Laura Chen

Lives and works in the United Kingdm

Words From Dad

Words From Dad is an ongoing series that explores my Dutch-Chinese heritage. With the use of archival images from my own family albums, I trace back my mixed roots through my grandfather’s life stories as told by my dad.

I am originally from The Netherlands. I am Dutch and a quarter Chinese. My Chinese roots come from my father’s side of the family. My grandfather Tek Suan Chen was born in 1910 in Wenzhou, China. He was a dignitary and the Chen family were judges and landowners there. Everything had been taken away from them, their possessions and their lives. The whole family was killed by the communists during the Mao Revolution. My grandfather was the only one who survived, together with his teacher and cousin Bun Chen. He was just 23 years old when he fled, as a student, from Wenzhou to Europe, via France to Germany. Due to the political consequences of the war he eventually ended up in The Netherlands where he met my grandmother and opened the first Chinese restaurant in the city The Hague. This then became the two biggest and most important things in his life: his restaurant and family. Even though I have unfortunately never met my grandfather in person — since he passed away before I was born — I have always had a strong interest in the stories my dad told me about him.

The manufacturing and application of analogue photomontage techniques such as collage and weaving is used metaphorically to visually portray my grandfather’s experience of adapting to a new (Western) culture and my dad’s multicultural upbringing. In a way, I literally weave the different cultures and experiences together, creating a fusion of their Chinese and Dutch identities. Through this stitching technique of putting parts of multiple images together, I furthermore depict the fragmentation of my family memory.

The weaving also works as a metaphor of the continuous retelling of my family history; the stories that are passed on from one generation to another. In my case: from my grandfather to my dad, and from my dad to me. Stories are kept alive through memories and feelings — factors that impact the details and plot of the original testimony. Ultimately my grandfather’s life stories were first translated by my dad in his own way and in his own words, then by me, and finally by you, the viewer. Thus, the original version of the story has become lost in translation, and in this work I further abstract it, using pictures as a material that can equally be manipulated. In ‘Words From Dad’ I explore this concept of interpretation and continuation, not only through what I see in the images from my family albums, but also through how they make me feel.

Alongside weaving, I use photo embroidery to explore the ancient Chinese belief of the invisible ‘Red String of Fate’ that encapsulates a universal story of love and destiny. According to the legend, two people connected by the red thread are destined to meet each other, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. The magic red thread — which is believed to be tied around the ankles — may stretch or tangle, but will never break. The myth is similar to the Western concept of soulmates. I believe the story perfectly embodies and perhaps accounts for my grandparents’ relationship. It seems like fate; how they met as complete strangers, from different cultural backgrounds, and did not speak the same language, yet somehow ended up together. I suppose the act of love is a language in itself that speaks on a much deeper level. With the use of red string, I create many connections within the photographs, making the invisible visible.

Some of the photographs from our family albums feature unfamiliar faces that still leave me with questions. A few of the prints also have short messages or descriptions with names written on the back of them in various languages that I tried to decipher, but they did not clarify or explain much. I manipulate those images to represent this unknowingness and the abstruse and ambiguous relationship I have with them, and those shown within them. I blur and obscure the subjects’ identities through partially cutting into them, adding Chinese red seal ink paste, and overlaying them to create a kind of double exposure.