Peter Feng (2002)
Getting Lost on The Way to My Father's Village
Whatever the camera reproduces is beautiful. The disappointment of the prospect that one might be the typist who wins the world trip is matched by the disappointing appearance of the accurately photographed areas which the voyage might include. Not Italy is offered, but proof that it exists.
Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno
Growing up in a tract home in a predominantly white Seattle suburb, I felt my parents had the freedom to define China however they wanted. When we visited my grandfather's gravesite in the Chinese American section of Seattle's Volunteer Park cemetery, the ritual of bowing and lighting incense and burning fake money was always changing. When I was told to finish my dinner, I was warned that every grain of rice left in my bowl would produce a freckle on my face; as I grew older the threatened freckle was promoted to a pimple, and eventually a pockmark. (Years later, I found out that girls were told that the marks would appear on their husband's faces, not theirs; that seemed more likely, but not as fair.) They seemed to be making up Chinese traditions as they went along. I never believed that these traditions prescribed my parents' actions, only mine. So-called Chinese tradition was clearly a form of social control, and my parents had the power to define it. After all, Chinese was the language they spoke when they wanted to talk privately while I was still in the room. Chinese tradition was a parent's disciplinary tool so powerful that my parents never had to resort to, "Because I said so," for I never felt that my will was strong enough to challenge the natural order of things Chinese.
Relying on our parents to describe China, the children of Chinese immigrants often do not know where our parents end and a China begins. The journey to China might be thought of as an attempt to resolve this conundrum, but such a journey produces a paradox: how are we to use China to evaluate our parents if our parents have already created our impressions of China? How can we see China without also seeing the stories that have been told about China? To journey to China in an attempt to contextualize and possibly discredit the stories one has heard is to put one's own identity at risk; it is hardly surprising then that we find it easier to see a China that has already been narrativized than a China that contradicts those narratives.
Richard Fung's The Way to My Father's Village (1988), like Felicia Lowe's China: Land of My Father (1979) and Lisa Hsia's Made in China (1986), does not simply document a journey to China, but evaluates a parent's migration from China. China is implicitly the culture that got left behind; the narrative of "return" to China is thus one of recovery, implying that a Chinese cultural identity has been buried or left behind. But to posit the diasporic experience as one in which "original" cultures are exchanged for Trinidadian or Canadian culture is to accept that ethnicity is innate and a priori rather than fluid and pieced together from permeable, as opposed to discrete, cultures. By journeying to China, The Way to My Father's Village posits that culture is constructed from give and take, to and fro, here and there.
While journeys to China may inspire romantic visions of homecoming, this destination can never be reached, for that China no longer exists. The China of the past cannot be accessed by a journey through space, but rather by a journey through time. It is only by examining a parent's narrative of migration that one can account for temporal changes, so as to realign the China one sees with the China that one's parents saw. Thus, the visit to China is not an attempt to see what is there now, but to find traces of what was there before. These movies are forensic: they examine what has been left behind in an attempt to reconstruct what has happened. In so doing, the makers reveal that they are not seeking China, but rather its transformation: they are not simply interested in what in them is Chinese, but in what in them is not Chinese; they are not just interested in their parent's identity with China, but in what compelled their parents to disidentify with China. In other words, by reconstructing the narrative of a parent's departure from China, the child hopes to understand how the parent's needs were somehow not met by China. As the child does this, the journey comes into its own, effectively eclipsing the destination.
Richard Fung appears on-screen only in Canada, while researching his father's life; Fung chooses never to appear before the camera in China, while his voiceovers discuss the omissions, mistakes and frustrations of his project. The visit to his father Eugene's village is offset by images from the rest of the tour, each section framed further by a series of narratives about China from previous visitors (ranging from Marco Polo to Roland Barthes). Fung's video does not close with images of the Chinese countryside but instead returns to Toronto, further emphasizing the disconnection between what the video seeks to understand and where it ends up. The video's title cards emphasize disjunction and process, presenting the title in two successive screens (separated by an intervening image), "The Way" and "To My Father's Village," suggesting that the journey is as important as the destination. Fung's piece does not describe China, but rather the attempt to capture China on video.
When Fung arrives in his father's village, his eyes and camera are immediately drawn to the tower of the house built by his family, instantly recognizable due to an oft-seen photograph of the same house. The landscape is different — other houses were built since the photograph was taken — but the house is unmistakable. The awareness that the landscape has changed but is the same, that the video camera is recording what a still camera did years before, indicates that Fung cannot see China without seeing how China has been previously represented. As he admits at the end of this sequence, he left the village without remembering to ask to see the house where his father was born. The house for which there was already a photograph was more important to Fung, or at least more immediate. Fung thus realizes he has been positioned as a tourist, taking photos of things that have already been photographed, to prove that he had been there. More importantly, Fung surmises that, as a videomaker and tourist, he did not seek out objects from his father's past but objects that he and his father had seen representations of, had heard stories about.
The Way to My Father's Village is constructed around a series of narratives about Eugene. The video begins with an apparently staged bureaucratic interview: an off-screen woman's voice asks "What is your name?" and a man's voice replies, "Eugene Fung," giving way to a sync sound image of a woman's hands typing. Disjunction between soundtrack and image, voice and the printed page, and (by implication) between modes of narration are subtly suggested by the distortions that creep into the "record": Richard Fung's voice (his body is in frame, but his head remains off-screen) reports that his father's occupation was "businessman," but the hands type "proprietor." After some more "facts" are recorded, we see the image of a foot path; a legend reading "1279 AD" appears and a cultured, British-accented voice concisely sketches out a history of the Hakka people, and then begins to narrate specifically the story of Eugene Fung's birth and migration to Trinidad (via Hong Kong and Canada) as a young man. This narration is accompanied by images that depart subtly from standard documentary practice. Hakka illustrations are given to us as freeze-frames shot off a television monitor; instead of a map of China we see an atlas as a hand opens the book to the map of China; instead of historical images of Canada, we see abstracted, obviously contemporary landscapes which connect with the narration allusively, even tangentially (i.e., a shot over the railing of a ferry illustrates the narrated journey by train across Canada to Halifax; a view of a wing from the portal of a jumbo jet illustrates Eugene's migration to Toronto and his death following a stroke).
The segment concludes and is punctuated by an intertitle that reads "HISTORY and memory." If the section that just preceded the title consisted of facts which are a matter of public record ("HISTORY"), the section that follows consists of ephemera ("memory"): images from home movies are interspersed with textual reminiscences, as Fung's voiceover tells how little he knows about his father. This section, like the one that precedes it, begins with reference to public documentation as Fung peruses a box containing a marriage license, passports, and other documents, while the voiceover comments that these documents don't tell much. As Eugene's youngest child, Fung tells us, "I was always aware that I'd come in near the end of a story. Everyone in my family talked about the past... [for example, how] my father would whip out his belt at any sign of disobedience. They all said that I was lucky, but I felt excluded."
The opening sequences of The Way sets up the framework of interlocking narratives and positions toward "documentation" that structure the video. At least two narratives are presented via voice-over: the objective facts and the subjective recollections, each with their own gaps. Each section begins with a "staged" moment of reflection (the recording of information on a bureaucratic form, and the attempt to read meaning from between the lines of those forms). Home movies and photos represent interventions into time, while official photographs document identity and attach facts, figures, and documentable events to the body. Finally, both introductory sections combine sound and image (voiceover and visual footage) in a way that emphasizes their temporal disjuncture. In the "HISTORY" section, contemporary footage of a journey across Canada "illustrates" (alludes to) the narrated journey; while in the "memory" section, the voiceover refers directly to the documents, home movies, and snapshots, interrogating the images. For example, the voice comments in reference to photos of the family at the beach, "Besides, I never remember my father being that relaxed," acknowledging that snapshots are simultaneously "candid" and "posed."
As if to acknowledge the inadequacy of these accounts of his father's life, the "HISTORY and memory" segment is followed by "Tony and Dorothy," an interview with Eugene's nephew and niece. In this interview, Tony and Dorothy talk not about Eugene, nor about their father (Eugene's brother), but mostly about themselves, their village, and the house in the photograph. When Richard arrives at his father's village, his camera documents elements of Dorothy's and Tony's stories: the bamboo poles on which laundry was hung (and from which the Nationalist armies hung the heads of alleged Communists), a pair of chairs that are no longer in the house with the tower but now reside elsewhere, the house itself that Eugene never saw except in a photograph. Fung's camera thus seeks to document the stories that he was told, to verify the existence of the family narratives' settings, emblematized in the shot of the two chairs (which once sat in a house that Eugene had never seen, and that now sit elsewhere). The two chairs have no meaning without the narrative that gives them meaning—more precisely, the video image of the chairs has no meaning for Richard without Tony and Dorothy's narrative—and the narrative is the only thing that connects the chairs to Eugene.
Fung's video continually reminds us of the distance that separates videomaker and father, whether that distance is linguistic (in China, Fung has to ask his mother questions in English, who translates them into Cantonese for a woman who can interpret Hakka) or cultural. China is mediated by previous representations and narratives about China. When visiting Shanghai, Fung's camera is unable to capture what is in front of it, seeking out the famous park with the "No Dogs or Chinese" sign immortalized in Bruce Lee's The Chinese Connection (1972) and Han Suyin's The Crippled Tree. "By the way, you can't see it,” Fung's voiceover announces, “but to the left there is a park here in Shanghai...There was a sign here." Just as he was compelled to photograph the tower of the house in his father's village, here the compulsion to record that which has already been documented is so strong that the soundtrack attempts to compensate for the camera's failure to capture an image.
Fung's video seems, almost of its own accord, to reiterate (rather than critique or amplify) representations of the past. In photographing Shanghai, Fung admits in voiceover that he intentionally excludes white tourists from the frame, for "they spoil the purity of the image I'm trying to capture." Fung admits that his camera attempts to find a China that has not been penetrated by the West, a spatially and/or temporally removed China. The voiceover undercuts that attempted construction, allowing space for those tourists in his video—reinscribing them. The visual exclusion of tourists is marked as a deliberate act; the temporal disjunction between videotaping and voiceover, production and post-production, Fung as camera operator and Fung as editor, reveals the videomaker’s discomfort with his own actions in China. Thus, Fung foregrounds the act of constructing his video to not just call attention to its construction, but to emphasize the shifts accompanying production, the project’s historical evolution, and the videomaker's awareness of his complicity in rendering China as exotic. This process of simplification insists upon a static vision of China as temporally and historically removed. But by titling his video The Way… and not merely My Father's Village, Fung emphasizes the journey through space and time which his video attempts to document—and thereby allows for China's ongoing transformation, a transformation that renders China less exotic, to allow that white tourist on a Shanghai street.
The Way to My Father's Village attempts to attach stories to photographs and documents so that narrative cannot be restored to a still image once severed from it; instead, a new narrative must be constructed and attached to the image. For example, the bureaucratic interview that begins the film is an attempt to render Eugene Fung's life into a comprehensible narrative, referring to documents that locate Eugene in time and space (visas and such). A passport photo offers a narrative, but it imposes bureaucratic order on the photograph (it is posed, organized for legibility)—the official stamp on such a photograph is a marker of another entity (a government) imposing its own sense of narrative. Fung thus attempts to attach a narrative that has meaning for him, emphasizing his subjectivity. At one point, Fung's voiceover describes photos that "were taken before I was born; if I had been there they might trigger a memory"—more specifically, the snapshots do not evoke his own memories, but narratives about the past that were assigned to the snapshots by his family. Fung's video attaches his own memories and thus a new narrative—the story of his journey to China—to those still images. If Richard Fung traveled to China hoping to attach his father to a photograph of a house, he left China with that photograph attached irrevocably not to his father but to himself.
The investigation of the past continually throws the maker upon the shoals of the present. Images of the past fascinate not because they connect the past to us, but because they reveal the arbitrary relation of the past to ourselves. In Camera Lucida, Roland Barthes describes the process of seeking, shortly after his mother’s death, the one photograph that captures his mother's essence. He settles on a photograph of her as a child, taken at the Winter Garden long before he was born. This is the photograph that captures his mother best, and it is not a photograph that depicts her maternal relation to Barthes, but the very absence of a relationship.
In 1865, young Lewis Payne tried to assassinate Secretary of State W.H. Steward. Alexander Gardner photographed him in his cell, where he was waiting to be hanged… he is going to die. I read at the same time: This will be and this has been; I observe with horror an anterior future of which death is the stake. By giving me the absolute past of the pose (aorist), the photograph tells me death in the future. What pricks me is the discovery of this equivalence. In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott's psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.
The Winter Garden photograph is catastrophic—Barthes' mother is already dead—and even in a photograph taken before his birth, it raises the spectre of his own mortality. A photograph of the past erases the present, like a time traveler who returns to the past and murders an ancestor. The narratives we attach to images connect them to us, but the images themselves possess the spectre of the future, of our own impending death. It is hardly surprising then, that Richard Fung's process of "becoming," the way he finds his connection to the past, is to tell such stories. The narrated story asserts the connection of the still image to the present through its existence in continuously unfolding time. Cinema expresses both the desire to connect to the past and the fundamental disconnection with it, a desire for continuity built upon an underlying discontinuity. The process of constructing Chinese diasporic subjectivity is thus akin to the process of videomaking foregrounded by Fung's video: Fung emphasizes the choices he could have made, the moments in the past where divergence might have taken place—the selection of images and stories which, once taken, mark a catastrophic murder of the present in its very telling.
1. Max Horkheimer and Theodor W. Adorno. Dialectic of Enlightenment. Trans.
John Cumming. (New York: Continuum, 1991.) p. 148
2. Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1981. (Emphasis in original.)