The Name Game
In a recent Wall Street Journal article, reporter G. Pascal Zachary debated a current appetite by journalists, talk-show hosts, politicians, as well as ordinary people for historicizing events "both momentous and mundane" as "defining moments."* Zachary noted several defining moments -- all occurring during the 1990s: "the Gulf War, the Rodney King beating, the O.J. Simpson case, the Oklahoma City bombing, Magic Johnson's HIV announcement, the 1994 Republican congressional victory, even the North American Free Trade Agreement."** From the October 1929 stock market crash or World War II to the civil rights movement in the 60s, until recent years, the passage of time often spanned decades. Compared to an emblematic past, today, "The field is so awash in defining moments that this spring the Media Studies Journal devoted an entire 179-page volume to seriously chronicling two dozen of them."*** For some, the "packaging" of defining moments affirms cultural values and perspectives, albeit for others, the encapsulation of these events have become the memories by which time and histories are measured.
Similarly, while Asia (and the East) is a convenient marker for locating artists whose heritages are Asian, the active persistence of fixing one's origin often implies a containment of space and territory. As such, when the East is written or spoken about, this act of naming -- China, Japan, Korea, Thailand, the Philippines, or Vietnam, for example -- creates an idealized framework with which to view Asia, making the artist, in turn, a spokesperson for his/her homeland. Through this inscription of "Asia," whether verbalized, written, or imagined, individual histories and cultures, including the legacies of imperialism and colonialism of each particular place are often homogenized and repressed.
One of the pitfalls of organizing an exhibition along racial categories is precisely an expectation that the artists' works must contain or display some aspect of an Asian sensibility. An ongoing dilemma revolves around questions of specificity, and the ability to distinguish between the artists' complex, transcultural experiences. How does each of us contribute to notions of the "other" and the "Orient?" Then, to what extent can we disrupt and transform essentialist ideas that shape our understanding of the work and the processes by which the artwork is created?
My interest in participating as a curatorial consultant for Uncommon Traits: Re/Locating Asia was to explore the myriad ways "Asia" and "Asian-ness" as signifying markers could be critically reexamined, disrupted, and ultimately transformed. Given the geographic proximity of CEPA to Canada and the inclusion of artists from both sides of the border, the exhibition offers an opportunity to investigate ideas of homeland, nation, and national identity vis-a-vis the artists' exploration of their identities as Asians, Asian Americans, or Asian Canadians. The exhibition also serves to expand notions of territory and the migration of cultures where the experiences, struggles and overlapping histories of each of the artists -- whose ancestries may originate in the Caribbean, South America, or Africa, rather than Asia -- are made visible through this new recontextualization.
The Name Game
June 30, 1997. Whether this occasion becomes dislodged from our collective memories, this date and ceremonious ritual marked the junction of Hong Kong from diaspora to homeland, the passage from British colonial rule to another dominant culture, the People's Republic of China. In a sense, Hong Kong exists as an in-between place -- a hybrid culture whose inhabitants often identify first with Britain and Western capitalism rather than its so-called "mother country," China. Certainly feelings of displacement and alienation are made more evident when questions of a national identity are applied to the Hong Kong Chinese. When speaking of a homeland for the Hong Kong Chinese, whose locale, what origins are we speaking of?
The realities of multiple alliances and identities surfaced during a recent discussion with an Asian Canadian friend regarding China's takeover of Hong Kong. An emigrant with her family to Vancouver, B.C. in the 70s and currently a resident of New York City, aspects of "Chineseness" felt completely tenuous to her. She remarked that she felt more at home in New York City, a truly hybrid cultural amalgam, than she ever did as a citizen of Hong Kong, her birthplace. Alongside our conversation, the word, "astronauts" cropped up which she described as a term used in Hong Kong for people who have emigrated overseas, but still have business ties to home. As a Texas-born, New York-based, Chinese American transplanted from Los Angeles, I imagined a transitory space occupied by fractured identities -- a nation without a national identity, a satellite family without a homeland -- and the possibilities of how either of us might fit into this picture.
The Man From Uncle
Our discussion of home and family eventually centered on the word, "Uncle," a traditional, familial term of endearment for any elder person among most Asian communities. However, in typical Hong Kong fashion, its hybridized usage now applies to the infiltration of Chinese officials and businessmen into the Hong Kong political economy. An absurdist twist, "Uncle" or "Man From Uncle" (based on the 1960s TV program) offers new ways of thinking about the blending of East and West. The resonance of cultures and languages incorporate and reflect multi-layered translations, situated against a backdrop of seemingly incongruous juxtapositions. Likewise, Uncommon Traits: Re/Locating Asia disrupts singular notions of an Asian American or Asian Canadian identity by offering audiences and viewers a multiplicity of views, uneasily wedged between the fissures of history and memory. Uncommon Traits: Re/Locating Asia proposes questions that engage and provoke, providing expanded readings of territory, space, and of Asian diasporic communities in transition.
*G. Pascal Zachary. "It's Bigger than Big; It's More than News; It's a Defining Moment" in The Wall Street Journal, Vol. CCXXX, No. 57, September 19, 1997, p. A1, A6.
I wish to thank Poyin Auyoung, Ph.D. candidate in Art History at CUNY for her critical insights that laid the foundation for the discussion of Hong Kong culture. Daniel Mirer, as always, provided important commentary and support during the writing. Likewise, conversations with Ho Tam were thought-provoking and useful.