A Bridge, a Thread, Scrapbooks and Digital Photographs

“All of it was a big surprise,” said Kurt Tong, one of the artists whose family photographs were featured in the exhibit, Retrieved: The Art of Looking Back. Speaking to an intimate audience at the Chinese Culture Center on February 22, Tong spoke about his album as “a storybook written for his daughters." “In my 20’s, I was one of those youths that wanted to fit into Britain,” where he grew up. Later, when he traveled to Hong Kong to excavate the photos for his project, he found that the “past [was] a foreign country,” and “even [his] homeland was a strange country.”

Sketching the different pathways by which his maternal and paternal grandparents ended up in Hong Kong, Tong described his paternal ancestors as fishermen from Northern Guangzhou who ended up in Hong Kong with the collapse of the Qing dynasty. Almost evocative of The Dream of the Red Chambers, his maternal ancestors were fantastically wealthy aristocrats who held the salt monopoly from dynastic times. With the communist takeover in 1949, however, they escaped to Hong Kong to avoid the ensuing persecution; but also ended up “very, very poor.” Infidelity, opium dens, migration and struggle all comprise part of Tong’s fascinating family chronicle, which he sets forth in album form in a miniature tea house at the exhibit. The act of creation for him, in fact, is in the spontaneous conversations that he hopes develop as people flip through his family album and also ask where they come from.

Daniel Traub, too, spoke of traveling to China “looking for my roots.” Being half Chinese, he described himself as “not quite American,” but then feeling “not Chinese at all” either when he landed in China. Traub instead found in China a place that was “constantly shifting, churning and raw,” a place that exuded a sense of “the unknown about what was happening there.” These qualities held him captive for nearly a decade in China where he lived from 1999 to 2007.

Attracted by the “visual energy” of the African entrepreneurs who posed for pictures on Guangzhou’s xiaobeilu (Little North Road), Traub collected flash drives of digital photos from Chinese migrant workers who took tourist portraits for a living. The Little North Road sat at the heart of a multi-layered community populated by South Asians, Middle Easterners – people of the ancient trade routes – and now, even Africans who had rarely set foot in the Middle Kingdom before but now do business in China and send these portraitures back to their families. Ironically, the future is now already the past, however, with the Little North Road closed and fewer and fewer African traders and merchants living in Guangzhou.