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Insights from Art Workshops with British Chinese Women

In this blog Denise Kwan reflects on a series of art workshops with first and second generation British Chinese women which explored the stories of objects. These workshops were funded by the Language Acts and Worldmaking Small Grants Scheme. 

Since November 2016, I have been working with two generations of British Chinese women, specifically the first generation of British Chinese women and second generation of British-Born Chinese women as a part of my doctoral project. As an artist-ethnographer, I am interested in the ways that creative and visual methods can be integrated into ethnographic research. To understand the lives of British Chinese women, I asked women to bring objects of personal significance to explore ideas of belonging and embodiment.

These objects acted as a creative stimulus for the workshop activities. The art workshop is one element of a creative ethnographic method which consists of life-story interviews, art workshops and autoethnography. The use of interviews and art workshops aim to understand the experiences and the existing challenges facing British Chinese women, specifically to deepen the understanding of Chinese disaporic women beyond the binary terms of ‘submission’ and ‘model minority’. In this post, I will mainly focus on the linguistic insights that quickly surfaced in the group discussions during the art workshops with the second generation women.

Over two generations, my project involved 28 British Chinese women. Distinct differences between the two groups emerged as the project developed over the course of 8 months. For the first generation, I worked with a Women’s Group in Haringey Chinese Community Centre in London. As a group of 15 women, they are mostly from Hong Kong and, collectively, they identify themselves as ‘overseas brides’. The majority of women in the group moved as young women during the 1960s-1970s to embark on a new life, as many took up work in the catering industry. Many received a limited education and now, in their retirement years, they attend a weekly English class to improve their language and to socialise with each other. Learning English was an on-going pursuit but together they supported and encouraged the education of one another. As many were grandmothers, they expressed their concern about their ability to communicate with their English-speaking grandchildren.

In contrast, the second generation of British-born Chinese women was strikingly different. Many of the women held degrees and worked in professional jobs which is a far cry from the lives of their grandmothers and mothers, and of course, they were fluent in English. Despite their differences of occupation, class and education, it is their relationship with language that unites the two generations. While the first generation spoke of their difficulty with English, the second generation of British-born Chinese regularly referred to their limited Cantonese and Hakka. This linguist commonality was especially apparent during the second generation art workshops as it arose as an organic talking point for the group.

This became a lively discussion of language and culture as many of the women talked about a distancing with their family language, whether that was Cantonese or Hakka. One of the women commented on the intergenerational gap created through her lack of Cantonese as she explained, ‘My parents speak Cantonese and English, my grandparents only speak Cantonese and my Cantonese is pretty bad to tell you the truth. Despite going to Chinese school for many years, it’s still pretty bad. I find it hard to relate to my grandparents because we don’t really share much of a common language and I can’t ask them about their experiences in that way.’

Working with a group of women also meant that they were speaking as mothers or as women considering the prospect of having children one day. They discussed the challenges of passing on culture through language, this was especially pertinent for those women in mixed raced relationships where their partner only spoke English. This concern echoed the intersectional relationship between gender and culture as raised by Yuval-Davis (1997) who highlighted the central role that women occupy in both biologically and culturally reproducing a nation. For the women, the desire to pass on a Chinese heritage often hinged around language as it was commented, ‘I think if I have children, they won’t speak one word of Chinese because I won’t be able to teach them.’ While other women in the group who were mothers spoke of their efforts in speaking Cantonese to their children since birth but recalled a rebellion as they refused to respond as they grew up. Some women described themselves as confident Cantonese speakers but also recalled their parents’ difficulty with English and their insistence that in the home, they should only speak Cantonese. 

All the women shared their experiences of language and the way it situated their feeling of Chineseness. This was especially highlighted as one woman explained her desire to take up Cantonese lessons was to feel more ‘Chinese’. To reclaim her Chinese heritage, she sought the path through language. However in advancing her Cantonese, she encountered the extent of her anglified mentality and found that while there were phrases she would like to express, these sentiments were largely bound in the English language and simultaneously entangled in its values. Ultimately she discovered that some things were difficult to translate as she stated, ‘You can speak another language but actually you can't get into the heart of being a Chinese person, unless actually you've lived in that culture, lived in that environment, spent more time with people because the semantics are so different, you know. You can say something in English but actually if you try and interpret it into Chinese, it doesn't quite translate sometimes.’ On the outset, it can appear that the two generations of British Chinese women share little common ground to one another as they differ considerably in terms of class, education and occupation. However it is through their relationship with communication, whether it is the learning of English for the first generation or Cantonese/ Hakka for the second generation, in which they find their common ground.