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Looking With Images: Chinese Diasporic Worldmaking Beyond the Frame

For someone who thinks a lot about photography, I have decidedly mixed feelings about being seen. In Canada, where I grew up and once again live, the state’s term for non-Indigenous racialized people like me is “visible minority.” The hypervisibility of racialization often confers a kind of invisibility, however. As a cis scholar of mixed Chinese descent, I am persistently misrecognized by other members of the institutions through which I move, mistaken for a student, staff member, a different Asian woman. (It happened twice just last week.) The more eccentrically interdisciplinary my research methods and questions, the less legible they (and I) have become to the discipline (English) and field (modernism) in which I was trained. I won’t deny how exasperating it can be to come up against the limits of other people’s capacity to see. Still, not being seen has its affordances: so much gets done where others aren’t looking, when they fail or decline to see. Not being seen, refusing to be seen, can also be crucial tactics of survival.[1]   

Ten years ago, I published a book on the reproductive logics of early twentieth-century British and white settler discourses of governance, citizenship, and nation-building, investigating eugenicist and other projects of reproductive discipline through readings of modernist novels, speculative fictions, and state policy. In Better Britons, I wanted to understand why white people’s fears of racial decline and imperial competition might lead them to focus on reproductive life as a site of intervention, during this era as well as our own. My attention kept snagging, however, on the vibrant socialities that were a frequent target of such panics, including in British port cities like Liverpool, where multiracial Chinese migrant communities took root around the turn of the twentieth century.

These communities became the focus of a new book project, on Chinese and Chinese diasporic practices of cross-racial relation across three entangled sites of British imperial control: London, Liverpool, and Hong Kong. The everyday forms of relation that I trace in this in-progress book, entitled Archives of Intimacy: Racial Mixing and Chinese Lives in the Colonial Port City, did not generate strikes, protests, or other overt forms of political action. Mobilizing leftist queer and feminist insights and methodologies of reading, I argue for their significance nonetheless, as interventions in the racial(izing) regimes of relation governing life under conditions of colonial capitalist and heteropatriarchal rule.

Like many second books, this one grew out of a sense of dissatisfaction with the tools and frameworks closest to hand, prompting a set of conceptual and methodological shifts that are still unfolding. I’ve long found Sara Ahmed’s thinking about orientation helpful for explaining how we are disciplined as scholars such that some texts, some questions, some relations come more readily into view than others.[2] As she writes in Queer Phenomenology,

what comes into view or what is within our horizon, is not a matter simply of what we find here or there, or even where we find ourselves as we move here or there. . . . [T]he object . . . can be apprehended only insofar as it has come to be available to me: its reachability is not simply a matter of its place or location (the white paper on the table, for instance), but instead is shaped by the orientations I have taken that mean I face some ways more than others (toward this kind of table, which marks out the space I tend to inhabit).[3]

Ahmed’s phenomenology of orientation encourages us to attend to the contingency of our scholarly tendencies towards particular objects or “fields of objects”—spaces cleared “for some things rather than others”—tendencies that are confirmed, naturalized, through being reiterated and reproduced (87). (“History happens,” she writes, “in the very repetition of gestures which is what gives bodies their tendencies” [56].) But she also meditates in deeply personal ways on misalignment as an experience that “put[s] other worlds within reach” (153).

Early descriptions of the project that became Archives of Intimacy turned on close readings of early twentieth-century anglophone cultural production, my training as a literary scholar continuing to exert a tight hold. But increasingly, I leaned into disorientation, letting go of some objects and questions while embracing others.

Some of this (un)learning took place in the interdisciplinary spaces—global Asian studies, Asian American studies, Black studies, Indigenous studies—where I more and more spent time, seeking conversations that centered the experiences, knowledges, and imaginaries of colonized and other marginalized subjects as an intellectual as well as a personal and political imperative. But photography also played a crucial role in reorienting my practices of attention. Walking into archives in Hong Kong or London or Liverpool, I never knew quite what to expect. As others have documented, most archives are “space[s] of captured speech,” where marginalized experiences and knowledges are only accessible via the mediation of projects designed to suppress or otherwise manage them.[4] I hoped to tell other stories about and through such materials, ones that do justice, as photography scholar Tina Campt writes, to “the fissures, gaps, and interstices that emerge when we refuse to accept the ‘truth’ of images and archives the state seeks to proffer” through its production of “regulated and regulatable subjects.”[5] Yet I felt unsure of my capacity to do so.

Then, an archivist at the Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives in London’s Mile End handed me a folder of photographs—and something gave way, opened up. The photographs of Chinese migrant men, white women, and mixed-race children that comprise this heterogeneous collection were taken during the 1920s and 1930s in the East End London neighbourhood of Limehouse. Here, just minutes from the West India Docks, Chinese maritime workers employed by companies like Liverpool’s Ocean Steam congregated in Chinese-run cafés, boarding houses, and shops, sometimes settling down to on-shore work and family life with white women who might themselves be newcomers to the city (newly arrived from Ireland, the continent, or elsewhere in England). By the 1920s, Limehouse had become notorious as a racialized site of moral danger for white women, attracting sensationalist attention from the press as well as popular writers like Thomas Burke and Sax Rohmer.

Although their provenance is uncertain, most of the photographs in the collection were likely taken by street photographers seeking to capitalize on the popular appetite for representations of exotic “Chinatown.” This is important to know. But it is inadequate as an account of the photographs.

Black and white photo of three girls talking
Fig. 1. Unknown photographer, “Scenes in London’s China Town and Limehouse,” 1932, image collections, P18741, Tower Hamlets Local History Library and Archives, London Borough of Tower Hamlets, UK. Used by permission of Alpha Photo Press Ltd. Alt text: three children in dresses and trenchcoats and sporting bobbed hair walk down the street.

In the one I’ve thought most about—the one I pull out my phone to show the moment people express interest—three mixed-race children sporting dresses and short, bobbed hair pose expressively, dramatically, in a Limehouse street (Fig. 1). A caption affixed by the anonymous photographer describes them as “three little Chinese girls on their way home from school.” The children themselves, only one of whom has been identified (Lyn Hing, in the middle), left no written or oral testimony that speaks to their experiences of being photographed or anything else. And yet, looking at the image, there is no mistaking what Ariella Aïsha Azoulay says is true of every photograph: that it is the record of an encounter, between the photographer and their subjects, to be sure, but just as importantly, among the people subjected to (and by) the glare of the camera.[6]

What I love about this photograph is the unruliness of its child subjects, who draw attention to the experience of being looked at as a site of struggle. They maneuver­­­—or wiggle, to borrow Sara Ahmed’s term—in the tight space of this encounter by insisting on their own projects of looking, knowing, and relating, in raucous, convivial disharmony with one another. While the forward movement of the children on the right introduces a sense of spatial and temporal depth into the still of the photograph, bringing the presence of the photographer into view along with their own propulsive capacity, the child on the left opens up whole other worlds of relation with her turn to the horizontal, beyond the frame of the still.

In this way, reading the photograph for the encounters that make up “the event of photography” draws attention to the complexity of the social worlds in which its subjects were embedded.[7] At the same time, we are invited to understand our own experience of the photograph as an encounter as well. For our encounters with images are shaped, as Ahmed would say, by the “broader relations of power and antagonism” that condition what each of us sees when we look at photographs, not to mention their availability to be seen at all; and yet photographic encounters, like all encounters, also possess the capacity to surprise, to transform.[8] 

Certainly, this photograph surprised and transformed me. Arriving before the image, overcome by a startled sense of recognition, I couldn’t help but wonder how the children, who looked a little like me, might have experienced being looked at. Like me, did they struggle with being seen? For scholars seeking different ways of encountering photographic representations of racialized people, the bind of recognition is real: there is no way to see racial difference without activating visual literacies cultivated by the very regimes of power we mean to contest, obscuring other differences—of class, gender, personality, and so on—that also matter in their structural and phenomenological particularity.[9] Even so, the photograph of the three children makes it possible, indeed necessary, to imagine looking with or nearby its subjects: to apprehend them as “companions” rather than as “primary sources,” as living persons rather than things “relegated to the past” (Azoulay, Potential History, 16).[10] This is a reorientation that informs how I approach other genres of documentation throughout the book, including journalism, social scientific research, immigration case files, government commissions of inquiry, family memoirs, oral histories, intelligence reports, and colonial state memoranda.

For a time, I pursued the possibility that looking with artefacts like this photograph could transform how we encounter British cultural texts such as Sax Rohmer’s early Fu Manchu fictions (1913­–1916), in which the nature of the threat posed by the eponymous Chinese villain is telegraphed by the sudden proliferation of Chinese and other racialized bodies at the heart of empire, their presence announced by a show of teeth or slanted eye; or, equally, Virginia Woolf’s celebrated mid-1920s novels Mrs. Dalloway (1925) and To the Lighthouse (1927), both of which famously feature characters with “Chinese eyes.” How might such works, written against the backdrop of press, scholarly, and government agitation about Chinese migrant settlement and racial mixing, read differently with the children’s looking in mind? In the end, other questions—about the textures of the social worlds that animate the photograph, about the ordinary practices of interracial intimacy and multiracial conviviality of which they are a trace—proved more compelling. Face to face with the photograph, it felt like missing the point to so quickly recenter mainstream cultural imaginaries as a focus of inquiry.

What, then, does it mean to write about the photograph here, on a blog devoted to “critical and creative engagements with modernism’s cultures, objects, and problems of sight”?

Recently, I taught an undergraduate course about feminist, queer, and trans approaches to archiving Indigenous, Black, and Asian and Asian diasporic life. Towards the end of the semester, we spent a class session with The Black Trans Archive, an interactive website created by artist Danielle Brathwaite-Shirley that users navigate differently depending on whether they identify as cis, trans, or trans and Black. My students and I were struck by Brathwaite-Shirley’s use of text, sound, visuals, and gameplay to confront non-trans and non-Black viewers with the stakes of our desire for Black trans knowledge, prompting us to ask who such knowledges are or should be for and what they require of us. In a powerful essay entitled “Citational Desires,” Jennifer C. Nash asks whether it is possible for Black feminist thinkers to “deepen our commitments to non-captivity and non-territoriality” when “our work . . . feels like it is being used, circulated, mobilized, taken apart from our names, our histories, our bodies.”[11] Given prevailing cultural and institutional norms that reward researchers, as T. L. Cowan and Jasmine Rault note, “for publishing (publicly circulating and laying claim to) the intimate, culturally-community-specific, exclusive or deliberately not-public, sexual, cultural, and social lives of minoritized subjects,” my students and I wondered how to foster less territorializing practices of engagement, including through whether and how we circulate our learning in and from such sites to new publics in writing.[12]

It’s a question I kept returning to in composing this essay, as I considered what kinds of looking projects I might be inviting (or inciting) by bringing the image of these wiggly children—and my encounter with it—into a space oriented by the sign of modernism. Inclusion according to the representational logic of being seen does not interest me. In fact, I have no desire to claim photographs like this one either for or from modernism, territorializing moves that I want, following Nash, to resist. Rather, I am curious how the photograph (and my account of looking at and with it) might unsettle the orientations that condition your own practices of looking. These children are world(re)making. Please attend.


Thank you to Sarah Brophy for lending a critical and generous ear during the writing process.

[1] I explore these possibilities at greater length in “Not the Asian You Had in Mind: Race, Precarity, and Academic Labor,” English Language Notes 54.2 (2016): 183–90.

[2] My thinking about disciplinary training as orientation, first laid out in Better Britons: Reproduction, National Identity, and the Afterlife of Empire (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014), 20–21, resonates with Janine Utell’s project for the Orientations blog.

[3] Sara Ahmed, Queer Phenomenology: Orientations, Objects, Others (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2006), 55–56.

[4] Arlette Farge, The Allure of the Archives, trans. Thomas Scott-Railton (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2013), 54. Of the many queer and feminist historians of Indigenous, Black, Asian, and Asian diasporic life from and with whom I have learned about archives over the years, I will name just three: Saidiya Hartman (Wayward Live, Beautiful Experiments: Intimate Histories of Riotous Black Girls, Troublesome Women, and Queer Radicals [New York: W. W. Norton, 2019]), Nayan Shah (Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the North American West [Oakland: University of California Press, 2011]), and Alice Te Punga Somerville (“‘I do still have a letter’: Our sea of archives,” in Sources and Methods in Indigenous Studies, ed. Chris Andersen and Jean M. O’Brien [London: Routledge, 2016], 121–27). As will be evident from even this partial list, by “historians” I do not only mean scholars trained or employed in history departments, but anyone who thinks in rigorous ways about the past.

[5] Tina Campt, Listening to Images (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2017), 8.

[6] Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, The Civil Contract of Photography, trans. Reia Mazali and Ruvik Danieli (New York: Zone Books, 2008), 448.

[7] Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (London: Verso, 2019), 367.

[8] Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Postcoloniality (London: Routledge, 2000), 7.

[9] Tina Campt makes this point in Image Matters: Archive, Photography, and the African Diaspora in Europe (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2012), 69.

[10] Trinh Minh-ha reflects on the work of speaking nearby (rather than about) as “a speaking that reflects on itself and can come very close to a subject without, however, seizing or claiming it” in “‘Speaking Nearby’: A Conversation with Trinh T. Minh-ha,” Visual Anthropology Review 8.1 (1992): 82–­91, 87.

[11] Jennifer C. Nash, “Citational Desires: On Black Feminism’s Institutional Longings,” Diacritics 48.3 (2020): 76–91, 80.

[12] T. L. Cowan and Jasmine Rault, “Onlining Queer Acts: Digital Research Ethics and Caring for Risky Archives,” Women & Performance 28.2 (2018): 121–42, 131.