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Dr Diana Yeh Interview
By: PP Wong
“There is still pressure on writers to focus their work on issues related to what is perceived to be "their culture". And there are still many talented playwrights, directors and performers who don’t receive the visibility they warrant.”
Dr Diana Yeh is a sociologist, author and thought leader with research interests in race, migration, diaspora and cultural politics. Don’t miss her interview with BW about prejudices in British society and the countless challenges she faced while writing her book The Happy Hsuings.
B is for...book. What is your favourite childhood book?
I read voraciously and indiscriminately as a child. Growing up in a migrant family, one book that stood out for me was Animals of Farthing Wood, a tale about the displacement of a band of creatures from their home as a result of the human destruction of their habitat and their terrifying but necessary journey in search for another place to call home. The issue of migration underpins everything I write about today.
A is for… animal. If you could transform into one animal for one week, what would you be?
N is for… necessary. If you were banished to a desert island and could only bring two items, what would they be?
Snorkel and drinking water.
A is for… authentic. How would you describe yourself in three words?
Large, containing multitudes (see below).
N is for… novelist. Which writer do you most admire?
Beckett, Dostoevsky and, as my previous answer suggests, Whitman.
A is for… appetite. What is your favourite banana themed food?
What inspired you to write the book The Happy Hsiungs?
I first discovered the Hsiungs when I was doing research for my PhD. I was interested in the lack of visibility – especially the cultural visibility – of the Chinese in Britain, and in the stereotypical and dehumanizing ways in which "China" and "the Chinese" or "British Chinese" were and are represented in the British and wider Eurocentric imagination.
So it was incredible to discover the stories of Shih-I and Dymia Hsiung – two writers who are almost unknown today but who had once enjoyed status as worldwide celebrities. Shih-I Hsiung was known as the first Chinese director to work in the West End and on Broadway with his play Lady Precious Stream, while Dymia appears to have been the first Chinese woman in Britain to publish a fictional autobiography in English with her book Flowering Exile.
What particularly inspired me about the Hsiungs’ extraordinary story is the way in which they so vividly challenge dominant narratives of "the Chinese in Britain" as invisible and insular, with little social, cultural or political impact on wider society. Yet, as my book also suggests, their stories are also important in highlighting the challenges faced by "Chinese" writers in the West in becoming accepted as modern subjects, an issue that still resonates today.
In the book, you talk about Dymia – the first Chinese woman to publish a fictional autobiography in the UK. What was it about this particular woman that fascinated you?
She was an intriguing and complex woman. I was fascinated by the different accounts I gathered of her. In the UK and US press of the time, she was continually depicted as an exotic China doll, the picture of childlike innocence and female vacuity. But she was also described to me by those who knew her as an incredibly strong, even dominating character, who knew her own mind. This comes across in her decision to write the story of her life in England.
In the 1950s, autobiographies by "minority" writers tended to focus on what publishers thought would excite their readers – the exotic difference of authors’ pre-immigration lives. There were some semi-autobiographical accounts of life in Britain by writers such as Lao She and Chiang Yee but Dymia’s Flowering Exile: An Autobiographical Excursion (1952) – published a year before her friend Ling Shuhua’s Ancient Melodies (1953) – appears to have been the first written by a woman. In refusing to pander to publisher’s expectations, Dymia undertook a risky venture that was groundbreaking in its own way. I was also fascinated by the central role Dymia played in the Hsiungs’ public life and social engagements, through her carefully crafted performances of class, family and home.
Could you share with us about your research process and how you got published?
I was very lucky in the research process. I came across a copy of Shih-I Hsiung’s Lady Precious Stream, but had difficulties in finding out anything more about the writer.
Then, one day, I met up for lunch with a friend, the artist and photographer Grace Lau and mentioned the play to her. Amazingly enough, she turned round and exclaimed that the Hsiungs were friends of her family and that she could introduce their children to me. That moment marked the beginning of several years that I spent excavating the Hsiungs’ life histories in collaboration with and through the memories of their surviving family, friends and associates in fieldwork across London, Beijing, Taipei and Washington. I also spent much of this time undertaking research in different archives.
In terms of publication, I was fortunate enough to be approached by the writer Paul French for his series with Hong Kong University Press. By that time, I had completed my PhD, and used some of the material in the book, alongside additional chapters that I researched and wrote especially for the book over another year or so. I took a few more months to redraft the manuscript in light of both internal and external reviewers’ comments.
Shih-I shot to worldwide fame with his play Lady Precious Stream. In many ways, he was seen as a “representative” of “China" and "Chineseness". Very often East Asian and South East Asian writers are seen as representatives and ambassadors for their entire country to the West. Do you see this as something positive or negative?
It is undoubtedly negative as it denies the capacity of those writers to be fully human. It is also deeply inaccurate since all ‘cultures’ are mixed and contested. People tend to forget that nations are relatively recent inventions in the history of mankind.
In the book, you describe Shih-I and Dymia Hsiung as “Two once highly visible, but now largely forgotten Chinese writers in Britain.” Do you think that the Chinese community in Britain is still seen as a “forgotten” part of the British cultural landscape?
Absolutely. As I said earlier, the cultural invisibility of the Chinese and other East Asians in Britain is what drives much of my work. I began my academic work at a time when there was a lot of work emerging around redefining Britishness via Black British and British Asian cultural politics – but the Chinese and other East Asians were absent from those debates. So my early work looked at the issues around British-Chineseness in the contemporary visual arts and more recently I’ve looked at the challenges faced by young East Asians in making it in the nightlife and entertainment industries as DJs, MCs, hip hop and RnB artists and street dancers.
But it’s also important to say that I think that the way Chinese people in Britain become visible precisely as "a Chinese community" is highly problematic, in the way that it projects an assumed coherence onto a group of people with numerous differences of class, sub-ethnicity, language, cultural and political values etc.
I argue in my article Contesting the Model Minority (available via the previous link) that discourses of the Chinese as "a model minority" – which depend precisely on this notion of "community" – reproduce racialized notions of a lack in culture and creativity. The idea of community is therefore intimately connected to – even naturalizes – this forgetting.
How do you think the creative industry has evolved for British Chinese playwrights and directors since the Hsiungs’ time?
Not sufficiently! There is still pressure on writers to focus their work on issues related to what is perceived to be "their culture". And there are still many talented playwrights, directors and performers who don’t receive the visibility they warrant – in the UK, Daniel York, Anna Chen and Lucy Sheen to name but a few. But progress is not made in a linear fashion.
Non-fiction books often take years of research and editing. Was there a time in the process when you wanted to give up?
Several! There were countless times when I never thought I would make it to the end, and days where writing a single sentence seemed impossible.
When you get used to the rhythms of your own way of writing (which includes not-writing), it becomes less difficult. But what I valued about writing non-fiction is that I could be driven by my research material – my fascination with the lives of the people I was writing about kept me going.
Your book has some lovely photos of the Hsuings and their family. How did you gain permission to use these photos and how was it like meeting the family?
Yes, I came to know the Hsiungs family very well – they became participants in my research!
I remain indebted to them, as without their time and generosity in sharing their memories and stories with me, the book would not have been possible. Some of your readers may already know one of them – Deh-Ta Hsiung, the famous chef!
They were also very generous in granting me permission to reproduce many of the wonderful photos in the book. In some cases though, they did not own the copyright for the photos and, where the images were not already in the public domain, I had to undertake considerable research to try and track down the copyright holders. It was a tiresome (and extremely time-consuming) but important task. In some cases, it was not possible to locate the copyright holders and in this case, it has been necessary to document best efforts to do so and then to wait and hope that the holders will at some point contact the Press. Such is the case with the covers of the Hsiungs’ two books reproduced here.
What is the next act in Dr Yeh’s life?
I recently published an article on the extraordinary artist, poet and museum/gallery owner Li Yuan Chia for a catalogue accompanying his first major retrospective in Asia held at Taipei Fine Arts Museum.
My current research looks at intersections of migration, racialization and global youth cultures and at racial inequalities in the cultural and creative industries. I’m also working on a book on art, migration and belonging.BW