This article is adapted from a piece originally published on BJP-online in August 2018.
When Canadian photographer Teresa Eng travelled to China in 2013 she experienced a “reverse culture shock”. “I look like I’m Chinese, but I’m not,” explains the London-based photographer. “I wear different clothes, I have a different demeanor, and I can’t speak the language, so people speak to me but I have no idea what they’re saying.”
This was the beginning of Eng’s five-year project, China Dream, which explores the fractured identity of second-generation members of the Chinese diaspora. The photographer spent two years travelling to China to shoot, and completed a residency in Chongqing, followed by another two years of experimenting in the darkroom. After successfully raising funds on kickstarter, China Dream is now published in a photobook that includes an illuminating text by journalist Vanessa Hua.
Eng’s parents were born in Guangdong Province in south China and emigrated to Hong Kong during the Communist Revolution. In the late 1960s, they moved to Vancouver, Canada, where Eng was brought up. The photographer now lives in Elephant and Castle, London and is working on a long-term project about the inner-city area.
The images in China Dream are atmospheric and often abstracted. Eng explains how certain photographs, such as the image of one half of a tree, reflect her own identity. “You can only go up to a certain surface,” she says. “Even though I have more of a cultural understanding than a western person, and I do get some of the nuances, there is only so much that I can understand.”
As well as being about identity, the project also explores the rapid urbanisation of China and the constant cycle of destruction and construction that Eng witnessed over many years visiting the country. The dreamy, smokey aesthetic of her work was informed by the first time Eng went to Chongqing. She stepped out into a “valley of dust”, caused by air pollution in the city. “Seeing all of this dust definitely informed my aesthetic,” says Eng.
But the images were also influenced by the visual language of China, and play with ideas of orientalism, such as the “kitsch orientalism” that one might see in contemporary culture, as well as Eng’s own memories of the cultural traditions that were passed on from her parents. The photographer is interested in how certain aspects of culture and tradition are preserved through generations. “Paired with the reality of a country that is modernising and becoming the next empire, thinking about this all in relation to history; I find that really fascinating,” she says.
“What you learn from your parents, those values can also become old and outdated in comparison to the people who live in that country,” Eng continues, relating this to her images, which she sees as a deconstruction of these visual tropes. “My work is based on reality but it’s the way I want to see it. I don’t want it to be easily recognisable because I believe in making things that inform enough for the viewer to fill in the blanks.”