The meaning of cultural identity: (Re)making Chineseness

Lucy Lu and Melanie Choi explore the complexities of their heritage in their works

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Event poster on red background, with photographic works by Lu and Choi: a Chinese woman lying on a bed with various fruits scattered around them and a photograph of a collaged picture frame with Chinese women ancestors hanging on a grey cement wall.
Lu and Choi present their meditations on cultural journeys. Courtesy of Greystreet Media and Intersections in Art

By: Kelly Chia, Humour Editor

How does our perception of cultural heritage intertwine with our memories? Canadian artists Lucy Lu and Melanie Choi tackle this question in their photography exhibition, (Re)making Chineseness: Reflections of Cultural Heritage. Visitors can view Lu and Choi’s collections online, titled Da Pi Yuan and Blanket Fort respectively, on the Intersections in Art website between April 23–May 29. Curator Yang Lim describes the exhibit as explorations on Chineseness in Canada, and the ways they are shaped by factors like migration and heritage. 

Lu’s statement on her work titled, Da Pi Yuan (大皮院), is an homage to Lu’s first five years of life in her hometown of Xi’an, China. Lu fondly recalls the time as “nebulous, distinctly [her] own, but of a different lifetime.” Da Pi Yuan captures this exploration in dreamy, melancholic photographs of her hometown. In an email interview with The Peak, she writes about the conflicting sides of her cultural identity growing up in Canada and feeling like an outsider. 

“I tried very hard to be ‘less Chinese’ growing up in an attempt to fit in. Then when I would visit family in China, I felt like a foreigner,” Lu explained. “As I’ve gotten older and explored the topic more deeply, I’ve learned to see it not as two sides in opposition but many aspects of myself and my past existing in harmony.”

Through some discomfort due to her limited fluency in Chinese, Lu lived in Xi’an for three months for her project. “It was definitely healing, it made me realize that preserving my culture takes effort, and isn’t always easy,” said Lu.

One photograph titled, My Parents’ Vase, is especially close to Lu’s heart. The photo is comprised of a new set of silk flowers that adorns a plastic-covered vase.

“My grandparents kept that vase after we immigrated to Canada, and I love that the fake flowers are covered by plastic,” Lu said. “It very much speaks to my own desires to preserve pieces of my past through this project.”

Lu also treasures the portrait of her grandmother, a radiant and resilient figure in burgundy. Lu explained that despite her grandmother’s limited mobility after a stroke, she wanted to pose on her own outside. Da Pi Yuan, then, is Lu’s honest depiction of the nuances in her cultural identity.

Choi reckons with similar questions in determining how identity is defined in her photographic series, Blanket Fort. Choi describes Blanket Fort as a “narrative of Canadian-born Chinese experience.” Choi deals with cultural identity on a personal level while reckoning with the painful marginalised histories of Chinese immigrants in Chinese Canadian history. 

In our email interview, Choi said her work was a response to the confusion many young Asian Canadians may be experiencing. 

Blanket Fort began with anger. “I felt that often the intricacies of my culture could be instantly erased when someone would tell me they loved sweet and sour pork or bubble tea. To have my entire language and culture be simplified to the menu of a Panda Express definitely made me question my existence,” Choi explained. 

When researching Hong Kong textiles for her work, Choi initially wanted to reclaim any vapid stereotypes of her cultural clothing being a costume. This characterized the main tones of Blanket Fort — the relationships between cultural appropriation and appreciation as viewers took in the model in Choi’s photographs.

“I think my favourite of the collection is still the one with the model standing alone in all the wreckage below her,” Choi says. In the photograph, the model distinctly stares at the camera amongst the fruit and flowers underneath her, as if interrupting the softness of the collection. “The model shows no emotion of fear but rather presents an atmosphere of strength and warmth.”

Choi ultimately wants Blanket Fort to be a safe space for other Asian Canadians questioning whether they are enough. “I can speak Cantonese but I can’t read. I love going back to Hong Kong but I’m regarded as a white-washed Chinese. I’m in Canada and people only see me as being Chinese, not even bothering to ask where my family is from,” Choi recalled. But she also remarks that confusion can be comforting and hopes her work provides a refuge for similar feelings.

As I spoke with Lu and Choi, I felt unspeakable nostalgia. Their work speaks to the complicated nuances of how I’ve felt about my culture and hometown as a Chinese migrant — a cultural outsider both at home and in Canada. It embraces those nuances as a valid part of cultural identity. 

Interested parties can view (Re)making Chineseness: Reflections of Cultural Heritage on the gallery website. Lu and Choi’s works can be found on their respective websites.