Postcolonialism, nationalism and the search for the Feminine Image
Hio Lam Lei
‘Foreign, Asian and female, the image of the Lady in Red manifests resistance to pre-conceived and stereotyped identity figurations of a particular social group. The work narrates the myths surrounding self-concealment and self-discovery.’
From Macau (China), Hio works primarily with moving-image and sculpture. She is in the process of completing an international artist residency at HOP Projects in Folkestone, making a mockumentary entitled ’The Legend of The Lady in Red’. Drawing from post-colonial theories, the work explores the sense of disorientation experienced when she tries to relocate through personal history, the cultural heritage of her ethnicity, and gender in the UK. Foreign, Asian, Chinese and female, the image of the ‘Lady in Red’ manifests a resistance to the pre-conceived and stereotyped identity of a particular social group, and the moving image work narrates the myths surrounding self-concealment and self-discovery.
The residency is part of Surface Tensions (ST20), which presents art that is deeply immersed in the traumas, struggles and violence of our time, from the perspectives of those on the margins – subverting established powers and narratives in a collective act of creative resistance, and questioning our relationships to Western identity and nationalism. ST20 Part I: ‘Alt-Truths, More than Fiction’ – Female – led Expanded Cinema: Experimentation & Activism (April – June) brings together female artists working in the expanded field of moving image, and in particular, in the realm of documentary film-making.
Against the backdrop of an eerily deserted Creative Quarter amidst the worsening COVID19 pandemic, HOP co-director, Nina Shen-Poblete began a series of conversations tracing Hio’s personal trajectories and her work, exploring the porous nature of cultural identities, what it means to be Chinese and a woman today.
The conversation began with Nina talking to Hio about the books she has been reading: ‘The Feminine in Fairy Tales’ by Marie-Louise von Franz, and ‘The Fantastic Reality: Louise Bourgeois and a Story of Modern Art’ by Mignon Nixon
Hio: [ref. The Feminine in Fairy Tales] The early versions of ‘The sleeping Beauty’ were full of ideas about how the character interacts with the space and the architecture. The princess was wounded and kept within a tower…it describes how she climbed up the tower, how she saw the key that was in the lock, how she turned the key and accessed the room to how she eventually died and then all the roses covered the entire castle…the story was full of metaphors.
Nina: It is interesting how the female experiences have been described through their interactions with architecture and in particular with architectural interiors, both psychologically and spatially.
Hio: Speaking of the idea of the female image, Louise Bourgeois had done drawings and etchings that combined the female body with architecture…for example you would find an image of a female body and a birdcage. The book talked about how such imagery was mocked by the Surrealist male artists at the time, and how Bourgeois reacted to it. The early Surrealist male artists deployed the feminine image often as the silent figure, mystic, slightly dangerous, and passive. The story describes how Bourgeois began to use the same elements used by the male artists through repetition and a kind of a parodic representation. The techniques of which I find to be very powerful as they were what Freud called ‘obscene jokes’, which made them impossible for the victim to refute thereby subverting the original concept.
Nina: When did you become interested in the idea of the ‘self’? Has it been an on-going fascination or has this awareness began during your life in Glasgow?
Hio: This subject has been a long term interest for me. Perhaps after spending two years in Glasgow, the idea has changed to concern more directly about my ethnicity. It is interesting how people have certain expectations based on where you are from, which is not always problematic, but something to question?
Nina: Do you mean that the Chinese diaspora in the UK may have certain expectations of you?
Hio: Oh yes always! LOL. In both places, (China & the UK), people have expectations based on your gender and where you are from. For example in Macao, people make judgements based on how you align with their expectations of the ‘feminine’. In other parts of China, people may judge you depending on where you are from, ie. if you are from a postcolonial city such as Macao, they may relate you to gambling, or to being more westernised. It is not really problematic, but what makes it oppressive is when you live your life according to those expectations and make your judgements based on these stereotypical views.
Nina: Can you talk a bit more about the typical stereotypes that you’ve encountered?
Hio: I used to be called the ‘bamboo’ girl when I was studying in Beijing, which is a negative connotation to say that I am empty inside, with a westernised surface. These comments were based on a misunderstanding towards people from cities that used to be colonies.
Actually, places such as Hongkong and Macao have retained a lot of Chinese traditions and cultures from more ancient periods. Like our belief in ‘ghosts’ and how we practice a lot of rituals during festivals to worship gods. At school, we write in traditional Chinese characters and received quite a lot of lessons on literature in archaic Chinese. These traditions of how we live with spirits are deeply ingrained in our culture and belief systems. It manifests in our daily lives such as how we place our shoes, how we worship our gods, etc. We have an altar in every house and I used to be very scared as a child because it always emitted a red light. All of these are ingrained in our memories. So it is quite wrong to say that Macao and Hongkong got rid of their Chinese heritage. We retained it as we had never experienced the cultural revolution which swept across the rest of mainland China.
‘I am always very suspicious of the idea of a solid national identity because for me, the way I relate to national identity is more related to my memory’.
Nina: Do these ancient traditions coexist with Christian rituals?
Hio: In Macao we have many Christian schools but I went to a Chinese school, my background is quite Chinese. I am always very suspicious of the idea of a solid national identity because for me, the way I relate to national identity is more connected to my memory since I was a kid, how those cultural heritage, i.e. the ghost and rituals shaped me…how I relate and reflect on this heritage as a Chinese person. So it is quite strange for me to experience this kind of hostility from China. The idea of nationalism in Macao and Hongkong has always been an on-going debate.
Nina: I am interested in the idea of the ‘double burden’ as a concept of a contemporary female experience described by the feminist Japanese sociologist, Ueno Chizuko. I understood that modern women in Asia experience intense social pressures that define what a feminine ideal should be, yet in a neo-liberal society they end up internalising this kind of oppression, in an age of self-determination.
Would you be able to talk a little bit about the concept or a kind of dualism experienced by a Chinese woman?
Hio: Yes. In Macao to confirm my femininity it has to be done through a male. Despite the fact that I’m highly educated, I would be seen as inferior to other women who are in a relationship. When I worked in a company, my male colleagues would discuss films with me, but if they bring a girl to a movie they would always try and explain to her everything as they are worried that they wouldn’t understand. So they showed me respect by treating me as a comrade but I was still treated as an inferior female because I didn’t have a partner. There is a double standard. It is interesting that Ueno said that even in a liberal society, you are still required to be recognised by the male, both in your sexual appeal, as well as your intelligence and career.
When I was in high school, I was really interested in Japanese literature from the post-war period. Many of them were about self-expression, about melancholia. They were often by male writers and most of them came from well-off families, but they were depressed and oppressed as the expectations from the families caused them a lot of pain. They felt very fragile inside and didn’t want to become these potent male figures so there is this split between the exterior and interior. This is one of the reasons I chose to study art in order to figure out these issues, alternatively through literature.
Nina: The pressures for masculinity is probably just as oppressive…
Hio: We can discuss melancholia in relation to psychology and psycho-analysis, but in many cases this idea is related to different cultural contexts. For example, how different patriarchal societies may have caused this split, expecting you to behave in certain ways that make you feel alienated inside. In psycho-analysis, melancholia is linked to the lost loved object, irrecoverable and incomplete. I’m interested in how cultural expectations act as a force that lead to melancholy.
Nina: Would you identify yourself as a feminist?
Hio: I’m a feminist, yes. But for me, I’m more interested in the more porous identities of femininity.
Nina: I guess ‘feminism’ as a collective can construct its own kind of stereotype and your work is not necessarily about that?
Hio: I always try to speak from my own trajectory as a person, rather than a ‘feminist’ as a collective identity, talking about female as a general group. I’m more interested in bringing my experience into my work and try to translate it into a more metaphorical text.
‘I have always been interested in fiction as a collective creation, such as fairytales, or what we call the ghost stories, or in Japan, the Yōkai stories. They are all collectively created pieces of text. We are presented with an idea of how we collectively use symbolism and metaphors.’
Nina: I want to ask about your practice – the use of moving images. Would you find that to be a more effective medium to explore these elusive and shifting identities?
Hio: I’ve had a long term interest in film, but not necessarily in film-making. Whilst in Glasgow, I have seen how the moving image has been prosperous in the art scene. There were so many screenings and I attended those frequently and got inspired. I have been working a lot with sculpture and I have exhausted it as a medium to talk about what I want to say, for now. But I have always been interested in fiction as a collective creation, such as fairy tales, or what we call the ghost stories, or in Japan, the Yōkai stories. They are all collectively created pieces of text. Through which we are presented with an idea of how we collectively use symbolism and metaphors. In this sense it follows the same trajectory as in my sculptural practice, where I always use the name of a novel, or a poem as the titles. It is a natural process in how you play with narratives, and how sculptures can tell a story. I see many potentials of how narratives can play out in the medium of the moving image.
It is good that I have a sculpture background. Matthew Barney has such a sculptural thinking. The way in which he exemplifies models and how he uses his sculptural sensibilities to mess up the symbolisms associated with objects and materials, the material essence being the key. The moving image is a step forward from my sculptural practice. You can perform how you understand material and objects, so it carries what I had learnt as a sculptor – so it is like walking out of a frame. How I can recognise and interact with symbolism, scale, proportion, colours, textures, volume. The setting for The Legend of the Lady in Red has been under a lot of consideration, I try to make them into an image from a sculptural understanding.
‘I find it really really hard to find a neutral image of a woman, it is always westernised.’
Nina: The Lady in Red has certain characteristics of an oriental person, at the same time she acquires lots of feminine tropes from Hollywood cinema. Would you say this hybrid comes from a postcolonial / postmodern culture of image consumption & juxtaposition?
Hio: I’m struggling to design the image of the Lady in Red. There is the Hollywood reference in the sense that you have an archetypal image. I find it really really hard to find a neutral image of a woman, it is always westernised. If you want to have a neutral male to appear in your film, you may find one in a suit, but that is still a westernised image. When you try to find an international image of a woman it is almost impossible, it is either eurocentric or westernised. So that is something I want to re-examine.
Nina: That is a good question. I wonder what a stereotyped Chinese woman would look like..
Hio: That’s very hard! But even Chinese people are homogenising Chinese culture. China is such a big country with so many ethnicities, many different cultural heritage depending on which part of the country you are from. Some have been forced to remain in their minorities. The main cities may begin to share a more common mainstream culture but China is so much bigger than that. I’m living in the southern part, where there are so many cultural barriers between the southern and other parts of the country – we have different films, literature and pop culture, so many differences that cannot be translated through languages. So that’s why it is very hard to generalise a Chinese stereotype because you end up compromising so many things.
For my character the Lady in Red, she speaks Cantonese and struggles to have a stable image, she has contradictory images. She wears a red wig, and she’s wearing sunglasses reminiscent of HongKong gangster characters from the 90s. I’m trying to boil these together, but no one can say that this is correct! You would only be able to judge from the final film whether these elements synthesize together..it is not about a Chinese woman or someone with an attitude towards the west, but someone in a chaotic situation, someone with a kind of split!
For me I share the same feeling, because I was an immigrant when I moved to Macao as a kid. When I go back to my home town in Guangdong I feel alienated. It is very hard for me to have a firm grip on the idea of the Chinese identity. I just resist the idea of a homogenised identity. But within China, there is a situation of extreme nationalism when you try too hard to pull everything together to create an homogenised image.
Despite the current world situation, Hio has been able to deliver some really incredible work. What does this work evoke in you? We’d love your feedback.