Reviews / October 2017 (Issue 37)

Creating Across Cultures

by Grace Chia


Michelle Vosper (editor), Creating Across Cultures: Women in the Arts from China, Hong Kong, Macau and Taiwan, East Slope Publishing Limited (Muse, Hong Kong), 2017. 364 pgs.


There are great expectations for a book that attempts to gather female artistic practitioners from across the whole of Greater China and to pitch them as cultural bridges between its four distinct geographical spaces of China, Hong Kong, Taiwan and Macau. The book jacket of Creating Across Cultures optimistically explains that it "celebrates the achievements of 16 women in the arts" in the fields of art, dance, music, theatre and literature, from "diverse cultures, languages and histories" who "must often defy cultural and social expectations in order to heed their artistic drive." The purpose of producing such a book is noble and paved with good intentions—the incredible details of each article are painstakingly laborious and the artistry of the female subjects is unquestionably of the highest merit. However, when all thrown together in the same pot, the end result of this coffee table collectible is somewhat underwhelming, its rich biographical material didactic about its feminist agenda without easing the reader into the slow burn of their struggles.

In her introduction, Vosper writes that "biographies of artistic women are usually devoted, when they appear at all, to celebrated individuals, whose life struggles, decisions, sometimes outré behaviour, and achievements are mined for wisdom and inspiration… yet a new and magical thing happens when the independent stories" are "brought together in one collection." Yet in this book, each "story" seems to coexist independently of the collection.

Some of the more compelling stories are written with a keen sense of a story arc, particularly with evocative opening paragraphs, while others are written in the manner of a lifestyle feature more commonly found in a magazine. For a book with the ambitious goal of attempting to reach out to those uninitiated with Chinese culture and artistic practitioners, a more nuanced narrative that doesn't bark a litany of achievements at the reader might have been more persuasive. There is frustration in wanting to learn more about how these sixteen illustrious females overcame great odds to get to the top and finding instead some articles burying such potential narrational nuggets deep in the midst of their tightly threaded prose. A stronger editorial eye may have spotted extraordinarily difficult or life-changing moments in these subjects' lives and used them as ballast to build the story through conflict or epiphany (instead of simply trumpeting their accomplishments) in order to allow the picture to gradually emerge of how these subjects became the strong and independent female forces they now are.

To illustrate—the most addictive reading for this reviewer was about Nanguan music master performer, Wang Xinxin. Penned by three writers—Michelle Vosper, Ralph Samuelson and Tina Ma—the article lured the reader in with an achingly beautiful dramatic entrance which could have served as the template for the other pieces:

A performance by Wang Xinxin is enough to make you believe in fairies. She floats quietly onto the stage in traditional robes, her black hair elegantly coiffed in a style of the Tang Dynasty. She sings gently and very, very slowly, with intense emotion, her face placid. It feels as though you have entered another dimension.

Such an introduction sets up in the most succinct and cinematic way both Wang's artistic prowess and also her life story, in which the duality of fragility and stoic strength permeates both her private and public selves. Similarly, in Vosper's piece on Nieh Hualing, author and co-founder of the University of Iowa's International Writing Program, an excerpt from Nieh's novel, Mulberry and Peach, starts the ball rolling before depicting the subject's tortuous early existence:

Nieh Hualing herself had been a victim of this campaign of persecution in 1960 when she was blacklisted by the government and spent two years in self-imposed isolation. Like the characters in the attic, she lived in a state of terror, always anticipating a knock on the door.

Such a vivid description very quickly paints the dark necessary for the light, and helps set the scene so that the reader can understand towards the end of the piece how much difficulty and sacrifice the subject had to endure emotionally, mentally and physically to accomplish her goals.

On the other hand, openers such as Clare Tyrell-Morin's piece on Hong Kong's leading playwright wastes the opportunity for dramatising a key dramatist's life and career by brandishing an empty journalistic exhortation: "Candace Chong Mui-ngam is one of Hong Kong's most important new voices." This not only makes the subject one "voice" out of many, but the declaratory "newness" (At age 41? Having written over nineteen plays and operas since 2001?) diminishes the impact of Chong's powerful and politically charged work.

Lines that strike an unfortunate, supercilious tone appear, for instance, in Christina Yuen's article about Liao Wen, a Beijing-based arts writer, critic and curator, when Yuen writes:

Despite the hardships, Liao Wen remembers her childhood as a time of freedom, when she roamed the countryside unsupervised. 'I was always a believer in equality and liked to play with the farmers' kids.'"

It is bewildering that out of all the material from the interview that Yuen conducted with the subject, this was one of the lines she felt was worth reporting, especially when Liao's father labelling her a "born rebel" or Liao's cigar-smoking habit both seemed more interesting angles to explore.

Another similar example can be found in the opening paragraph of Yuen's article about Taiwanese conceptual artist and photographer, Lulu Hou. Here the writer describes Hou seeing a signboard advertising "Vietnamese Brides, NT$180,000, virgin guarantee, otherwise return accepted", a moment which led to the creation of her award-winning documentary, Song of Asian Foreign Brides in Taiwan. On the one hand, while Yuen's choice of incident exalts Hou as empathetic, on the other hand, it also has the unnerving effect of repetitive gazing—the reader is looking at Yuen gazing at Hou observing the oppressed, whose stark reality has simply become anthropological fodder for art.

Briefly, the book also features: Yang Meiqi, who established China's first modern day dance troupe, the Guangdong Modern Dance Company in 1992; Tian Mansha, a master performer of chuangju (Sichuan opera) and director of xiqu, a traditional Chinese opera form; Beijing-based artist Yin Xiuzhen, notable for large scale corporeal and contemporary installations; Hong Kong-based artist and cultural advocate Choi Yan Chi, who founded one of the city's first independent art spaces; Hong Kong-based artist Jaffa Lam who creates large site-specific installations and sculptures often made with salvaged materials; Beijing-based filmmaker Yang Lina whose documentaries focus on China's marginalised (children, women and the elderly); Macanese composer Bun-Ching Lam, whose works seamlessly blend Eastern and Western influences; virtuoso guqin performer Wu Na, known for her experimentations on the ancient musical instrument; Taiwan-based dancer and choreographer Pisui Ciyo who combines flamenco, performance and indigenous art; Hong Kong-based modern dance choreographer and dancer Mui Cheuk Yin; and founder of Living Dance Studio in Beijing, actor, choreographer and documentary filmmaker, Wen Hui.

In all, the book features nine women from mainland China, four from Hong Kong, two from Taiwan and one from Macau. All of them were born between 1925 and 1979 and had left home, whether for political or artistic reasons, i.e. scholarships that funded the pursuit of their education in their field. They all are, in some ways, insiders and outsiders of their own increasingly complex societies, which have been undergoing major upheavals over the past few decades. Candace Chong encapsulates the realities of this situation best in Tyrell-Morin's piece about her: "You have to leave home to find your identity … Distance is important. I did a lot of thinking about my identity. Was I a Fujian girl, a Chinese person or a Hong Kong person?" It is this kind of fractured internal turmoil that should serve as the meat of each subject's narrative, slowly building into a more coherent and robust storyline without the constant and self-conscious barrage of achievements piled atop one another like a statue of shiny trophies too many and too bright to count.

Nonetheless, the book is a brave attempt at archiving the careers and biographies of some of the most prominent females in the arts working in Greater China right now. That said, I couldn't quite shake the niggling feeling that diversity is often a double-edged sword that promotes inclusion at the cost of some exclusion, and I wondered what rubric was used to choose the sixteen women in the collection and exclude others. Still, a book like this is timely for translating Chinese culture from a female perspective, for there is much more extant non-Chinese material about Chinese men in the arts than there is about women, a fact which, according to Vosper, was a critical reason for her choice of theme. Hopefully, should there be a follow-up project, the editorial eye may want to consider dressing up the narrative with more panache across the pieces, for as Lin Hwai-min, artistic director of Taiwan's Cloud Gate Dance Theatre, says of Wang Xinxin, "Once she comes onto the stage, the audience immediately falls silent. And when she sings, you simply forget where you are." This is perhaps the most crucial yet difficult aim for any artistic practitioner, but surely the most memorable and rewarding for the audience and reader.


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