Between East and West

Mike Tsang profile photo

Mike Tsang

Guest blog by photographer Mike Tsang about his exhibition Between East and West. Details of when and where you can see it are at the base of the post.

Between East and West began its life in my teenage years in high school. I went to school in north-west London where there are large communities of migrants – my classmates who I’m still close to now were mostly British-born Indian, Pakistani, Sri Lankan and Chinese. I realise that what really bound us together was growing up navigating between two cultures – the UK and our parents’ homeland. We often spoke about how much we fitted in, or not – mostly joking about whose parents were the strictest and whose family had the most dubious story of poverty whilst growing up (my mum often reminded me that her birthday present was a boiled egg).

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A photo from Mike Tsang’s family archive, strawberry picking with his parents Tony and Myriam during his first summer

My grandparents were Chinese but moved to Mauritius whilst it was still a British colony. My parents were born in Mauritius before emigrating themselves to the UK. So whilst I looked Chinese, I felt twice removed from China growing up, and it was only later in my twenties that I felt a pull to know more about my heritage. More importantly, I realised that British-born Chinese friends had a common subculture – an easy understanding of each other’s jokes and values – that was quite distinct from Chinese migrants to the UK. Often we felt that we didn’t fully belong to either side, compounded by a lack of ability to speak a Chinese language whilst still looking foreign. I decided to record the testimonies of the British-born Chinese and celebrate this, my subculture – one born between two sides but now fully of its own.

The kind assistance of the Heritage Lottery Fund enabled me to begin this project. I spent the first month conducting ‘outreach’ – contacting some Chinese organisations in the UK who could help put me in touch with interview candidates. There is a theory that Chinese in Britain tend to be more disparate than other ethnicities, perhaps due to the tribal history of the country along with the lack of a unifying religion to draw each community together. You don’t really find a body that acts as a unifying force such as the Jewish Community Centre in Hampstead or the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton.

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Don Mei – Pictured in his Camden tea house and holistic Chinese medicine shop with his father

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Zoe Chan pictured in her popup architectural space

Momentum grew after the first few interviews and word started spreading about the project, with interviewees coming forward. Then the challenge became selecting people who both had interesting stories to tell whilst still working as part of a group of 15 interviewees that would be broadly representative’ of the British Born Chinese experience. I found it a particular challenge to find women who wanted to tell their story. It was also challenging to do both the oral history interviews and portrait photographs myself as I would have to switch gears and equipment mid-way. I do remember when meeting Lord Nat Wei in the House of Lords, I had only a 30-minute window in which to both interview and take his photo! Luckily his public role had made him concise and we fitted it all in.

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Lord Nat Wei pictured in the House of Lords

Between East and West has had great feedback from people who have seen the exhibition, read the website and bought the project book (see below for shop details). British-born Chinese have told me that they have felt this gave them a voice and set their identity as something different from Chinese in Britain. There has also been unexpectedly great feedback from people of different nationalities saying that the stories of existing between two cultures are “their story too”. I will be interested to hear your views!

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Exhibition details:

Monday 23 February – Wednesday 1 April 2015

The London School of Economics and Political Science, Atrium Gallery (LSE Old Building), Houghton Street, London WC2A 2AE

T : +44 (0)20 7405 7686

W:  www.lse.ac.uk
Gallery open Monday to Friday 10.00am–8.00pm

Free entry.

Project book available to purchase from www.betweeneastandwest.bigcartel.com
Mike Tsang is also currently looking for people who work in Southwark to tell their story. Contact details can be found on www.southbankstories.com