Words From Dad

Laura Chen

2019 - Ongoing


'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. 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 Hague. This then became the two biggest and most important things in his life: his restaurant and his 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, embroidery and weaving is used metaphorically to 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. I stitch parts from different images together to depict the fragmentation of my family memory.

I also explore the ancient Chinese belief of the invisible ‘Red String of Fate’ to tell my grandparents' love story. According to the legend, two people connected by the red thread, are destined to meet each other, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. The magical 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. It seems like fate: how my grandparents 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 feature unfamiliar faces which 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 recreate a kind of double exposure.

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  • As told by my dad:
    "During the German occupation, Chinese were accused of being spies, just like virtually every group of foreigners at that time. It was not just accusations that my father experienced. Even before the war he wrote in all kinds of student magazines to inform his compatriots in the West about the events overseas. In such articles he expressed himself in no uncertain terms about the war between China and Japan. Developments that he followed with suspicion. His nephew Bun Chen had a radio transmitter and receiver in the back of the wholesale business and so they could follow the news closely. These were sufficient reasons for the Dutch police to accuse them of being spies and to detain both of them in prison for two days. In the meantime the wholesale trade was cleared."

  • As told by my dad:
    "In 1949 my father and his associates opened the first Chinese restaurant in The Hague, called Ling Nam, on number 95 in the Wagenstraat. The status pioneer comes to Tek Suan Chen.
    The names of the associates; Chen, Yang and Tseng. Ling Nam was a phenomenon in The Hague and beyond from the moment it opened. It was known for quality and cosiness. After the retirement of the three companions, Ling Nam was sold in 1975."

  • As told by my dad:
    "My father had mastered many dialects as a student. He also mastered calligraphy with Chinese ink and brushes on original rice paper which his friends brought with them from China. As a child, I could study and observe him for hours when he was practicing his calligraphy. I tried to imitate him with brush and ink as best as I could. Very often he would paint Chinese characters for friends on paper lanes, which were glued to the inside of a restaurant window so that the painter outside could precisely copy the outlines.

    He was also frequently asked by the immigration service as an interpreter and translator, because even many Chinese people could not understand each other nor understood Dutch. I thought this was very amusing as a child, because I did not understand anything of the Chinese language myself. Unfortunately, I was not raised bilingual during my childhood.

    My father could write very beautifully and he mastered the Dutch language and spelling very well. It was funny when my school friends were at our home as they could understand my father with difficulty (due to his Chinese accent). It turns out I had no problem with his pronunciation, because it was a kind of second language for me that I had grown up with."

  • An official document confirming my grandfather's Dutch citizenship.
    It reads as follows:
    "The Chinese petitioner Tek Suan Chen, mentioned in Article 1, under 2, was born in Tchekiang (China) in 1910 and has lived in our country since 1933. Partly because of his marriage to a Dutch woman, he can be considered as established. As a restorer, the addressee has sufficient income for himself and his people."

  • When digging through our old family albums, we found two almost identical photographs of my dad and grandfather. The pictures reveal many similarities: they are taken from the exact same position, display the same body language and facial expressions, and show them wearing the same long coat and slicked back hairdo. I mirrored the images so their bodies are facing towards each other. The red string is what connects them.