Re-imagining British Chineseness

The Politics and Poetics of Art and Migration in British Diaspora Space

My doctoral research examined the politics and poetics of art and migration through a multi-sited ethnography of different generations of so-called ‘British Chinese’ cultural workers (in theatre, literature and the visual arts), whose translocal lives spanned Britain, South Africa, Italy, China and Taiwan. The project sought to redress the serious lack of scholarship on the histories, especially the cultural and artistic histories, of the Chinese in Britain; to re-conceptualise existing essentialising, a-historical discourses of ‘(British)-Chineseness’, which have become hegemonic within both academic social scientific and arts and humanities research and society at large; and to interrogate the polarisation of the (British)-Chinese subject as either ‘artist’ or ‘im/migrant’ by bringing together the study of art and migration.

In the process, I uncovered the hitherto little known stories of Shih-I and Dymia Hsiung, a couple who shot to worldwide fame in the 1930s due to Hsiung’s play Lady Precious Stream. I also began expanding the work by Guy Brett on the little studied artist, Li Yuan-chia, whose reputation has grown significantly since. I also focused on the artist Anthony Key, who has been described by Eddie Chambers as one of the most interesting sculptors working today.

Through an analysis of the transnational production, circulation and consumption of their work, I examined the role of governments, cultural institutions and the media in producing and circulating ideas of China and Chineseness within specific contexts of power and the meanings of creative work for migrant cultural practitioners. Based on three years of multi-sited fieldwork in Britain, China, Taiwan and the US, funded by the Great Britain China Education Trust, the research combined participant observation; ethnographic, life history and biographical interviews; and textual, visual and media analysis.

My book, The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity, was published with Hong Kong University Press in 2014, and I’ve published several essays on both Li and Key.