Two Wongs Making a White (2018)

I am fascinated by my family's long history between China and Australia, the many stories of our family's past haunt me and in some ways I find it intimidating to express these stories. On my Father's side, my earliest ancestor to arrive in Australia was my great grandfather Wong Sing Foo who arrived here from Canton to work as a labourer in 1900 and established himself in Cobar, New South Wales. He arrived illegally and came to Australia to avoid the rough conditions in the villages in China. My Grandfather George Wong and his brothers and sisters were subsequently born and bought up in rural New South Wales and then lived in Sydney. I still have strong memories of them, they were an earlier generation that was actively involved with the Chinese Youth League and the social life of the relatively small Chinese community at that time. As a child, I was always curious about this generation as they all spoke with thick country Australian accents and were connected to farming, market gardens, green grocers and the fresh fruit and vegetable markets. 

I was aware that the Grandmother I grew up with, was my Father's step mother, my grandfather's second wife Ada, who was born in Australia. It often made me question where my Father's actual mother was? As I started to unravel this question further, I realised that my absent, almost forgotten Grandmother Wong Ao Hong (my Father's real mother) was unable to migrate to Australia in the early part of the twentieth century due to immigration policy and social circumstances throughout the early part of the twentieth century. It was a time when white migration was preferenced and Chinese families often faced complex bureaucracy in attempting to stay together, as a result Chinese wives and children often stayed in China. My Father doesn't recall seeing his Father much when he was growing up and really only got to know him when he migrated himself as an adult. Family histories have often been dominated by the men in our family, yet I feel there is also an unknown female story to tell here. 

As a result my Grandmother never relocated to Australia and I never had the chance to get to know her. Over many years I have gathered various bits of information about her, to slowly create an account of the life that she must have had. My family were landowners in China, as a result of having fruit orchards in Australia, their properties in China were stripped from the family during the Cultural Revolution era, with my grandmother having to share the family house with other people from the wider community, whilst the rest of the family had escaped to Australia. I have heard stories about how she visited Australia before I was born and how heart breaking it was for her to see that her husband and family had moved on and had their own lives here in Australia without her. These stories have informed this work and it was through her absence that I have imagined what a relationship with her might look like, specifically I have created a white dinner setting to symbolise the climate in which my family existed and how the context created an absent relationship. This is my story of two Wongs. 

The project has evolved from a short story to an idea for a work over 4 years. As the work has developed, initially the working name was the Absent Wife project, now evolving to Two Wongs Making a White in reference to the famous quote by Arthur Caldwell, the Minister for Immigration, in relation to Australia's immigration context in the 1940s. The work is to be featured in the Zu Mu (Grandmother's) exhibition at the Chinese Museum, Melbourne, curated by Joyce Agee.