№1 Gaze at the Other, Gaze of the Other

An Archeology of the White Gaze

01.02.2021, In conversation with the Hong Kong born and based artist, Echo Guo reflects on the work of Lau Wai, and its appropriation of the images and imaginaries Western cinema and television has constructed for and from East Asian people and places.

Lau Wai 劉衛, The Memories of Tomorrow/I'm just Wan Chai girl (2018) 135cm × 75.7cm, archival pigment print

Arriving on an overly crowded Star Ferry, walking through the bustling streets and market, a well-dressed Western man, a conspicuous outsider carrying a leather suitcase, cannot help but observe the total difference and novelty of the place in which he has landed. This Oriental world has some sort of dangerous romance hidden beneath it. Even the indifferent Asian-looking girl on the Star Ferry seems to open up a new reality. This is the beginning of the movie The World of Suzie Wong (Richard Quine, 1960); a film adapted from a British novel, and shot in Hong Kong more than a half-century ago, demonstrating an early yet significant phase of how Hong Kong was interpreted, constructed, and delivered to worldwide audiences. More than 50 years later, in Hong Kong shot scenes from Ghost in the Shell (Rupert Sanders, 2017)⁠—a movie supposed to be set in the future—again two Western characters walk through these same bustling streets and markets. The background has not changed much with the passing of time, but somehow, strangely, the dated surroundings have become a set for the future.

The Birth of a Nation (1915), offers a key example of how films could be commercially and artistically successful and influential but project a certain stereotyped gaze on a minority group. —Echo Guo 郭畅

Hong Kong artist Lau Wai’s video work Walking to Nam Kok Hotel (2018) has double storylines and combines the two movies mentioned above. By overlaying scenes extracted from Ghost in the Shell on top of The World of Suzie Wong, with the images from Ghost in the Shell constantly flashing, the viewer focuses on concentrating and closely comparing the details of both movies, determining what has changed and remained the same in both the urban background and the Oriental fantasy. Apart from the updated fashions of the Western characters in the newer movie, the chaotic streets of Hong Kong and its vendors somehow retain the colonial aspects of the earlier film. The old Oriental look and culture has certainly been used to satisfy some viewers’ imaginations and clichés of how the world unfolds in the East.

Lau Wai 劉衛, Walking to Nam Kok Hotel (2018), single-channel video, colour and sound, 03' 24", video still

The video work Walking to Nam Kok Hotel is part of the series The Memories of Tomorrow I & II. A similar approach has been applied across the whole series, which includes both still and moving images. For I am just Wan Chai girl, My name is Gweny Lee, and Queens Road West 040, Lau has added bizarre surreal elements onto existing vintage postcards and photographs. These series focus on how Hollywood cinema from 1950 onwards has depicted the concept of the ‘Orient’, particularly in relation to Hong Kong, as well as how these notions and fantasized representations have functioned in the process of forming the identity of the depicted cities, regions, and ethnic groups.

Most of Lau Wai’s important work consists of image-based research and study within film archives, detailing how the accepted ‘white gaze’ has been constructed and projected over the decades. The ‘white gaze’ in cinema has existed as an issue since the beginning of film history. One of cinema’s earliest movies, The Birth of a Nation (1915), offers a key example of how films could be commercially and artistically successful and influential but project a certain stereotyped gaze on a minority group (in that film’s instance, African Americans). Through the years of the film industry’s development, when Western cinema has looked to the East, Lau’s intensive research on film archives finds that from 1980 onwards cinematic depictions of the ‘Orient’ have frequently been combined with futuristic imagery, starting from the growing global influence of cyberpunk and anime culture, “…often combined with the many cliché, pre-existing stereotypical elements associated with the ‘Oriental’.” Thus, in Lau’s series The Memories of Tomorrow I & II, she tends to use various materials to generate uncanny scenarios, traveling through time in an attempt to question the processes of the formation of representation.

Lau Wai 劉衛, I am invincible...on the screen/False motion tracking (2019–⁠2020), 2-channel video, color and sound, 03’13”, video still

Living in the UK I was constantly being reminded of my racial identity in many different ways. For some encounters with people I knew, as well as with strangers, I realized certain characteristics were being projected onto me that I didn’t believe I had at all, but rather were some stereotypes towards a certain race. —Lau Wai 劉衛

Lau’s latest video work, the split-screen I am invincible…on the screen/False Motion Tracking (2019-20) is an extension of the visual research of The Memories of Tomorrow I & II. The visual discomfort of watching I am invincible… is similar to watching Walking to Nam Kok Hotel, as the video creates a continuous paradox and intertwined dilemma. For the new work, Lau has gone through eleven Hollywood movies and American TV series produced from the late 1930s to the late 1980s, centered on the portrayal of characters of Chinese descent, and stories filmed in Hong Kong. By using ‘deepfake’ synthetic media technology, through a mobile app, on one screen Lau becomes the characters in animated stills taken from these productions, and rewrites their lines. On another screen, we see Lau’s body covered with fake data tracking points, as if the deepfaked scenes are the product of 3D capture. While Lau moves her body or tries to vocalize in one video, the other video of extracted film scenes responds simultaneously to her movement. The awkwardness and unfamiliar visual experience works to strengthen viewers’ attention to the behavior of Chinese characters in television and film. Lau Wai questions further who has the power to control these bodies, and in so doing create representations of race, gender, sexuality and class. The film productions that continue to be made and distributed, fast and wide, contain endless content and gazes, which demand to be similarly examined and scrutinized.

Echo Guo 郭畅 (EC), Lau Wai 劉衛 (LW)
EG
Was there a period of time when you started to realize the notion of ‘white gaze’⁠—especially when it comes to how Asian beauty and imagery is presented?
LW
I guess the earliest period of time that I had that kind of realization was when I first moved to the UK, for my undergraduate studies a decade ago. That was the time I started to have a strong awareness of my ‘race’, as I realized that I had suddenly ‘become’ East Asian, due to the racial majority there. I had never paid attention to my race while I was living in my hometown as a racial majority. Living in the UK I was constantly being reminded of my racial identity in many different ways. For some encounters with people I knew, as well as with strangers, I realized certain characteristics were being projected onto me that I didn’t believe I had at all, but rather were some stereotypes towards a certain race. Those were the moments that I realized I was somehow treated differently due to my ‘race’, and I wanted to find out why and how these notions were developed. Later I started to realize I was projected with certain characteristics tightly linked to the portrayal of East Asian culture and characters in media, some of which originated in early ‘Western’ cinema. But it was only a couple of years ago that I started to look into it more deeply.

Lau Wai 劉衛, The Memories of Tomorrow/IMy name is Gweny Lee (2018) 135cm × 75.7cm, archival pigment print

EG
Definitely, living in a foreign environment allows you to get out of your comfort zone, and to look at things you have been used to differently. Interestingly, you have explored the notion of ‘white gaze’ further through your artwork, especially The Memories of Tomorrow series; a body of visual research that looks into a number of Western films, exploring how Western, especially Hollywood, movies have constructed racial representation, and how the ‘white gaze’ has been reinforced through various aspects—more specifically with regards to Hong Kong’s culture and history. What inspired you to make The Memories of Tomorrow series? Could you talk a little bit about which movies you chose to be part of the project, and why they were selected?
LW
I think the triggering moment was the time I revisited the Hong Kong Museum of History, a couple of years ago. Each time I went there I always noticed some different elements in the telling of Hong Kong’s history by its authority. There was a section about Hong Kong in the 1960’s, which introduced tourism in Hong Kong by displaying lots of postcards, posters and booklets on the wall. The text shown on the display wall mentioned how tourism started to boom at this time, and what was really interesting to me was that they also mentioned the film The World of Suzie Wong. I watched the film a long time ago, and what drew my attention to that is this idea of adding a Hollywood produced movie (based on a British novel) into the context of Hong Kong history. The success of this movie definitely attracted an increased amount of tourists to travel to Hong Kong, and particularly to Wan Chai, where the brothel/hotel was located in the movie. The question that was raised in my mind was why and how a ‘Western’ fiction could have such an influence or make such an impact on a city like Hong Kong? And I guess that was the moment that inspired me to further explore Western cinema’s portrayal of Hong Kong, as well as the idea of the ‘Oriental’, and to start the series The World of Suzie Wong. From then onwards, I have looked into movies produced from the 1950’s to nowadays, mostly American productions, including Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (1955), Soldier of Fortune (1955), The World of Suzie Wong (1960), The Brides of Fu Manchu (1966), Chinatown (1974), Big Trouble in Little China (1986), Blade Runner (1982), The Dark Knight (2008), Total Recall (2012), Cloud Atlas (2012), Pacific Rim (2013), Transformers: Age of Extinction (4) (2014), Doctor Strange (2016), Ghost in the Shell (2017), amongst others.
In terms of the cities or places represented in those movies as Asian towns, they were always slum-like and mysterious, particularly involved with illegal trades or wet markets, places of high density and low living conditions, but high in technology. —Lau Wai 劉衛
EG
To some degree, the presentation of Suzie Wong, as well as many other female Asian characters, duplicates the image of Anna May Wong (1905-1961) —one of the earliest critically accepted Asian female faces in Western produced cinema. After watching some of Anna May Wong’s movies, I started to realize that Western movies tend to project Asians, especially Oriental women, in certain ways, which may project different notions of beauty compared with how we understand beauty as insiders. Through studying these movies you mentioned, have you found certain patterns through which the Western world shapes or presents Asian beauty and Asian culture?
LW
Definitely, and I try to demonstrate some of the patterns through the video piece Walking to Nam Kok Hotel. The term ‘Asian’ we use here mostly refers to East Asian. From a gender perspective, Asian women are always being presented as over-sexually exotic and subservient, and this type of portrayal can still be found in many movies or television productions today. However, Asian men have been presented as de-sexualized figures, undesired, devil-like; or else in another form, loyal and again subservient. Such portrayals of male characters are constantly found in many of the early Western movies from the 1920s to 80s/90s. In terms of the cities or places represented in those movies as Asian towns, they were always slum-like and mysterious, particularly involved with illegal trades or wet markets, places of high density and low living conditions, but high in technology. Starting in the 1980’s, filmmakers tend to think of many East Asian cities as perfect places to demonstrate and set a world of cyberpunk dystopia for sci-fi movies.

Exhibition view of the exhibition Relativity Hypothesis, J:Gallery, Shanghai, China, 2018

The question that was raised in my mind was why and how a ‘Western’ fiction could have such an influence or make such an impact on a city like Hong Kong? —Lau Wai 劉衛
EG
Your approach to creating and exhibiting The Memories of Tomorrow I & II series includes still and moving images. Looking closely at these still images, you have added some virtual figures and futuristic elements to still images extracted from original, older films—for example in I am just Wan Chai girl and My name is Gweny Lee. In Victoria Harbour 00S and Queens Road West 040 you have added bizarre surreal elements onto existing vintage postcards and photographs. Why did you decide to add futuristic elements to these original older images, and how do these processed cinematic images express your notion of “the construction of racial representations”?
LW
It was for me a response to what I had digested from all that the movies portrayed. Those big movie productions have a dominant power, as they are often the most widely distributed, with the highest production budgets and biggest markets. To me, what they constantly create and portray could become a permanent image of certain places and people in the viewers’ eyes and minds. By looking into all those movie productions, I realized that gradually a huge tendency arose to portray or adopt East Asian cities or faces for cyberpunk, sci-fi or action movies. They are often combined with the many cliché, pre-existing stereotypical elements associated with the ‘Oriental’. The more I found out about these tendencies, the more I began to think that those images had the possibility of becoming unconsciously permanent in viewers’ minds. Thus, I want to address this by creating an awkward and uncanny scenario in order to trigger some awareness.
EG
Rather than taking photographs yourself, existing images are always the base and foundation of your work. Starting in your earlier works Here (2012—2014) and Album (2014—2015), you have continuously explored how to use other’s images. Your latest work, I am invincible…on the screen/False Motion Tracking, has moved to another level of exploration. It’s still about moving images, and it is certainly an extension of The Memories of Tomorrow series, but interestingly, you have started to perform in this series. What are the thoughts behind involving yourself in the new work?
LW
I guess when we look at portrayals of certain groups of people of different race, gender, sexuality, class, or many other particular characteristics by the media, we often associate ourselves with those particular characteristics that we identify with. In another case, some viewers might often project these media-influenced representations onto people who they encounter in real life. Often these interpretations are misrepresentations, and misleading. I guess that’s why I started to have the idea of using myself, to alter the shape of these movie characters and bring myself into the foreground, as well as to present my own body.
EG
In my opinion, I am invincible…on the screen/False Motion Tracking is a further visual study on how Western movies project a certain gaze onto Chinese and Hong Kongese characters. You also raise the question of “who actually has the legitimate power of control of these bodies?” Obviously, the film industry, and many other industries, possesses a strong influence over this discourse. Do you try to answer this question through your art practice, or to raise awareness of such notions among the public, in the hope that this problem might be acknowledged and eventually solved?
LW
I guess I raise the question to aim for more awareness. For me, none of us has complete control. The difference is the level of relative control that you or others can have towards it, and I guess the decisive factor is who can create more visibility, have more resources, or the power to be seen. I believe that the more different and diverse representations and voices we can create, the less misunderstanding and harmfully biased labels people will carry along with them. These labels won’t go away suddenly. But through unremitting and constant re-negotiation, voicing out, through diverse media productions and different forms of communication, stereotyped labeling might gradually be demolished, or replaced by these other representations.
This conversation took place during March 2021 in Hong Kong.
LAU WAI 劉衛
(born in Hong Kong) is a multimedia artist whose works utilize video, photography, and installation to explore the multilateral constructions of identity concerning race, gender and the notion of belonging. She currently lives and works in New York. Her works are in the permanent collections of M+ (Hong Kong), The Museum of Fine Arts, Houston (United States), and the Alexander Tutsek-Stiftung foundation (Germany), among others. She has participated in numerous exhibitions in Europe, Asia, and the United States.
ECHO GUO 郭畅
is a writer, editor and the founding manager of a global art gallery’s Asia branch in Hong Kong. Dedicated to the disciplines of photography and contemporary art, Echo has contributed to the editorial content of a number of independent publications, including Closing Ceremony Magazine, presented by Shanghai-based artist-run studio Same Paper, and Heavy III., published by Sydney-based photography platform The Heavy Collective. Echo currently works and lives in Hong Kong.
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