Words From Dad is an ongoing series that explores my Chinese heritage. With the use of archival images from my own family albums, I trace back my mixed roots through my grandfather’s life stories as told by my dad.
I am originally from The Netherlands. I am Dutch and a quarter Chinese. My Chinese roots come from my father’s side of the family. My grandfather Tek Suan Chen was born in 1910 in Wenzhou, China. He was a dignitary and the Chen family were judges and landowners there. Everything had been taken away from them, their possessions and their lives. The whole family was killed by the communists during the Mao Revolution. My grandfather was the only one who survived together with his teacher and cousin Bun Chen. He was just 23 years old when he fled, as a student, from Wenzhou to Europe, via France to Germany. Due to the political consequences of the war he eventually ended up in The Netherlands where he met my grandmother and opened the first Chinese restaurant in the city The Hague. This then became the two biggest and most important things in his life: his restaurant and family.
Even though I have unfortunately never met my grandfather in person —since he passed away before I was born— I have always had a strong interest in the stories my dad told me about him. Hence the title of this project, as my father passed me on the stories his father told him.
My image making practice involves applying analogue photo montage techniques such as weaving, which is used as a metaphor and visual representation of my grandfather's experience of adapting to a new (Western) culture and of my dad's multi-cultural upbringing. In a way I am literally weaving together these different cultures, creating a fusion of their Chinese and Dutch identities.
The story of my grandfather as told by my dad Ming Hou Chen:
“My father first started a restaurant in Amsterdam on the Rokin. In this period he met my mother Helena Blockpoel in The Hague. He then also started a wholesaler on the side in the Zeeheldenkwartier, Prins Hendrikstraat 124, The Hague. Probably to be closer to my mother. The wholesale factory supplied restaurants pots, pans, scoops, rice bales, spices and so on. Also candy, cookies, chocolate bars (famous brand Tjoklat), rolls King (peppermint rolls) and much more. It was a whole building, below the wholesale and the house above. Because my father worked in his restaurant four days a week in Amsterdam and was therefore not much at home in The Hague, he sold the restaurant in Amsterdam at urgent request of my mother. And so he only ran the wholesale business. In 1946 my mom and dad got married.
During the German occupation, Chinese were accused of being spies, just like virtually every group of foreigners at that time. It was not just accusations that my father experienced. Even before the war he wrote in all kinds of student magazines to inform his compatriots in the West about the events overseas. In such articles he expressed himself in no uncertain terms about the war between China and Japan. Developments that he followed with suspicion. His nephew Bun Chen had a radio transmitter and receiver in the back of the wholesale business and so they could follow the news closely. These were sufficient reasons for the Dutch police to accuse them of being spies and to detain both of them in prison for two days. In the meantime the wholesale trade was cleared."
"On the 24th of September 1947, I was born, Ming Hou Chen. Two years later in 1949, my father and his associates opened the first Chinese restaurant in The Hague, called Ling Nam, on number 95 in the Wagenstraat. The status pioneer comes to Tek Suan Chen.
The names of the associates; Chen, Yang and Tseng. Ling Nam was a phenomenon in The Hague and beyond from the moment it opened. It was known for quality and cosiness. After the retirement of the three companions, Ling Nam was sold in 1975.
At home as a child, I often asked my father about what it was like in China and about his childhood and family. Also whether he would ever want to go back to visit his birthplace. He never wanted that, I think because of the traumatic memories of his murdered family. His nephew Bun Chen went to visit his son Wha Hou Chen and so returned to Wenzhou. He recently showed pictures of my father's family home. The house and the temple are still in their original state with the same interior. In 1959 my father got the Dutch nationality. He received news from China that he could officially claim his family home, but he never wanted to claim it.”
Besides photo weaving, I also explore the ancient Chinese belief of the invisible ‘Red String of Fate’, not only because it is part of Chinese culture, but also because it encapsulates a universal story of love and destiny. According to the legend, two people connected by the red thread, are destined to meet each other, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. The magical red thread, which is believed to be tied around the ankles, may stretch or tangle, but will never break. The myth is similar to the Western concept of soulmates. I believe the story perfectly encapsulates and perhaps accounts for my grandparents’ relationship. It seems like fate; how they met as complete strangers, from different cultural backgrounds, and did not speak the same language, yet somehow ended up together. I suppose the act of love is a language in itself that speaks on a much deeper level.
My fascination for this concept of destiny is what motivated me to apply photo embroidery. With the use of red string, I create many connections within the photographs, making the invisible visible.
"My father had mastered many dialects as a student. He also mastered calligraphy with Chinese ink and brushes on original rice paper which his friends brought with them from China. As a child, I could study and observe him for hours when he was practicing his calligraphy. I tried to imitate him with brush and ink as best as I could. Very often he would paint Chinese characters for friends on paper lanes, which were glued to the inside of a restaurant window so that the painter outside could precisely copy the outlines.
He was also frequently asked by the immigration service as an interpreter and translator, because even many Chinese people could not understand each other nor understood Dutch. I thought this was very amusing as a child, because I did not understand anything of the Chinese language myself. Unfortunately, I was not raised bilingual during my childhood.
My father could write very beautifully and he mastered the Dutch language and spelling very well. It was funny when my school friends were at our home as they could understand my father with difficulty (due to his Chinese accent). It turns out I had no problem with his pronunciation, because it was a kind of second language for me that I had grown up with."
When digging through our old family albums, we found two almost identical photographs of my dad and grandfather. The pictures reveal many similarities: they’re taken from the exact same position, display the same body language and facial expressions, and show them wearing the same long coat and slicked back hairdo. I mirrored the images so their bodies are facing towards each other. The red string is what connects them.
Some pictures from our photo albums show unfamiliar faces, which to this day leave me with many questions. I am still on a mission to obtain real facts and evidence, which is very difficult when what is left of my dad’s side of the family is so small. I manipulate those images to represent this unknowingness and the vague, abstruse and ambiguous relationship I have with them, and those shown within them. I blur and obscure the subjects’ identities, partially cutting into them, overlaying them or recreating a kind of accidental multiple exposure.
(Right) An official document confirming my grandfather's Dutch citizenship.
It reads as follows:
"The Chinese petitioner Tek Suan Chen, mentioned in Article 1, under 2, was born in Tchekiang (China) in 1910 and has lived in our country since 1933. Partly because of his marriage to a Dutch woman, he can be considered as established. As a restorer, the addressee has sufficient income for himself and his people."
As part of the series, I also created a moving image piece that shows the aging of my grandfather, leading the spectator through a timeline of his life; restaurant, marriage, kids.
The video ends on a slow transition between the identical photographs, symbolising how certain family traits carry on from one generation onto another. A circle of life.