Let­ters on ex­hibit re­veal the pain of China’s past

Vancouver Sun - - FRONT PAGE - KEVIN GRIF­FIN kev­in­grif­[email protected]­media.com

When his mother died at age 91 in 2017, artist Paul Wong made an amaz­ing dis­cov­ery. In her bed­room, he found 700 hand­writ­ten let­ters sent to her from rel­a­tives in China over a pe­riod of more than six decades.

The let­ters sent him on a jour­ney into the his­tory of his fam­ily and of Com­mu­nist China. He has trans­formed and re­framed the let­ters as part of an art ex­hi­bi­tion called Suk-Fong Nay Ho Mah/Suk-Fong, How Are You? at the Dr. Sun Yat­sen Clas­si­cal Chi­nese Garden in Chi­na­town.

Suk-Fong is Wong’s mother’s first name. Nay Ho Mah is the tra­di­tional greet­ing of peo­ple from Toisan or Tais­han. It’s the coastal county to the south­west of Hong Kong that pro­duced most of the im­mi­grants to Canada from China in the 19th and 20th cen­turies. They spoke Toisanese, a dialect of Can­tonese tra­di­tion­ally heard in Van­cou­ver’s Chi­na­town now be­ing re­placed by Man­darin. The ex­hi­bi­tion also hon­ours those orig­i­nal pi­o­neer­ing Chi­nese-Cana­dian im­mi­grants.

“The let­ters are 65-plus years of this ex­tra­or­di­nary, dra­matic his­tory of China writ­ten to this woman whose voice is not there,” Wong said in an in­ter­view in his stu­dio.

“These are let­ters writ­ten to her — her voice is com­pletely hid­den.”

Wong has been an in­no­va­tor in visual and me­dia art in Van­cou­ver since the 1970s. Known for mak­ing unique site-spe­cific art, his mul­ti­me­dia

work of­ten takes on con­tro­ver­sial top­ics such as sex­u­al­ity, race and death.

Like many Chi­nese picture brides of the era, Suk-Fong was in­tro­duced to her groom — Wong ’s father — by let­ter in the late 1940s. When she first met him in Hong Kong, Suk-Fong fainted. She hadn’t ex­pected some­one so old.

“He sent her pho­to­graphs of him­self as a much younger man,” Wong said. “He was ac­tu­ally 30 years older than his pho­to­graph.”

In Van­cou­ver, Suk-Fong be­came her fam­ily’s life­line. The 700 let­ters were writ­ten by 90 nieces, aunts, un­cles and friends.

Although Wong knew his mother kept in con­tact with fam­ily in China, he didn’t re­ally pay much at­ten­tion to that part of her life un­til she died. He found the let­ters in what he called “or­ga­nized dis­or­ga­nized bun­dles” scat­tered among his mother’s per­sonal be­long­ings. In the ex­hi­bi­tion, the let­ters are dis­played in their orig­i­nal en­velopes in bun­dles in a vit­rine.

Once Wong had the let­ters, he had to get them trans­lated since he doesn’t read the lan­guage.

He ap­proached them as if he was an artist who had dis­cov­ered a cache of let­ters at an es­tate sale. The only dif­fer­ence, Wong said, is that he had the “in­side track” be­cause he knew to whom they were writ­ten.

“I’m try­ing to let them take me to other places,” he said. “I’m try­ing to let my mother’s let­ters guide me.”

One of the places where he was guided was to his mother’s cup­board.

One of the let­ters from Suk-Fong ’s father talks about us­ing the money she sent him to buy in­gre­di­ents for a soup that warmed him and gave him strength. He names three herbs.

“That led me to my mother’s herb col­lec­tion to iden­tify them,” Wong said.

Wong found two of the three herbs: Goji berries and an­gel­ica. It led to Wong cre­at­ing 25 images of his mother’s Chi­nese herbs and medicines that she stored in jars orig­i­nally used for foods such as may­on­naise and spaghetti sauce. Mother’s Cup­board first ap­peared on tran­sit shel­ters in Van­cou­ver last Oc­to­ber.

One of the ma­jor works in the ex­hi­bi­tion is Father’s Let­ter, based on one from Suk-Fong’s father. The orig­i­nal hand­writ­ten let­ter has been en­larged to poster size with English trans­la­tion un­der­neath the orig­i­nal text.

Her father was a banker, gold­smith, mer­chant and landowner who re­turned home after the Com­mu­nist Rev­o­lu­tion in 1949 think­ing he would be part of build­ing the new China. In­stead, his land was seized and he was in­terned in a labour camp and repeatedly pa­raded through the streets dur­ing what was known as the land-re­form move­ment. His legs were bro­ken in po­lit­i­cally mo­ti­vated beat­ings. Be­cause they never fully healed, he was left in a great deal of pain for the rest of his life.

Wong said be­cause of what he’d been through his grand­fa­ther’s let­ters read like he was aware they would be read by a gov­ern­ment cen­sor.

In a let­ter from 1964-65, he said that “ev­ery­thing is very sim­ple now.” A mar­riage is cel­e­brated sparsely: “just some can­dies will suf­fice.”

“Do not buy lux­u­ri­ous things,” he warns.

An­other let­ter is from Suk-- Fong ’s niece. The 13-page mis­sive from 1994 has been turned into a scroll laid out on a Chi­nese ta­ble. It’s from the daugh­ter of her el­dest brother, who was ex­e­cuted dur­ing the Cul­tural Rev­o­lu­tion with a bul­let to the back of his head. She un­loads all her prob­lems on Suk-Fong.

“It’s a story of her life,” Wong said. “Her pa­thetic, wasted, lonely life of mis­use, abuse and what she’s gone through, pos­si­bly a mur­der­ous, in­ces­tu­ous hus­band, and how she got her­self through nurs­ing school and be­came a doc­tor and now lives alone.”

Read­ing the let­ters made Wong re­al­ize the bur­den that was on his mother.

“You see the des­per­a­tion in these let­ters,” he said. “She was their hope and dream.”


Paul Wong has re­framed and trans­formed 700 hand­writ­ten let­ters col­lected by his late mother over a span of six decades for an ex­hi­bi­tion at the Dr. Sun Yat-sen Clas­si­cal Chi­nese Garden called Suk-Fong Nay Ho Ma? Suk-Fong, How Are You? The let­ters, which are from friends and fam­ily, doc­u­ment the “ex­tra­or­di­nary, dra­matic his­tory of China,” Wong says.

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