Two Wongs Making a White (2018)

I am fascinated by my family's long history between China and Australia, many stories of our family's past haunt me. On my Father's side, my earliest ancestor to arrive in Australia was my great grandfather Wong Sing Foo who arrived illegally from Canton as a labourer around 1884, establishing himself in Cobar, New South Wales. My Grandfather George Wong and his brothers and sisters were 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 actively involved with the Chinese Youth League and the social life of the relatively small Chinese community. As a child, I was always curious about this generation as they all spoke English with a 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 Ao Hou Hong was unable to migrate to Australia in the early part of the twentieth century due to strict immigration policy and social circumstances throughout the early part of the twentieth century which often excluded Chinese people. It was a time when white migration was the preference and Chinese families often faced complex bureaucracy in attempting to stay together, as a result Chinese wives and children often stayed in China and Chinese people were seen with suspicion, a result of anti-communist sentiment of the era. 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 to Australia in 1958. Our 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, it was through her absence that I imagined a relationship with her. Specifically I have created a white dinner setting, symbolising the context of our family situation. 
The project has evolved from a short story to an idea for a work over many years. As the work has developed, initially the working name was the Absent Wife project, but has now evolved 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, a quote which became indicative of Australia's racism during the White Australia years. The work is featured in the Waipo (Grandmother's) exhibition at the Chinese Museum, Melbourne, curated by Joyce Agee and Nicholas Chin and is part of the Grandmothers Project by the newly formed Multicultural Museums Victoria network. Images below: The work installed at the Chinese Museum, May-August 2018.