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The Tate Britain’s summer exhibition this year was “Another London: International Photographers Capture City Life 1930–1980”. Timed to coincide with the London Olympics, it featured photographs of London by photographers who were not British nationals. It was the city itself that took centre stage in the show, which celebrated the fact that well-known foreign photographers brought their “outsider” perspective to London and documented a “dynamic metropolis, richly diverse and full of contrast”.
As such, when I visited, the exhibition had felt like little more than a shallow publicity act for multicultural London. It grouped together the work of tourists, journalists and refugees under the neutral term of “international”, thereby undermining various social and political complexities that these photographs do raise when considered individually. I was disappointed with how little critical or reflective perspective the exhibition offered in terms of what it even means to live with “the eye of an outsider” in the city. Is it reserved for so-called non-natives only? Is such a status that absolute? In the end, it was elsewhere, at the V&A museum, that I found a much smaller display offering a greater and more enlightening view of what it’s like to see London from the outside.
A series of unassuming glass cabinets situated in the museum’s China room, adjoining the gift shop, contain some modest articles relating to a lesser known international artist: Chiang Yee, a Chinese exile who was a significant cultural ambassadorial figure in Britain during the 1930s and into the 1950s. A selection of drawings, paintings and archival material reflect his life and work, his personal observations of British culture and his influence on the emerging public interest in, and understanding of, China at the time. Included in the cabinets, and of particular note, are copies of Yee’s illustrated travelogues, which he produced as a series using the pen name Yaxingzhe—or “Silent Traveller”. They were well received at the time of publication and describe Chiang Yee’s life in London and Oxford during the turbulent years of the Second World War, recording his travels to the Lake District, the Yorkshire Dales, Edinburgh and Dublin.
His rural depictions appear quaint, as do his “naïve” illustrations of people in Britain. He remarked in his Lake District travelogue that he enjoyed walking in the rain, and kept up this habit in the cities he visited, as a way of pursuing some “true nature” there. It is these urban cityscapes that leave the greatest impression. His visual depiction of the ephemeral in the industrial city streets—the smoky air and the smoggy atmosphere—contained in The Silent Traveller in London is remarkably sensitive and evocative, attributing a certain beauty, or “lustre”, to “buildings [that] do not bear close examination”. This achievement was possible for Yee by observing the city from behind the “crystal-like rain-screens”, which he did frequently with such pleasure. He wrote:
As I walk, the typical drizzle sometimes accompanied by gusts is blown in my face and brings an indescribable feeling; Londoners may show no sign of surprise as they are used to it, some may say that it comes too often, and some may just take advantage of it to wash away the dust.
He writes of how he finds pleasure in watching Londoners’ faces in the rain: so calm and unsmiling. He then advises fellow visitors to London who may be finding it hard to cope with the city’s rain to go to Piccadilly Circus, Regent Street or the area around Westminster tube station to “watch the crowd of people holding umbrellas and waiting to cross the street in the rain.” An accompanying illustration depicts a dark sea of umbrellas, like a wave on an ocean, with the persistent rain threatening to wash away the surface of the image. Both text and image, here displayed in the V&A cabinets, are striking for two reasons: the way they observe how unconsciously people react and adapt to their everyday urban environment, and also the way they demonstrate how such everyday occurrences acquire a new significance when one’s environment becomes new or strange. According to Anna Wu, assistant curator at the V&A, The Silent Traveler in London is “characterised by themed ruminations on a wide variety of seemingly trivial subjects such as the weather, teatime, children, books and the theatre.” Yee’s advice to newcomers in London is genuinely a product of his own process of navigation and assimilation.Such processes are not reserved for the non-native. As a Londoner myself (but not from birth), I have undergone similar experiences. Now I re-experience the city through these modest, delicate illustrations and descriptions, and consider how living here requires such constant re-negotiation.
The French writer Georges Perec observed from his book, Species of Space, that there was nothing inhuman in the modern city unless it was in fact our own humanity. Yee apparently found the idiosyncrasies of British life fascinating, but as his playful illustration of a group of revelers dancing in a circle at a jubilee party suggests, he never fully assimilated with his new surroundings: he includes himself in the image, standing outside the circle in traditional Chinese robe. He is not completely in the circle, but neither is he totally out of the picture. As an observer, Chiang Yee was a political exile who in London experienced another kind of exile. The latter is what appears to make him an artist.
Born into a wealthy, middle-class family in a Chinese province, Chiang Yee had had the luxury to indulge in more creative pursuits. All Yee’s images are informed by his passion for the intellectual and practical traditions of his own Chinese heritage, which was possibly a contributing factor to his self-imposed exile from China, where the political regime had sought to suppress or even destroy traditional Chinese culture. The former magistrate had sought to forge a new career for himself in Britain. A letter displayed in another cabinet addressed to British authorities shows how he professed a “nationalistic desire” to contribute towards an accurate representation of Chinese culture in the West, based on the nation’s poetry, painting and calligraphy. The identity of China he represented and supported was one of literary and learned men; in his travelogue from Edinburgh, he expresses a dislike of the “rude and harsh expressions of the Chinese provincial dialect”.
His expressions of nationalism, however, seem to jar with his travel work, and his quaint illustrations of traditional Chinese characters look like the oeuvre of another artist. Perhaps what makes his city images so much more enigmatic than the rest in this show is their sense of movement and transience, or their loose associations with traditional practice. The text panels in the display suggest that his illustrations for children based on traditional stories might be interpreted as a man longing for his family and for his homeland, but his urban travelogue of London seems to suggest someone comfortable with finding his way as a wanderer—a quiet observer of the life and movement around him.
Consolidating these conflicting styles is a note that Yee wrote to himself as a new year’s resolution in the 1930s, which is on display at the V&A. In it, he pledges to try his very hardest to develop his writing and his painting while in Britain, for “the world is so big that one can surely find a place to survive”. After the war years in Britain, Yee sought to capitalise on the growing interest in Chinese art, and in his situation who could blame him? In this light, Yee’s work demonstrates two approaches to survival in the modern city, whatever your national identity: one relating to financial continuation, and another to a more personal act of endurance and assimilation.
When confronted with the challenges of racist attitudes, Yee’s reaction is to take note of “the pleasant sound of running water” that reminds him “that everything passes away leaving no trace”. Thankfully, this is not always true. Yee’s urban impressions, particularly of London, remain as poignant traces for modern viewers and readers of a certain way of living in an unfamiliar place, and of seeing a place as unfamiliar.