Chinese Art, Manchester-style (1998)

The North of England is home to one of Britain’s most ambitious art centres—the Manchester Chinese Arts Centre which is currently celebrating 11 years of showing work by Chinese artists from Britain and abroad. Its ambitious agenda is to support fundamental integration, stop the [ghettoization and] eventually to become "unnecessary".

R.J. Preece
artdesigncafé - art | 17 October 2010
This article first appeared in Asian Art News, 8(6), pp. 39-41 in November/December 1998.

Chinese Arts Centre, Manchester

"Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, You’ve got fleas!" sang the chorus on Tony Ward’s recent CD-ROM installation, set to the sexy sounds of techno band Sugarpussy. Embracing British Chinese identity issues, Ward reflected on the bitter experience of childhood and growing up in the United Kingdom—setting British against Chinese in a disturbing game of skin-based, intercultural terrorism. For artists like Ward, a.k.a. Tone Balone (his technological identity), Manchester’s Chinese Arts Centre (CAC) has offered a critical venue when others were reportedly unavailable.

As a focal point for British Chinese art in Britain, the centre has been an important place for emerging artists, and has provided a point of reference to things Chinese for the over 30,000 immigrants in Manchester, predominantly those who arrived in the 1960s from Hong Kong, and an estimated 250,000 in the country. But not all has been smooth sailing, and the Centre faces several challenges and controversies. Its relationship to Britain and things Chinese is complicated, and the term "Chinese" in the organization’s title is being reconsidered. A recent seminar organized by the Centre in London was devoted to the problem of Chinese labeling, reflecting the complexities of how it functions in the world today.

Established as a registered charity with government funding in 1987 by Hong Kong immigrant Amy Lai, the Centre promotes a wide variety of artists of Chinese descent, and works with successive generations of British-Chinese people to re-define and shape Chinese culture in Britain. It also attempts to develop the positive identity of the Chinese. In a country where the common point of reference to things Chinese is the local take-away, the Centre has a necessary task. "Basically, when a white person uses the term ’Chinese,’ they mean anyone who is from East or Southeast Asia, aside from Japan," says Sarah Champion, director of the Centre since 1996.

While the Chinese Art Centre offers Mandarin and calligraphy classes and educational outreach, it also acts as an information database and as an agency that works on projects in conjunction with arts organizations and "mainstream" businesses. It was also set up to serve the local Chinese community. This is described as a continual challenge, particularly regarding its Chinese art program.

The issue of contemporary Chinese art as opposed to traditional Chinese art has arisen frequently, most recently at An Hong’s exhibition in spring this year. An Hong exhibited a series of photographs which recall the various personas of Yasumasa Morimura. "The Chinese community was in an absolute uproar about it," says Sarah Champion. "As far as many were concerned, it wasn’t Chinese. My argument was, ‘Well, he’s always been in Beijing,’ but they wouldn’t accept it. Many here have created an idealized view of what back home is, with very fixed ideas of what can or cannot be. Contemporary art is definitely one thing it can’t be."

But can "Chinese" be British Chinese, or must one come directly from China? According to Shanghai-born calligrapher Mary Tang, who exhibited her tradition-oriented work in a show last year, "Some Chinese artists born in England only understand a little bit about Chinese traditional art." She says, "Because the name is ’Chinese Arts Centre,’ most Chinese people want the Centre to show traditional things, not British Chinese art."

Despite being set up "to serve the community," only a small number of Chinese reportedly attend the art exhibitions. Why is this? According to Yuen Fong Ling, the exhibitions development officer, whose parents emigrated from Hong Kong in the 1960s,"I think it is due to educational levels and class." This further raises the question of whether being Chinese is enough to draw in audiences: if people wouldn’t go to a contemporary art exhibition in their home country, why would they in an adopted home? Is the cultural label enough to draw them in?

Yet, even with the innumerable difficulties, the Chinese Art Centre has carved out a reputation for being a focal point for British Chinese artistic expression, with links to China and around the world. Most recently, Yuen Fong Ling and his predecessor Kwong Lee played a crucial role.

For those who grew up in Britain, the Chinese take-away restaurant is sometimes a symbolic mountain to climb and is the ubiquitous stereotypical image. Tony Ward’s installation Alien Invasion— Fu Manchu v. the White Devil approaches British and Chinese stereotypes of each other in a disturbing video game format. It makes reference to the take-away container and a fictitious crabby waitress named Foo Young, which refers to a popular Chinese dish and plays on Chinese names in the West. Last year, Julie Fu collected 105 woks from different Chinese restaurants in Manchester to "represent the stereotype of the Chinese for the British." On each tag she wrote why each person gave her the wok. In a recent performance, Fu played on a myth which she says is prevalent in England. "If their dogs or cats are missing, they’ll be down in the local Chinese take-away!" says the North England Cumbria-born 26-year-old artist, laughingly. Kwong Lee, also an artist, has previously explored the food counter as a barrier to and site for communication.

Yet, avant-garde art at the Chinese Art Centre isn’t all take-away oriented. Adam Hongshan Wei, in 1997, displayed colorful abstract works in which he explored transmigration with symbols such as rice bowls and washing basins. Later that year, Susan Puisan Lok presented an installation addressing migration issues with a montage that included 1960s wedding photographs and an English-Chinese dictionary with sounds from Hong Kong and England, which addressed cultural fluidity and fragmentation. In early 1998, Nora Fok exhibited textured jewelry pieces that were inspired by sea creatures. This summer, Malaysia-born Lip Lee, who has lived in Britain for the past 18 years, organized an installation of photographs illustrating the fundamental contradictions presented in contemporary Eastern and Western societies. The artist examined their significance in everyday life in their respective cultures juxtaposed against their role outside of those cultures.

In addition to British Chinese art, the Chinese Art Centre has also exhibited work by avant-garde artists from overseas, most recently by Beijing-based Yin Xuizhen. Like Tony Ward’s Alien Invasion, Yin’s Brain was part of the 9th International Symposium of Electronic Art (isea98), held at venues throughout Manchester and nearby Liverpool. Instead of physically embracing technology, Brain asserts that people "fit in" with computers, not vice versa. This was visually asserted with an installation of 48 clay pots, concrete, clothing, and symbolic illustrations of the first computer, the latest computer, and the human brain. Pieces of participants’ clothing were spatially "fit into" cement, with e-mail-esque identifications of participants, such as the writing into cement of "Anthony@20-3-72."

Scheduled for 1999, the Chinese Art Centre has organized a traveling show of 10 figurative painters, working in conjunction with Karen Smith of Beijing’s CourtYard Gallery. Entitled Representing the People, the show will feature Chen Wenbo, Duan Jianwei, Guo Wei, Huang Hancheng, Liu Rentao, Liu Xiaodong, Ma Boazhong, Song Yingping, Wang Jinsong, and Zhuang Hui, and will be on view at the Midlands Art Centre (MAC) in Birmingham and Laing Gallery, Newcastle. These kinds of shows help British-born Chinese artists to position the concept of Chineseness and their own cultural status. In 1996, the exhibition New Generations brought together two artists from mainland China and two from England that encouraged a more direct, inter-Chinese dialogue.

At the Chinese Art Centre, "Chinese" is skin, blood, and lineage, and not necessarily themes, reference points, or subjects. "We wouldn’t program something if the curator was purely white. Even if his content reflected China, we wouldn’t support it," says Sarah Champion. "We are about supporting British Chinese, Chinese diaspora, and Chinese artists. If a Chinese curator organized a show of all white, northern European artists, then fine, we’d put that up."

The Chinese labeling has caused concern and a current rethinking, which prompted the Chinese Art Centre to organize the seminar, A New Vocabulary for Chinese Arts? in London in early October. For Sarah Champion, "The problem now is that for a relatively small population, there are so many terms around—British Chinese, Eurasian, East Asian, Malaysian, Singaporean, whatever. We are called the ’Chinese Arts Centre’ which excludes as many people as it includes. So, we are looking to come up with an all-embracing term, and it ends up being something so enormous that it doesn’t make any sense at all. We were then looking to do something like ’Yellow’ which is in-your-face and political. But a lot of our work is education, training, and information, and we know that some people would have no idea what we were talking about."

With a desire for integration, the Chinese Arts Centre may not exist in the future, which is controversial to some Chinese. "In the next 10 years I hope that Chinese Arts Centre will be snuffed out—that there will be no use for it," says Sarah Champion, making the Centre one of the world’s more unusual art venues. "That is, in an ideal world. We were set up to promote an understanding and appreciation of a different culture, which was then defined as Chinese, and really at the communities that were in Britain. It was looking at Hong Kong, and now it has expanded into China and many of the countries around China. We tend to work with people who say ’I can’t do this on my own or anywhere else. Please help.’ So we are driven more by people than geography."

For Sarah Champion, future plans for the Centre include working more as an agency, more at the national level, and much more in collaboration with other organizations. "We will be providing the sweeteners to encourage mainstream organizations to program Chinese artists [and] to get away from ghettoization." With artists in their twenties addressing the most basic of stereotypes and reports of artists, due to their ethnic background, being told by arts professionals to seek out the CAC first, it won’t be easy. Unfortunately, things like "Chinese, Japanese, Dirty Knees, You’ve Got Fleas" and "cats and dogs in the take-away" may pop up in more artworks to come. Will the Chinese Arts Centre ever become unnecessary? Probably not, but there is hope, "in an ideal world," as Champion says.

R.J. Preece would like to thank Sarah Champion, Yuen Fong Ling, Kwong Lee, Julie Fu, Mary Tang, and education director Cloudy Chatten for their time and their help.