Facing the “poorest and most disadvantaged” immigrants

by Xiangyi Yu

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Though Chinese students, businessmen and workers constitute a great part of Chinese immigration, an often forgotten part of the migrants are Chinese artists.

Caught in the melange of two cultures, why do they call themselves the “poorest and most disadvantaged immigrants?”

Diana Yeh, a student researcher at the University of East London, is seeking to reconfigure discourses of ‘(British)-Chinese’ art in particular and ethno-national conceptions of art and culture more generally.

As a Chinese woman born in Britain, she sheds light on the artistic and migrant journeys of four artists ‘(British)-Chineseness’– Shih-I and Dymia Hsiung, Li Yuan Chia and Anthony Key – through Britain at different periods from the 1930s to the present day.

Why do you think histories of artistic and migrant life connect Chinese artists?

I think both existing disciplinary boundaries between the arts/humanities and social sciences as well as conventional conflations of race, ethnicity, nationality, culture and community have limited understandings of the dynamics of artistic practices and multi-ethnic living.

These limitations are embodied in the polarised figures of the ‘artist’ and ‘im/migrant.

By illuminating how these artist-im/migrants negotiate, impact upon and contribute to the social and cultural dynamics of multiple localities in Britain, my work seeks to further our understanding of the challenges facing multi-ethnic societies across the globe today.

Could you give us an example to explain?

Each of the artist-im/migrants’ stories does indeed experience a qualitative downward shift in status.

While their stories testify to the power of ethnicity in gaining social and cultural capital, Li’s story in particular strikingly illustrates the fragility of the privileges gained via an artistic identity.

Though arriving Britain as an ‘international modern artist’, by the end of his life, in the face of the British legal and medical systems, Li began to recognise his position as ‘the poorest and most disadvantaged immigrant’.

How does British/international culture affect their work?

Beyond appropriating dominant or salient forms of expression, the artists have negotiated the complex cultural codes, expectations and needs of specific sections of British society.

The key role played by the institutional structures of British society in the production of art, and of the ‘(British)-Chineseness’ of art in particular. In Key’s case, it is not only dominant discourses of art but also those of ‘British-Chinese’ art, which are re-interpreted from a Buddhist philosophical standpoint.

Understanding the artists’ practices from their own perspective thus enables a reconfiguration of conventional art historical notions of ‘imitation’ and ‘influence’.

The artists’ works are seen through the lens of a ‘China’ imagined as the ultimate, exotic other, an ancient fabled land, remote in time and space, frozen in tradition and insulated from the experience of modernity.

Despite the dominance of Orientalist discourses however, other competing discourses in British diaspora space across the historical periods. This has included Universalism, where the artists’ works are received favourably on the basis of their appeal to a common humanity.