Teresa Eng’s new photo series is a long-form exploration of identity and the Asian diaspora
As her parents immigrated to Canada from China via Hong Kong, the series, titled China Dream, is an intimate look at the country of her ancestors.
- Ayla Angelos
- 27 April 2020
- Reading Time
- 3 minute read
2019 was a tremendously busy year for London-based photographer Teresa Eng. Not only did it see the launch of her series Elephant – an ongoing documentation of the regeneration of Elephant and Castle and its impact on local communities in south London – but it was the year she began work on her third book, China Dream, published by Skinnerbox.
Interested in deeper projects for their ability to allow a dive into a certain topic, Teresa’s most recent series, China Dream, is a long-form exploration into “fractured” identities that the second generation diaspora experience as they “straddle” their birth country and motherland. As Teresa’s parents immigrated to Canada from China via Hong Kong, the series thus strove to take an intimate look at the country of her ancestors. “From 2013 to 2017, I visited China to explore my ancestral roots,” she tells It’s Nice That. “My parents were part of the mass exodus of mainland Chinese who fled to Hong Kong during the Communist revolution in the 1950s.”
During her travels, she experienced somewhat of a culture shock – “a country in flux”, she calls it. Every city was going through a “dizzying rate of rapid urbanisation”, where buildings she’d previously photographed had been long demolished and replaced with the new. Witnessing these constantly evolving cycles of “construction, destruction and reconstruction” across these cities and towns, the reality was heavily conflicting with her cultural memory of the traditions passed on from her parents – heightened by the fact that she’s never lived there.
“I grew up knowing very little of my family’s history, let alone the history of China,” she adds. What’s more is that her family had never really discussed their experiences of the Sino-Japanese War and the Chinese civil war, which let a somewhat hazy part of history hang over Teresa’s awareness of their background. “They would rather forget the past and focus on the future.” She continues to point towards a recent interview with writer Liu Cixin in The New Yorker that sums this notion up adequately, which goes: “We have statues of a few martyrs, but… we don’t memorialise those, the individuals. This is how we Chinese have always been. When something happens, it passes, and time buries the stories.”
China Dream was formed from an intentionally slow working process. Teresa purposefully makes time to spend on the minor details, which is equally shared with going outside to spontaneously photograph what she sees. Then, she will sift through her rolls of film and select the initial images to print in the darkroom. A hands-on process to say the least, she will take the time to observe the contacts, deciding which to process, to edit into pairings and to form into sequential narratives. “Photography is about learning to see,” she comments. “I’ve always been drawn to the immediacy of the analogue medium and the magic of seeing an image appear from nowhere in the darkroom.”
Magic is a key element throughout Teresa’s work and within her China Dream series. So much so that the title is drawn from a “patriotic calendar” that she’d found at a newsagents. “It was also a term popularised in 2013 by General Secretary Xi Jinping,” she adds. “It’s an ambivalent title, where my images oscillate between a dream and a nightmare.”
Visually, too, as the series is heavily imparted on the notion of the supernatural. This can be seen in her hazy and dusty aesthetic, evident through an image of a fish tank that she’d taken after stumbling into at a market in Chongqing. “I saw these large carp that were swimming languidly and managed to capture their bodies interweaving into each other.” Yet most imperative is her own personal investigation into her roots and identity; as a Canadian photographer based in London of Chinese descent, to work on China Dream was a fulfilling and educational one – and seemingly dreamlike – that informed her of a previously unknown past.