Distant water will not quench a nearby fire
Exhibition at the Textile Museum of Canada, 2020.
Distant water will not quench a nearby fire is a new project that revisits and reproduces a souvenir t-shirt from my childhood. The t-shirt reads “Hong Kong 1997”and depicts a caricature of a Chinese labourer painting the Chinese flag over the Union Jack. It commemorates the 1997 return of Hong Kong’s sovereignty from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China, ending over 150 years of colonial rule.
My Google Image-led research uncovers the original illustrator of the caricature as Larry Feign, a white American based in Hong Kong. In his book, A Politically Incorrect History of Hong Kong, Feign recalls designing three t-shirts for a local Hong Kong t-shirt company and to his surprise, immediately saw his “Hong Kong 1997 flag painter” t-shirt bootlegged by competing souvenir stands. Throughout the 1990s, the t-shirt proved very popular and many different versions were created.
Feign is best known for his comic strip, The World of Lily Wong, which was published in several Hong Kong and British newspapers from 1986 to 2001. The comic strip followed the life of a fictional young Chinese woman, navigating cultural collisions of east and west in Hong Kong. When the comic strip was abruptly cancelled by the South China Morning Post in 1995, the newspaper was accused internationally of submitting to Beijing’s criticism of the comic’s content. The cancellation is considered the most high-profile example of media self-censorship during the years just before the 1997 handover.
Reading about Feign’s experience has fuelled my own critical reading of his career from a post-colonialist, feminist, and diasporic lens. Here is a white American man who has made an entire career of drawing caricatures of East Asian people,which I instinctually find infuriating.
I’m led to consider my own cultural biases and complicated identity politics... How do I navigate my own feelings of confusion, anxiety, and grief when confronting political violence in my “sort-of” distant motherland? I’ve invited a number of Hong Kong/Cantonese-diasporic artists whom I greatly admire to respond to Feign’s t-shirt by creating bootlegs of our own. As the ongoing violent legacies of British Colonialism and white supremacy continue to weigh on diasporic communities, this project seeks to ignite an expansive dialogue by collaborating with contemporary artists working at intersections of research, activism, and community building. By re-construing Feign’s image, I hope to explore how we can re-appropriate dominant narratives of sovereignty and cultural identity.
- excerpt from Distant water will not quench a nearby fire publication
Photos: Darren Rigo for the Textile Museum of Canada