticised culture via food to the consumption of exoticised bodies in art and film, ‘Outtakes’ looks at the tactical postures and gestures staged by Sanderson, Mo, Erika Tan and To across a range of works, to deconstruct and play on orientalist visual imagery and narratives from the anthropological to the comic, the culinary to the cinematic. Playing out fantasies of subjugation and transcendence, fictions of authentic, unified otherness are displaced by fictions of ambiguous, ambivalent subject-others. Whereas much of this work is ‘mute’, chapter four takes a multi-vocal, multi-screened sound and video installation by Tan as point of departure. ‘Translators’ Notes’ contemplates the politics and poetics of speaking and translating, the conflation of linguistic competence with cultural and ethnic ‘authenticity,’ notions of diaspora and ‘home,’ and the possibility and inevitability of ‘pidgin’ languages and cultures.

These four chapters fall under the heading ‘Writing (In Practice)’; the fifth, called ‘Back Words’, comes under another, ‘Practice (In Writing).’ Writing as an instrumental and experimental mode of discourse approached not from an authoritative ‘outside’ or ‘on’ the subject at hand, but, acknowledging and inscribing my oscillations, always already intimately if sometimes ambiguously imbricated, as an “Inappropriate Other/Same,” inside out and  “outside in.”[4] Writing not ‘on’ but ‘in’ – within – a wider practice, I locate myself ‘too close’, for some, to others (– ‘But what are you really, an artist or writer? How do you get a distance? Where do your true affinities lie?’) If ‘in practice’ lends a stress to the process and pragmatics of writing, not only engaged and immersed ‘in’ but also ‘as’ practice, it also suggests a certain amateurishness, a lack of expertise, which appeals to me as a suggestion of an unfinished project, and of a double-ness, a double positioning or duplicity pertaining as much to my cultural as to my professional authenticity. ‘Practice (In Writing)’ might refer to writing as a mode or strategy of creative practice; or to the translation of practice into writing; or to writing as the (faux) guarantee or validation of practice.

Practice-writing, writing-practice: push-pulling, up-and-down, in oblique figures-of-eight (each trying for the ‘upper hand’, the privileged position), a mutual, uneven pursuit, whose coupled momentum swings the one about the other: before, behind, ahead; as, to and after. Writing not in place of (explaining away), but located or happening nearby or around, always with, most disorientating when it skates in close. If the inversion of terms and shift of parentheses between the two highlights the continuities between discursive strands inhabiting ostensibly separate spaces, the continuum is implied by encircling, and interruption by, an ‘Interval.’ This hyphen/un-haven dwells on and delves into the intervals – cinematic, critical and poetic – across the filmic and theoretical practice of Trinh T. Minh-ha, whose work so elegantly and movingly examines and performs the predicaments and challenges of not-quite-same-not-quite-other-ness.[5] Slow-chasing, retracing and unwinding fabled Chinas or Vietnamese tales, dispatching with legitimacy and authority via the diasporic folding of temporalities, spatialiities and narratives, the thematics and tactics of Trinh’s work begin to find echoes here; my “detour” looks askance at the possible “semblance of harmony” that might have settled on the surface of this narrative, at the further “out of place or ‘out there’”[6] cross-readings and writings yet be endeavoured, and the paradigmatic excursions of writing in/as/and practice, ventured by Trinh.

In between-inside making, I posit and shun my writing-text; less ‘voice-over’, than ‘voice-under,’ immersed, submerged. Voicing, writing-under, not underwriting, not guaranteeing nor authorising, ‘Back Words’ looks backwards and backward – shy, hesitant, a tentative, broken, Chinglish translation-in-progress, post-ambles that talk back, speak back, and to, the objects/encounters and pathways of my own practice, in which the verbal winds in, out and along – transcribed, translated, here written, there spoken, sung, scripted and echoed.

Exploring the difficult and heightened, temporary and temporal, relation between the making of work and its grasping (or not) with words, and the intermittent play and placing of text across a disparate ‘pidgin’ practice at turns visual, spatial, filmic, sonic, poetic and performative – a tactical practice of mis/naming, dis/locating, de/territorialising, and translating – I seek ‘distance’ as neither aim nor possibility. Risking closure by words that cannot keep up, that go elsewhere, seeking different routes out, in and back, always close by, always already late – a translative lag – I attempt nonetheless to bear in mind and bear out the “infinite relation” between word and image; and shoot for shadowy contents.[7]

[1] ‘A New Vocabulary for Chinese Arts?’ The Place, London, 3 October 1998; organised by the Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester, BCAA (British Chinese Artists’ Association) and BiMa Dance Company, as part of ‘Re: Orient,’ a season of contemporary dance hosted by The Place.

[2] Donald Preziosi, ‘Grasping the World: Conceptualizing Ethics After Aesthetics,’ keynote paper presented at the conference, ‘Globalising Art, Architecture and Design History?’ Goodenough College, London, 19 September 2003, www.glaadh.ac.uk

[3] “Situated knowledge is knowledge that surrenders its global pretensions, its reach being limited to its loci and conditions of emergence…” Preziosi, ibid., referring to Wlad Godzich’s ‘Foreward’ to Michel de Certeau, trans. Brian Massumi, Heterologies: Discourse on the Other (Minneapolis and London: University of Minnesota Press, 1986) p. xv.

[4] Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘Outside In, Inside Out,’ When the Moon Waxes Red: Representation, Gender, and Cultural Politics (New York & London: Routledge, 1991) pp.65-78.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Trinh T. Minh-ha, ‘Beware of Wolf Intervals,’ in Trinh, Cinema Interval (London and New York: Routledge, 1999), pp.xi – xiv.

[7] Ibid., p.xi.

A – Y