Chinese New Year is the time when papers and websites drag up the ol’ routine: pieces on the Chinese zodiac; lists of Chinese superstitions that no-one has observed for a thousand years; photographs of Shanghai train stations filled with migrant workers returning home.
However, this ‘othering’ ignores the fact that many people who are here, now, and participating in Scotland have grown up with Chinese culture and a Chinese language. Indeed, the last full census saw 34,000 people in Scotland identify as Chinese, while Glasgow and Edinburgh are both in the top five largest ethnic Chinese communities in the UK.
To celebrate Spring Festival 2021, SNACK spoke to three Scots with Chinese heritage about their work and how their identity plays a part in Scotland’s cultural landscape.
Sean Wai Keung
Sean Wai Keung, 29, is a poet, writer and performer from Glasgow. He began his path to poetry in 2011 by attending open-mic events. His first full-length poetry collection, Sikfan Glaschu, is released in April.
Food is a major part of your work. Why this interest?
Food is something both universal and personal. Everyone has some aspect of food culture or experience, and so by talking about my own experiences with food hopefully we can find some interesting common – or uncommon – ground.
What creative process do you go through for your writing?
I think a lot about a poem before I write something down. Walks around Glasgow help a lot with that. After that, it depends on the poem. Some require a bit of research, which could be looking up things on the internet or talking to people. Others are more about memory and personal feelings. Then comes the editing process, which is where most of the actual work comes in.
How would you describe Scotland’s poetry scene?
Scotland has loads of different scenes. There’s spoken word always going on everywhere, as well as a lot of avant-garde stuff and DIY zines, and oftentimes there’s overlap between all of them. It’s the small presses that really keep a lot of it going, be that Speculative Books or Knight Errant Press or 404Ink or SPAM zine or Haunt Publishing, combined with events like St Mungo’s Mirrorball, Sonnet Youth, Speakin’ Weird. It’s very varied and there is a place for just about everyone.
What are the biggest challenges for poets and writers in Scotland at the moment?
Economics, unfortunately. It’s the small presses, journals and bookshops who really make the backbone of poetry anywhere in the world and they have suffered tremendously over 2020. Also, Brexit makes it less easy to access European literary festivals, universities and the global lit scene in general, which is going to make spreading the word about Scottish poetry and literature just a little bit harder than it was before. More poets and writers are also having to deal with difficult personal circumstances, be that loss of income or strained mental health – the same as everyone else.
You describe your ethnicity as ‘mixed Hong Konger and white’. Has your Hong Kong heritage affected your career path?
For a long time I fought against writing actively about my own identity or heritage, partly because I also felt pressure from others to talk about it. White people would say, well-meaningly, that I should write about it, which just made me feel exoticised and different when all I wanted at the time was to fit in. But eventually I decided to embrace it in a way, because I wanted to tell people my actual experiences instead of just the experiences that people expected from me. Hence why my first published title was You Are Mistaken – I was trying to fight against various assumptions that had been made about me over the years.
Is there a distinct Chinese, or Hong Kongese, community in Scotland? If so, does it affect what is expected of artists from that community, both within the community and externally?
There are many. Because of the nature of Hong Kong and Chinese migration to the UK and Scotland there would often be multiple families from a village, district or city migrating at around the same time – those connections last for generations, and are also continuing to be built today.
At the same time, in terms of a ‘unified’ Scottish Hong Kong, Chinese or ESEA [East and Southeast Asian] community, there has traditionally been a lot less solidarity from my perspective between everyone as a politically single-voiced group. Although this hasn’t been the case at all times, and is also becoming better now I believe, in part thanks to organisations such as ESA Scotland, BESEA.N, and Racism Unmasked Edinburgh.
Do you feel that ethnically Chinese people are properly and fairly represented in the Scottish arts? What improvements could be made?
Unfair representation is too common and I feel like everybody should try to become better at calling it out when they see it. This isn’t just in Scotland, of course, but there are aspects that are more common in the Scottish landscape than many other places – for instance the use of certain words, such as a ‘chinky’ to describe a type of meal, or the word ‘mong’. At the same time, there should be better representation of all the varied East and Southeast Asian communities that make up Scotland, as well as wider POC/BAME issues here – this isn’t necessarily a Chinese-Scots only problem.
Sarah Kwan, 34, is a freelance artist and illustrator from Edinburgh. Her recent East meets West collection places elements of Chinese culture in light-hearted Scottish contexts, and was featured on BBC Scotland’s Loop series. She is also the co-founder of East and Southeast Asian Scotland (ESAS), a group established to support the ESA community in Scotland.
How would you describe your work?
I would describe my latest East meets West series as being playful, fun, bright, and explorative of the connections between British and Chinese culture, with light-hearted humour. In general, my work is thoughtful. I hope it enriches and allows other people to view the world from a different perspective.
How do you go about creating an artwork?
There’s a lot of thinking, reading about the subjects that I am representing and also researching images that connect to the idea. I find it really helpful to create collages and mock-ups to help me visualise what the end result may look like. I still love drawing by hand, but I often alter those hand-drawn images and add colour digitally for certain pieces. In my other work, I physically paint on board or canvasses, which is a wonderful change to working on the computer. I just love creating art in whatever medium is available to me.
What would you recommend for someone trying to get started as a professional artist?
Keep practicing and keep learning, not just about artistic techniques or the history of art, but also on how to conduct yourself as a professional. Look for resources and creative associations that can help guide you on all of the aspects of being a creative business. Most of all, just never give up! Keep going and try to be as open as you can to receiving constructive criticism – sometimes it’s painful, but it gets easier and will undoubtedly help you in the long run.
How would you describe your identity?
I would describe myself as being Scottish Chinese. I was born in Edinburgh, and I’m very connected to both Scottish culture as well as my Chinese roots – and I’m extremely proud of both! I grew up with, and still speak, English and Cantonese.
Much of the arts rely on media coverage to grow an audience. What is your assessment of how the Scottish arts media treats ethnically Chinese artists?
In all honesty, I haven’t been personally aware of many other Chinese artists through Scottish arts media coverage. I would love to see more. I feel very fortunate to have had the opportunity to work with BBC Scotland, when they featured me on their LOOP Edinburgh Special. It would be wonderful to shine more light on BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of colour] artists in general in the Scottish arts. I think it’s really important to showcase this kind of representation to future generations, and to show that there is a place for us in it.
What can a person wanting to understand more about ethnically Chinese artists in Scotland do?
There aren’t many ready-made resources out there, specifically on ethnically Chinese artists in Scotland, but this question has really made me think about how ethnically Chinese artists can make themselves more visible. I imagine Instagram would be a wonderful place to start. Perhaps this is something I will start doing myself, and I’ll try to encourage other artists to hashtag #scottishchineseartist or #scottishesaartist when they post about their work.
Finally, Chinese New Year is approaching. Is it a festival you personally celebrate, and how would you recommend others celebrate it in 2021, with so many events still postponed?
Yes, typically I do celebrate Chinese New Year. This year I will really miss sitting down with my family and celebrating with my mum’s amazing cooking. I’ve heard of some Zoom events and online workshops that may feature Chinese culture – checkout Ricefield, which is a Chinese arts and culture centre based in Glasgow. And I think The List has online celebrations planned as well. If I am able to prepare a workshop myself, I’ll certainly advertise that on my social media and website.
Learn more about ESA Scotland at esascotland.org
Tommy Ga-Ken Wan
Tommy Ga-Ken Wan, 35, is a Glasgow-based photographer from Ayr. His subjects are often captured from theatre or travel, and he has taken portraits of the likes of Simon Callow, Sam Shepard, Stephen Fry, and Jeremy Paxman. He has also served as a resident judge on The Big Shot, a photography-based reality game show in Singapore.
Of your own work, do you have a favourite piece?
I once took a photograph of my sister on the Hong Kong Metro just after we’d had an argument. I was so angry with her, and when I looked over to where she was standing there was something in the composition of the scene that made me want to take a picture. It wasn’t until later, when I looked closely at what I’d taken – she clutching that pole like it was her only friend, her pained expression, hair moving in the flow of the air through the train – that I felt compassion. Our argument seemed silly, and we made up. That experience really brought home to me the power of photography to hint at the inner life of a subject in a particular moment. To freeze one moment, and to be able to look closely at it, and to reflect and consider it, is something quite special.
How and when did you get into photography?
I was 14 when my parents gave me my first camera, a late 90s digital camera with 0.35 megapixels. From the first day, I was hooked. I took it everywhere and by the time I was in university, studying English Literature, it had become an obsession. It was a useful social tool as well as an artistic one. Then in my second year I was chosen to go on a student exchange to Pakistan, and when the university and the British Council saw the photographs I’d taken while I was there, they started to give me some work. This was the first time it had occurred to me that I could pursue a career in photography.
How would you describe your ethnicity and identity?
I describe myself as mixed race or half-Chinese. Although I grew up in Scotland and have been ‘white-passing’ for most of my life – Mum has red hair and freckles – my Chinese heritage is an important part of my identity. I have an interest in Chinese language, culture, philosophy, politics, and art. I grew up hearing Cantonese at the homes of aunts and uncles, and my granny wasn’t able to speak English. But I wasn’t taught it as a child: since Dad was the only one who spoke Cantonese, and he could speak English, he didn’t see the point. So although I’d pick up bits and pieces from Hong Kong movies or from cousins, I didn’t actually start to learn Cantonese until I was an adult.
Is your Chinese heritage relevant to your work?
I spent much of my childhood trying to know and understand the other half of my heritage, and I did so for the most part by watching Hong Kong cinema. It was the films of Wong Kar-Wai that showed me how powerful and beautiful the image can be, and his visual style was seminal to my development as a photographer. The colours of Hong Kong – neon, electric – and the vivid, cartoonish hues found in Japanese anime are prevalent in my work.
Do you feel that ethnically Chinese people are properly represented in the Scottish arts?
I have no doubt that there is a lack of representation of Chinese people in the arts in Scotland: most of my professional work is in theatre, and I can say I don’t know of a single Chinese person working in that industry who is based in Scotland. The fault of this is not necessarily with arts institutions – indeed, I’ve worked on projects around Chinese culture with The Lyceum Theatre and the National Theatre of Scotland – and I wonder if it is a cultural issue.
Chinese people have been called a ‘model minority’ because they are perceived to be intelligent and hard-working, but I wonder whether they might be called that because they tend to keep to themselves, a quality which does not generally go hand-in-hand with artists. I have many Chinese friends who wish they could have been an artist of some kind, but who bowed to parental pressure to pursue medicine, accountancy, or to take over the family business. This is a shame on a larger scale than their own personal lives, because without Chinese artists, Chinese stories will remain untold and Chinese people and culture will remain under-represented.
Is there a distinct Chinese community in Scotland?
I’m not hugely familiar with it, but I know that there are many Chinese community groups and institutions. When I was a child, I attended the occasional lesson at a weekend Chinese school in Glasgow. But the Chinese demographic of Scotland and the UK is changing: where it was once made up for the most part of Cantonese immigrants from Hong Kong, there is now a huge student population from mainland China.
Finally, how will you be spending Spring Festival this year?
When my gran was alive, my family would generally fly to Hong Kong to celebrate with her, but in recent years – my gran having passed and Hong Kong’s disturbing political situation being what it is – I’ve celebrated in restaurants in Glasgow with aunts, uncles, and cousins, or at one of our homes. This year, I’ll be spending the day cooking and then eating a Chinese banquet at home, and it’s something I’d encourage others to learn about. Chinese cuisine is rich and varied, and so much more complex, and healthy, than the usual takeaway fare.