‘Translating China’: diasporic translations

Last Friday’s workshop of the AHRC ‘Translating Cultures’ network on ‘Translating China’ brought this stage of the project to a conclusion, completing a fascinating series of events on topics including archiving China in Britain (full details of all of which are available on the project’s site). The final event brought together academics, activists, artists and performers, and was devoted to questions of translation across the Chinese diaspora. It opened with a presentation by Ming-Ai on their work around Chinese heritage in Britain, relating in particular to food  (from the first known Chinese menu in the Britain at the 1884 International Health Exhibition) and labour (especially in the light of the organization’s current British Chinese workforce heritage project on seafaring, laundering, catering, the military, Chinese community services, health care, traditional Chinese medicine and new professions). Questions of labour in the diaspora were addressed further by Judith Misrahi-Barak, in a paper on the under-explored area of Chinese indenture in the Caribbean, a phenomenon first evident with the arrival of 192 labourers from China  on the Fortitude in Trinidad in 1806. Judith proposed an enlightening analysis of the small corpus of literary texts on this subject, including recent work by Jan Shinebourne. In a paper of J.G. Ballard and Shanghai, Duncan Hewitt considered a very different vector of diasporic influence, highlighting the ways in which the author’s childhood experiences of wartime Shanghai had a more profound influence than is customarily accepted on the development of a specifically Ballardian aesthetics of decline and decay. Other forms of diasporic translation addressed by speakers included dance (in a paper by Geraldine Morris on ballet) and visual arts (in papers by Pamela Kember on Hong Kong’s visual diaspora, and Rachel Marsden on the challenges of transcultural curating). Jeffrey Wasserstrom spoken about the digital transformation in communication across the diaspora allowed by the emergence of new media, comparing these new technologies to the impact of the telegraph in the late nineteenth century.

The stated aim of the network has been, whilst ‘investigating changing conceptions of China and Chineseness in Britain’, to ‘contribute towards the ongoing reformulation of both British and Chinese cultural understandings in the context of a multicultural Britain still structured by racialised inequalities and Orientalist stereotypes’. The closing contribution from the actor Daniel York illustrated the ways in which the project has engaged with and in these urgent debates. Daniel talked about his forthcoming play, ‘The Fu Manchu Complex’, to be produced at the Ovalhouse Theatre in the Autumn. Focusing on (the lack of) television and theatre roles open to East Asian actors, there was discussion of the  invisibility of practitioners from this group in the mainstream media, and the perpetuation among certain directors and producers of a Victorian notion of Chinese-ness dependent on qualities such as inscrutability. There was also some focus on the controversy surrounding casting of the recent RSC production of the Chinese classic The Orphan of Zhao, a work also studied as part of another ‘Translating Cultures’ network on ‘Staging China’ in Leeds,

This was an excellent workshop, reflecting the richness and timeliness of the project’s theme, as well as the appetite amongst researchers and practitioners to work together on addressing the questions this subject raises. I hope we will see this research sustained and developed far beyond the life of the initial AHRC network.

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