A Hong Kong Artist Explores What It Means To Be Chinese in the UK

The CFCCA’s home in Manchester’s Northern Quarter. Photo courtesy CFCCA

It’s a long way from Hong Kong to Manchester, but Dorothy Cheung had already found a community. Until Covid-19 exploded in Europe, the 33-year-old writer and artist was taking part in a nine-week residency at the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) in the United Kingdom’s second-largest city. Funded by the British Council, it was the first time the cultural organisation had sent a Hong Kong artist to live and work in the CFCCA’s on-site studio, which is located next to two public galleries that showcase the work of artists from Chinese communities around the world. 

“There’s no window in the studio, so unless I check the clock I have no idea what time it is,” said Cheung on a gloomy morning in February. She was sitting in a cheerful café a few blocks from the CFCCA, which is located in Manchester’s Northern Quarter, a neighbourhood of red brick factory buildings that are now home to bars, coffee shops and art galleries. Cheung sipped a long black as she discussed what brought her to northern England.

It started with a master’s degree in video art at the Piet Zwart Institute in Rotterdam, which has a large population of Hongkongers who moved there from the New Territories in the 1960s. “I met lots of diaspora people and reflected on myself as a displaced person, although just as a student,” said Cheung. “Rotterdam was very Dutch, very grassroots, very in-your-face.” She mimed a fist. 

When the British Council announced funding for the CFCCA residency last October, Cheung was curious. She had spent time in London, but not in Manchester. “I was curious about the UK outside of London,” she said. Looking outside, at the “Look Right” road markings and the double-deckers trundling down the street, it could almost pass for an older corner of Hong Kong. “It’s funny being here because it almost feels a bit like home – but it’s not home. So I wondered, what could I do here?” 

The answer to that question is rooted not in the Northern Quarter but in Yau Ma Tei, the working-class Kowloon neighbourhood where Cheung was involved with a project that transformed a derelict rooftop into a community farm. More than just an exercise in urban agriculture, Yau Ma Tei Gardener was connected to Hong Kong’s land justice movement, which blossomed after the MTR’s Express Rail link to mainland China called for the demolition of Choi Yuen, a squatter village in the northwestern New Territories. Artists and activists banded together to stop the railway, and while they were unsuccessful in that regard, their efforts led to a new generation of creative projects that were socially, politically and environmentally engaged. 

Many of those projects revolved around Woofer Ten, a now-defunct art space on Shanghai Street in Yau Ma Tei, and they later spawned initiatives like the Kai Fong Pai Dong and Hung Kee Good. “The energy from these communities is very strong,” said Cheung. 

Her mission in Manchester was to tap into the energy of similar communities that are lurking just beneath the city’s surface. A product of the Industrial Revolution, Manchester was for years where the world’s cotton was milled; its industrial wealth attracted Chinese immigrants who opened laundries and restaurants, particularly after 1950 when the UK was faced by serious labour shortages. 

“The Chinese community is very small but there are people who are very vocal,” said Cheung. Part of her mission was to delve into the LGBTQ history of Chinese Manchester; having grown up as a queer person in Hong Kong, she is interested in learning about life as a double minority: gay and Chinese. One interviewee on her docket was a longtime LGBTQ activist who is also part of the Manchester Chinese community.

Cheung also planned to do research at the two-century-old Portico Library in the hopes of finding documents related to Hong Kong. But mainly she was meeting people and getting to know them, letting their stories unfold at a natural pace. 

Dorothy Cheung

An adoptee discusses her return to an orphanage in China in a still from Cheung’s work

Some of the first people she encountered were a group of elderly women who dropped by CFCCA. They spoke Hakka and Cheung can understand it because she grew up with her Hakka grandparents, who didn’t speak any Cantonese. “So I almost felt at home with them,” she said. She joined them at Manchester’s Chinatown casino, where they go not to gamble but to enjoy the free coffee, cocktail buns and Swiss rolls handed out by staff. One of the women volunteers for the Wai Yin Society, a benevolent organisation, where she grows Chinese greens in a small backyard garden.

Meeting people wasn’t difficult, but the challenge was to get them to open up. Food helped with that. Snacking on free pastries at the casino put people at ease, but the ice was truly broken when Cheung was invited for hot pot at the home of someone she had encountered. “I met 10 people in one day – and then they became so open with their personal lives,” she said.

Manchester doesn’t have a very large Chinese population—the last Census counted 26,079 people of Chinese origin among the urban area’s 2.6 million people—but it is highly visible, with a prominent Chinatown in the heart of the city centre. Not far from the CFCCA is the Wing Yip Superstore, a massive supermarket with flying eaves and a festive colour scheme of crimson, yellow and green. Most of its trade is wholesale, supplying a galaxy of family-run Chinese restaurants in the cities and towns that surround Manchester. 

Cheung chuckles at the ostentatiously Chinese decor of Wing Yip. She has noticed how many of the Chinese businesses in Manchester indulge in clichéd decor, but she reckons they have a certain symbolic weight to people who have started new lives in a foreign land. Her goal is to collect these kinds of everyday objects and interview people about them to create a video archive of Manchester’s Chinese lives and experiences. The objects are vessels through which people tell their stories. In one clip, a woman shows Cheung two crystals given to her by a guru, who told her she deserves love even though she had a troubled childhood.

dorothy cheung

Cheung’s residency involved interviews with various members of Manchester’s Chinese community

The finished work will be presented in an exhibition called Memory Palace – its name an allusion to Matteo Ricci’s concept of a virtual palace whose objects are invested with specific memories. 

“I want to provide an alternative narrative of the community,” said Cheung, one that goes beyond stereotypes of nationality and culture. “We can never finish this narrative, because there are new things every day. But it adds to the discussion of what it is to be Chinese and what Chinese can be.” 

That’s the mission of the CFCCA, too. The institution owes its existence to Hong Kong artist Amy Lai, who organised a festival for Chinese artists in Manchester in 1986. Three years later, the not-for-profit Chinese Arts Centre opened its doors in Chinatown. It moved to its current location in 2003, thanks to funding from Arts Council England. 

For Cheung, “it’s as if Woofer Ten had more support and proper funding.” It may be on the other side of the world, but the same community spirit is there. And it’s a spirit that is resilient in the face of adversity. Two weeks after that morning coffee, Cheung had made progress on her residency, but the sudden spike in Covid-19 cases in Europe prompted her to return to Hong Kong. The residency has been interrupted and the CFCCA closed, but the institution says it is speaking with the British Council to see if Cheung’s residency can be resumed when the threat of the virus has passed.

“Many of the interviewees talked about the virus – and how they face racism here,” wrote Cheung by WhatsApp as she prepared for her departure. “Many people I met are British-born Chinese or have settled here for years. That reminds us of the importance to [have a] diverse representation of ethnic Chinese people.”

Editor’s note: The CFCCA is currently exploring the possibility of exhibiting Cheung’s work in either Manchester or Hong Kong, as well as returning Cheung to Manchester to resume her residency, but all plans are in limbo until the Covid-19 situation is resolved. 

Corrections: A previous version of this story erroneously transcribed the name of a community organisation as the Kwai Yin Society; it is in fact the Wai Yin Society. It also stated that Cheung’s residency was meant to last three months when it fact it was slated for nine weeks. We regret the errors.

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