In 2005 when I first met Pok Chi Lau, we were both taking part in the first Lianzhou Photo Festival. The following year he came to Shanghai bringing with him a group of students from Kansas University, where he used to teach. We had a very interesting long exchange on documentary photography, with his students joining in, and Pok Chi kindly offered me his book, Dreams of the Golden Mountain. I was impressed by his personal story to the point that I ended up curating an exhibition of his series “Red Walls”, which was one of his most creative and conceptual works. Red Walls are set up as diptychs, one image narrating his experience of returning to his ancestral home in Guangdong, and one image about the remaining traces of the Cultural Revolution on the walls. It was the first time that I discovered the shocking stories of mainlanders in the 1970s swimming across the Pearl River to reach Hong Kong as clandestine migrants, using balloons, basketballs, even condoms….
But Pok Chi Lau’s focus has always been about the Chinese diaspora, especially in North and South America. His collection of portraits of Chinese immigrants in America, from first to third generation, including mixed-race descendants from Asian with Caucasian parents or Asian with African-American, and Asian with Hispanic parents, seems to me a long-term pursuit of his own identity quest.
Personally, I feel a strong empathy and kinship with Pok Chi Lau’s identity quest, after he left his birthplace Hong Kong (with its colonial identity) for America and married a Japanese-American woman and fathered a son of Sino-Japanese mixed race. I was born in Saigon, South Vietnam, then left for France where I married a French native and have a mixed-race daughter. I have two sisters with American husbands and mixed-race daughters, one brother in France with a French wife and three children of mixed race, and another brother lives in French Guyana and has twins with a Frenchwoman from Martinique. My father who left Shanghai in 1939 used to half-lament that his grandchildren no longer had pure Chinese blood, then he would laugh it off and say that his family offspring could from now on form a United Nations. Which is exactly what Pok Chi Lau would call “the Rainbow Federation”, although “rainbow” now has a different connotation with respect to the LGBTQ community.
When I met Pok Chi, I already had a faint notion of the Chinese diaspora in the 19th century, especially of the Cantonese people who left home to migrate to America for the “Dreams of the Golden Mountain”. Back in 2002 I discovered and photographed the Diaolou (fortresses) of Kaiping, before they were classified by UNESCO as a World Heritage Site. Diaolou are a group of strange fortification constructions with a mixed architectural style. They are unique to the region of Kaiping and Toishan, in Guangdong Province. At the time I was fortunate enough to benefit from the guidance of a young documentarian from the Kaiping Municipality who was in charge of the accounting of the eight-hundred-plus Diaolou for the UNESCO listing. He drove me around the diaolou area for three days, showing me some of the most spectacular ones. In one of the villages, I used my raw Cantonese dialect to ask a local woman about the inside of a Diaolou; she kindly obliged and went home to retrieve a large keychain and opened an iron door for me. What I saw in the darkness inside left me with a haunting impression: the upper floors were unoccupied for a long time, so I could only see among the rusty kitchenware some leather suitcases, which she said were brought back from the Golden Mountain (San Francisco) by her ancestors. That was how I finally came to research and study the history of the Diaolou and their builders. I took pictures of the Diaolou in Chikan village, Zilicun village, and many more, including a leaning Diaolou like the Leaning Tower of Pisa in Italy. A decade later I came back to Kaiping with three of my friends from Guangzhou– photographers Xu Peiwu, Yan Changjiang and Qiu, each one of us carrying a film camera, for a two-day exploration and photographic tour of Kaiping and the neighboring Toishan Diaolou. I told my friends about a place called Canada Village that I had visited ten years earlier; they couldn’t believe it. Eventually we managed to find Canada Village hidden in a veritable jungle! It was still uninhabited, in the state I found it the first time. The owners had all left China to live in Canada. The village was covered in thick wild vegetation that was shielding it from outsiders’ view. I learned from the Auntie who unlocked the door of one Diaolou for me that their ancestors left China as “piglets” (Mai Ju Zai in Cantonese) being sold by slave traffickers.
Instead of Golden Mountain Dreams, they had to endure nightmarish treatment as coolies for the American cotton fields and plantations, or for the Transcontinental Pacific Railroad that was built between 1863 and 1869. The majority of these early Chinese immigrants were from the region of Kaiping and Toishan. When the Great Railroad was completed, all the big bosses and politicians and key engineers posed for a celebratory group portrait, in which not a single Chinese man was featured. While the influence of these Chinese laborers can still be seen and heard today in American culture, for example, “chow”, which means canteen or collective kitchen, or “ketchup” which comes from the Cantonese dialect for tomato juice, because when the Chinese were not employed as railroad workers they were employed as cooks and/or as laundrymen for the cowboys and the railway engineers, and Chinese food came to be appreciated in this way.
Pok Chi Lau’s book, Dreams of the Golden Mountain, published in 2002 had the face of a sleeping newborn baby on its cover, apparently dreaming of the Golden Mountain. It must have been Pok Chi Lau’s own son Tyler, whom I have met on several occasions. The picture reminded me of Diane Arbus’ baby portrait of 1968. In a sense Pok Chi’s early black -and-white work bears the mark of American documentary photography, in which surroundings and subjects are closely related and interconnected, and details often reveal their meanings. Especially in the picture of an odd looking “flat-headed” lady owner of a restaurant sitting proudly on a sofa, in the waiting lounge of her Chinese restaurant in Pittsburg (Pennsylvania), flanked by a big ceramic statue of Bodhisattva Guanyin and a ceramic piece that General Guan Gong used as lamppost (Pittsburg Restaurant owner 1977). I was struck by another photo of a mixed-race couple, a Sino-Vietnamese young woman named May, laying her head tenderly on the shoulder of her African-American boyfriend, Quincy, who happens to be wearing a neck chain with the yin-yang Tai Chi symbol, illustrating the black-and-white interaction. When he was not photographing people per se, Pok Chi would focus on details such as the back view of a cowboy wearing a Stetson hat sitting in a restaurant, on the window the letters painted in reverse are written in French: “Café Fleur de Lotus”, which says that it was indeed a Chinese restaurant. Or in some other Chinese immigrant’s home, where three ceramic works were displayed side by side: one was a statue of Jesus, another one was Guanyin and the last one was Guan Gong, revealing that the owners must have been of mixed origin or simply Christian Chinese with influences of Buddhism, Taoism and Confucianism.
Deep down, Pok Chi Lau’s pride in speaking Cantonese and Toishan dialects to his subjects demonstrates his homesickness, which is associated with his identity search that drove him to seek out Chinese immigrants living alone in America. In his poignant portrayal of a Dame Lo, the widow living in Laurence, Kansas (Widow Dame Lo), who reminded Pok Chi Lau of his nostalgic Toishan dialect, and also of Lam Bak one of the old Overseas Chinese bachelors he has documented, living alone at 858 Washington Street in San Francisco, who has not seen his family since 1948. The sober portrayal of old sailor Leung Fat, alone in New York’s Chinatown, where in his living room the only decoration that stood out was an empty can of Planters’ peanuts used to burn a joss stick for Leung Fat’s deceased friend. The old Mr. Chen from the Mandarin Hotel in San Francisco who lived alone and had not descended the staircase for thirteen years, this old man asked Pok Chi, “Why do you want to photograph me?” Pok Chi’s reply gives us an explanation of his motives: “I want to tell the history of Overseas Chinese working in the Americas and how they worked hard for their whole life to pave the way for their children and grandchildren. I hope these photos will help convince the public to build more welfare homes for the Chinese elderly”. A few years later when Pok Chi returned to the Mandarin hotel to look for Mr. Chen, a resident on the ground floor said he never met the man living upstairs but often heard him playing the violin, and that he had passed away. These portraits speak completely of Pok Chi’s deep sense of empathy.
His documentary work has even led him to an unexpected discovery. He found out that his own great-grandfather (from his mother’s side) had been a worker for the American Pacific Railroad. This discovery added even more sense and poignancy to his tireless search. This is especially evident when he laments and wonders how these elderly Chinese bachelors living in precarious conditions, in the desert or in the wild woodland, such as his great-grandfather, could satisfy their sexual needs. He describes the story of Mexicali, a town built by Chinese immigrants out of a desert in Mexico, which illustrates the loneliness and pain suffered by these male immigrants who never had a sexual relationship with a woman right up to their dying days. What a sad and forgotten community.
The place where Pok Chi Lau felt the strongest loss of identity was Shenzhen, when in 1979 and 1984 he flew back from America to Hong Kong, and went to Shenzhen to document the migrants that came from all parts of mainland China to find their Golden Dream. As he was shuttling between Shenzhen and Hong Kong to pick up his American born five-year-old son from school, the mere fact that the school security guard chatted with him in Toishan dialect made him wonder out loud: “Who are we, father and son? Are we from this planet Earth? Flying in from America to Hong Kong, I had barely settled down when I set off for Vietnam for one month. Then from Hong Kong I went to Shenzhen to see Northerners who migrated south to make a living. Back in Hong Kong I met a Southerner from my hometown, Toishan, but I realized that my Toishan dialect is the one I learned from old Chinese immigrants in a small town of Northeastern Canada. All of us, we have migrated, step by step, to foreign countries. Such large-scale migration and at such speed is unheard of in the history of the world.”
Of all the portraits of Pok Chi Lau’s, the one that lingers in my mind is the homeless woman he befriended in Hong Kong but never had the courage to photograph, for the sake of preserving her dignity, he said. She is the Cantonese-speaking woman he had called “Madonna of the street”. When he was photographing Hong Kong’s return to China in July 1997, he thought that would be a closing point for his 25-year documentary of the Chinese diaspora. “Even without a picture, Pok Chi wrote, I still miss her very much. In fact, she is the Hongkonger I miss the most. This unphotographed “picture” will always be recorded in my heart.” This description summarizes best the beginning and the conclusion of Pok Chi Lau’s artistic career, but he was far from attaining a closing chapter, because he still had more discoveries to come.
From Mexico to Cuba there was only so much water to cross, but it was in Cuba that Pok Chi made his most remarkable discovery. In 2009, it was the legacy of the worst, harshest and saddest human trafficking of Chinese laborers (coolies) in the 18th and 19th centuries from China to the West Indies: between 1820 and 1870 in Cuba alone, English and Spanish colonialists had imported 140,000 Chinese coolies to replace African slaves in mines and plantations. In six successive journeys, what Pok Chi was most adamant about, was to discover not only traces, symbols or even scattered anonymous bones from Chinese immigrants of the past, but descendants in flesh and blood still living there. Not only Chinese people have migrated, but Chinese culture also has migrated and stayed, in spite of the mass departure after the Cuban Revolution, although probably not for any longer, and that testimony constitutes the greatest contribution of Pok Chi Lau.
Not only Chinese laborers came to Cuba to work in mines and plantations and to cultivate the land, they even took part in Cuba’s independence war, as reported by Pok Chi Lau: between two thousand and three thousand of the so-called Chino Mambises fought in the war and five thousand of them served in rear logistics, to free themselves from servitude. In his 2009 trip, Pok Chi found several “last mixed-race Chinese Cubans” and made a self-portrait against a landscape of tombstones at the cemetery of Remedios, with this caption: “I was angry, and my hair stood up, Chinese graves have been dug up”.
In 2017 Pok Chi investigated mining and sugar mills in Cuba. He reached an open pit copper mine, El Cobre, where Chinese laborers had arrived to work in the 1830s and many lost their lives. Later he found a gold mine where American owners imported four hundred Chinese laborers to work in the 1920s. In the town of Las Tunas he found a remarkable man still alive and kicking at age 95, the last of the China-born Cuban Chinese in the region, a kung fu practitioner Rubin Fang, who was born in Toishan. In Chaparra he found a 74-year-old mixed-race Cuban-Chinese man, Julian Chiong Asen, who raised cock-fighting roosters, and whose mother was a mixed-race from Enping. Many Cuban Chinese were originally from Toishan and Enping, two very poor regions in Southern China at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries. Those remarkable portraits, besides their poignancy, describe the survival and resilience of Chinese traditions and culture in a foreign land, including the now not-so-secret Hongmen society in Havana.
In almost all of his portraits of Overseas Chinese, Pok Chi would comment about the little details in the picture that reflect the Chinese identity of his subjects, no matter if they were third generation mixed-race Chinese or if they had no Chinese bloodline at all, except for having been adopted by a Chinese godfather, such as Caridad Amaran, they all have a statue of General Guan Gong, Buddha ceramics, Chinese calligraphy scrolls…
Not all of the Chinese diaspora were miners, cotton-pickers or railroad workers, Pok Chi found some even active in song and dance, such as the two remarkable women, two lovely grannies: one is San Francisco Chinatown’s Cynthia Ye, a music hall dancer, leader of the Grant Avenue Follies, whose father, Fong Wing Taw, came from Kaiping; another is Havana’s Caridad Amaran whose adoptive father taught her to speak Cantonese and perform Cantonese Opera, named Fang Biao, who also came from Kaiping! Two distinguished portraits of women so remotely distanced from each other yet so close, and so intimately related thanks to their Chinese heritage, the Toishan and Cantonese dialect along with their profound love for the performance arts. Thanks to Pok Chi Lau who did all he could to bring Caridad and her friend Georgina Wong (also a student of Fang Biao’s) to China in search of their mentor and benefactor. They eventually found Fang Biao’s grave at the foot of the Fang Clan Watch Tower in Kaiping, (the very Fang Shi Deng Lou I myself had photographed in 2002 in Kaiping). The most emotionally charged moments were when both Cuban women put on their opera costumes, sang and performed at the tomb of their godfather, under the Fang Watch Tower. Still seeing Caridad in her profile portrait by Pok chi Lau, her face painted in classical Chinese opera make-up and wearing the full headgear of a “flower girl”，her protruding nose betraying her non-Chineseness, and seeing Georgina Wong, the other Cuban grandmother, all made up and dressed in the costume of a warrior for their performance in Hong Kong Yau Ma Tei Theater, I realized the mysterious power of photography to transcend ethnic and gender identities, to create these “persona” (in Latin or in Greek prosopa) meaning a “mask” that covers your face in ancient theatrical representations of tragic or comic characters. The power of Pok Chi Lau’s work is to say that eventually we will all be a mixed race on this planet Earth, and all of us will be in diaspora, one way or the other.
I cannot help but think of the greatest of documentary portrait photographers, August Sander, and his ambitious project to photograph all of the Germans (People of the 20th Century). Although it is meaningless to compare Pok Chi Lau’s work with Sander’s, there is, however, this similarity in their searching for a common identity, either among Sander’s German portraits or Pok Chi Lau’s depictions of the Chinese of the diaspora, even though neither of them has found a true answer to the question, that seemed to be the true question for Pok Chi Lau, all through his relentless pursuit of the American Chinese in the USA, the Cuban Chinese, the Southeast Asian Chinese in Malaysia, in Burma, etc. The evolution of Pok Chi’s portfolios becomes a lifetime project, a never-ending pursuit of a new concept of “identity” documentary, linking photography, history, geography, anthropology, linguistics (the ability to speak all of the different dialects when you want to interview the descendants of Chinese from Canton, Zhongshan, Toishan, Hokkien and Teochew), sociology (slaves for railway building, mines and plantations, becoming revolutionaries, independence fighters, politicians, restaurateurs, laundrymen, merchants, and perhaps most unique, Canton opera singers). Pok Chi Lau’s remarkable endeavor was to track down and find those men and women as they were reaching close to 100 years old, before they died, to listen to their stories and to take their portraits. When he could not locate or find the surviving diaspora Chinese he would manage to find their bones and skulls and he would take a photo of these bones as if, in a leap of faith, to capture their souls.
My deepest wish is that one day Pok Chi will be knocking at the door of the descendants of the Chinese labor force in Europe, or visiting their graves and photographing their bones, those hardworking Chinese immigrants and lonely, sometimes even miserable souls who came to help the British and the French during World War One, either working in factories or picking up corpses on the battlefield.
Independent Photo Curator
Pok Chi Lau’s exhibition can be seen from 28 December 2019 to 30 August 2020 at YUEZHONG Museum of Historical Image (MoHI) – Yuezhong Industrial Park, Hanggang North, Luohu District – Shenzhen City Guangdong Province, China Tel +86 755 8306 4687
Pok Chi Lau was born in British Hong Kong in 1950. Since 1967, Pok Chi Lau has been a documentary photographer. His work on migration focuses on the Chinese Diaspora in the Americas, Cuba, Malaysia and Myanmar. For a decade, he also documented the Diaspora within China, where rural peasants/migrants from all over China moved to seek factory work in coastal regions.
Pok Chi Lau is Professor Emeritus of PhotoMedia in the Department of Design at the University of Kansas, which has provided him with numerous international research opportunities, and through which his work has been exhibited and published broadly. Besides his work as a documentary photographer, Lau’s work as a poet and essayist has led him to collaborate with professionals in East Asian studies, journalism, ethnic studies, anthropology and social science.