‘Words From Dad’ is an ongoing series that explores my Dutch-Chinese heritage and identity. With the use of archival images from my own family albums, I trace back my mixed roots through my grandfather’s life stories as told by my dad.
I am originally from The Netherlands. I am Dutch and a quarter Chinese. My Chinese roots come from my father’s side of the family. My grandfather Tek Suan Chen was born in 1910 in Wenzhou, China. He was a dignitary and the Chen family were judges and landowners there. Everything had been taken away from them, their possessions and their lives. The whole family was killed by the communists during the Mao Revolution. My grandfather was the only one who survived, together with his teacher and cousin Bun Chen. He was just 23 years old when he fled, as a student, from Wenzhou to Europe, via France to Germany. Due to the political consequences of the war he eventually ended up in The Netherlands where he met my grandmother and opened the first Chinese restaurant in the city The Hague. This then became the two biggest and most important things in his life: his restaurant and family. Even though I have unfortunately never met my grandfather in person — since he passed away before I was born — I have always had a strong interest in the stories my dad told me about him.
The manufacturing and application of analogue photomontage techniques such as collage and weaving is used metaphorically to visually portray my grandfather’s experience of adapting to a new (Western) culture, as well as my dad’s multicultural upbringing. In a way, I literally weave the different cultures and experiences together, creating a fusion of their Chinese and Dutch identities. Through stitching different parts of several images together I furthermore depict the fragmentation of my family memory and the continuous retelling of my family history; the stories that are passed on from one generation to another. Ultimately my grandfather’s testimony was first translated by my dad in his own way and in his own words, then by myself, and finally, by the viewer. The original plot and details become lost in translation, and through photomontage I further abstract it, using the pictures themselves as a material that can equally be manipulated. In ‘Words From Dad’ I explore this concept of interpretation and continuation, not only through what I see in the images from my family albums, but also through how they make me feel.
I also use photo embroidery to explore the ancient Chinese belief of the invisible ‘Red String of Fate’, that encapsulates a universal story of love and destiny. According to the legend, two people connected by the red thread are destined to meet each other, regardless of place, time, or circumstances. The magic red thread —
which is believed to be tied around the ankles — may stretch or tangle, but will never break. The myth is similar to the Western concept of soulmates. I believe the story perfectly embodies and perhaps accounts for my grandparents’ relationship. It seems like fate; how they met as complete strangers, from different cultural backgrounds, and did not speak the same language, yet somehow ended up together. I suppose the act of love is a language in itself that speaks on a much deeper level. With the use of red string, I create many connections within the photographs, making the invisible visible.
Some of the photographs feature unfamiliar faces which still leave me with questions. A few of the prints also have short messages or descriptions with names written on the back of them in various languages that I tried to decipher, but they did not clarify or explain much. I manipulate those images to represent this unknowingness and the abstruse and ambiguous relationship I have with them, and those shown within them. I blur and obscure the subjects’ identities through partially cutting into them, adding Chinese red seal ink paste, and overlaying them, recreating a kind of double exposure.
Laura Chen (b. 1997) is a Dutch image maker and writer based in London, UK. Working within the fields of photography, mixed-media and found or archival material, her multidisciplinary practice associates a fine art and documentary approach where research, implementation and intervention are closely intertwined.
Recurring themes and interests include identity, memory, tactility, the marginalised, disregarded and overlooked – whether in everyday objects or groups of people who live and work on the fringes of society. Fascinated by observing and recording her daily encounters and whereabouts, she uses photography as a catalyst for her imagination, her camera as a tool and device to make sense of the world and the obscurities of the mundane.
In 2022 she was nominated as FOAM Talent. Her work has been featured in and published by FOAM, British Journal of Photography, Photo London, PhMuseum, Lensculture, Canon, GUP, Life Framer, Refinery29, Aesthetica Magazine, amongst others. She has exhibited at 1014 Gallery London (UK), Open Eye Gallery Liverpool (UK), Midlands Art Centre (UK), Ikon Gallery (UK), Westergas Amsterdam (NL), Keilepand Rotterdam (NL) and Garagem 180 Porto (PT). In 2020 she graduated from Birmingham City University with a BA in Photography. She is currently undertaking an MA in Photography Arts at the University of Westminster.