Letters on exhibit reveal the pain of China’s past
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.