China and me

16 March 2010

 Anthony Key, Noodles/Bread, 1997
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Anthony Key, Noodles/Bread, 1997

I have a running joke with my best friend: every time China is mentioned in the media he says the Chinese are coming. I say, “We’re already here”.

The Chinese are great travellers and among the most successful migrants in the world. As a Chinese person born in the UK, the clash between my Chinese and British identities has been something I’ve pondered often and was keen to explore at the China: Birth and Belonging symposium at Wellcome Collection. Both days gave me food for thought.

Brendan Fan’s humorous performance art piece on the Friday explored the idea identity and people’s perceptions. The idea was to find Brendan among the guests, complicated by the fact that many different people were handing out business cards, claiming to be the man in question. When a Caucasian woman approaches you, you can probably assume this person is not the real Brendan Fan, but the number of times people who asked me if I was Brendan made me think of the cliché that ‘all Chinese people look the same’. It’s not the first time I’ve been mistaken for a Chinese person much more famous than me.

At the symposium proper, I was intrigued by Vivienne Lo’s attempts to connect with her Chinese heritage through cooking (something her father, TV chef Kenneth Lo, was particularly famous for). Her day job at the Wellcome Trust Centre for the History of Medicine has also allowed her to explore the relationship between the Chinese and food through the ages. The importance of food to the Chinese, she told us, is based on the idea of using health and wellbeing to control Qi – the ecological flow of energy through the body linked to the elements and your ancestors. And, as she was right to point out, traditional Chinese cooking is not the fried Cantonese-style of many UK Chinese restaurants, but a diverse mix ranging from the dishes of the millet eaters of the North to the cuisine of the South’s rice consumers, exposed over the years to exotic foodstuffs brought via the Silk Road.

But perhaps the talk that chimed the most with me was the story Diana Yeh, a lecturer at the University of East London, told about artist Anthony Key. A second-generation migrant born in South Africa during apartheid, he has a unique perspective on migrants and the problems of migration. As a Chinese living in the UK, his work explores the hybridisation of Britishness and Chineseness experienced by many British-born Chinese (or ‘BBC’ as we’re known): a tomato ketchup bottle filled with soya sauce, a bread bag filled with instant noodles, chopsticks with the ends fashioned into a fork and knife, a large statue of the Buddha in an English Church (you can see all of these and more on Key’s website).

The images struck an instant chord with me, at once tapping into that delicate balance between Western and Eastern cultures, values and traditions that I experience every day. Yeh spoke of a formative event in Key’s life, his first visit, not to China, but Japan. Key says that for the first time, surrounded by people who looked like him, he felt like he didn’t stand out. But at the same time he at once felt more of a foreigner than ever before and acutely proud of his Britishness.

It’s a feeling I myself have had travelling around the Far East. Each country I visit the question is always the same: where are you from? And the answer always depends on who’s asking.

Mun-Keat Looi is a Science Writer at the Wellcome Trust.