Framed in Time – piecing together lost memories
In the WMA Open Talk ‘Family Albums: the Private Memories and Social History’, Hong Kong-based visual artists Kurt Tong and Lau Wai spoke about family archives, ancestral histories, and cultural identities. They discussed the utilisation and presentation of photographs in the process of piecing together their families’ personal memories, and also delved into the broader history of Hong Kong and the heritage of its early residents. Tong talked about interesting ancestral stories of betrayal, power struggle and infidelity, while Lau explored the ideas of belonging, memories, and narratives with unique viewpoints. They were joined by respondent Gwen Lee, who added valuable insights into the creative use of archives, sharing about the archival works she curated and her personal experience with diaspora.
Lau closely examined her parents’ lives and their home in the process of digitising her grandparents’ archives. Those archives visually supplemented her works ‘Here’ and ‘Album’ in illustrating her parents’ identities, and what constituted their senses of belonging.
Tong created ‘The Queen, the Chairmen and I’, a storybook on his Chinese ancestry for his children. As a part of the Asian diaspora, Tong did not feel like he belonged to Hong Kong nor Britain. In hopes of searching for his Chinese roots and introducing his children to it, he travelled across China to collect stories and familial archives. He then put together a narrative through reimagination, bringing to life the lives of his grandparents and extended family.
The discoveries of inaccurate histories loom over both Tong’s and Lau’s projects. Tong discovered that a photographed glass window in Western Gardens was brand new, while his family had always believed that the artifact was looted from their ancient home. He also found out that his father would have been too young to have remembered the happenings of the war, though his father has memories of seeing men hung from trees during World War II. Yet, Lau discussed how her parents would ‘recall’ different memories when revisiting the same photographs, and how their narratives on historical events sometimes contradicted with other sources of hearsay.
While most contemporary historians aim to rectify and remove inaccurate history, as storytellers, Tong and Lau chose to include them into the discussion of their works instead. Tong even deliberately included his discoveries in the accompanying text of the photographs, allowing readers to reflect on the notion of accurate history.
Tong’s and Lau’s open recognition of the inaccuracy of their narratives enriched the social history of their families instead of decimating it. For instance, the incident of recognising the windowpane as a familial chronicle allows a fragment of their stories to be kept alive, despite its possible falsity. Without the mismemory, there would not have been any similar trace of their old house to be viewed by later generations, who could at least get a glimpse into their story and learn about their heritage.
Mistaken memories make for interesting stories to tell our future generations. They also inspire more appreciation for the creative process of interpreting and reimagining historical archives. It is rather futile to persist on the notion of ‘accurate’ history, as it simply doesn’t exist. Creating historical narratives, whether in familial or world history, largely relies on different versions of stories. These stories are often biased, if not deliberately twisted in the interests of authorities in power. On top of the lack of objectivity, the process of reimagination is also often flawed and inaccurate. Nevertheless, reimagination and sequencing is necessary to fill remaining gaps of the narrative, provide context to the archives collected, and piece together fragmented stories. Rather than being bound down by accuracy, isn’t it more interesting to listen to different narratives and play a part in imagining how it was like?
While history should seek to be as truthful and unflawed as possible for accurate representation, mistaken memories and inaccurately reimagined stories are inevitable in the journey of reconstructing history. One also cannot deny that it makes history all the more humane.
“If you ever get the chance to read the book– the story’s really juicy. It’s got infidelity, people dying, people stabbing each other’s back– a lot of people always ask me if it’s true, is this fictional. Different relatives tell me different stories, and it’s my way of editing and sequencing the narrative that makes it, I hope, an exciting book.”
“So I realised family history is just full of–not lies–but wrongful memories of extra juicy stories. So family history is not reliable. But it’s the source of memories and information and we build a narrative.” – Kurt Tong
“I also realised recording memories is actually full of inaccuracies. That can also involve fabrication as well. But not with intention. For example when looking at certain images, each time I can see that they were pointing out different things and all of a sudden, when we revisit the same photograph again, they would bring out another recall from their memories…I can also tell that they were also surprised or even challenged by their own memories. You cannot tell how accurate it is– even yourself.” –Lau Wai
Gwen Lee enriched the discussion on the creative use of archives through introducing the works featured in her talk ‘The Archive as Conversation’. She provided insight into how archives can be used in the modern social context. Among those included Kevin WY Lee’s work ‘Public Notice’ that crowdsourced pictures of notices on Instagram, and Miti Ryuangkryta’s series ‘Thai Politics’ that curated images of Thai politicians and its citizens found from social media. The latter took on archives with a darker humour, utilising satirical photoshopped images and humorous vandalism posters to question and ridicule problematic authorities. The brilliant use of archives on social media best captures the political climate and attitudes of the people at the time.
Screenshot from Kevin WY Lee’s Singapore On Notice Instagram
These methods drastically departed from traditional approaches of photography and historical documentations. In the past, historians mostly relied on the large amount of institutional archives such as official documents and state-owned newspapers, and a small amount of personal archives such as diaries and photographs, to piece together a narrative. With the birth of the internet, an autonomous space largely free of government regulation is created to allow input by anyone with access to technology. While the narrative is now harder to be controlled and manipulated by the government, it also means that a large number of different claims will be available for interpretation.
Erasing history from internet archives is a tactic used by many countries. From protests in China in the 80’s to the recent dissents in Iran and Belarus, internet censorship has been prominent in blocking any evidence of these happenings from being exported to the rest of the world. While many records of the events are wiped out within the countries, the globalisation of the internet enabled photographic and verbal archives of the events to continue to circulate. This shows how the prominence of the open archival source will allow a more complete, less manipulated version of history to be written. The phrase “History is only written by winners” might not be as applicable to modern day. We can only hope while some governments continue to twist modern day narratives, our future generations will still be able to use the many articles and social media posts to interpret a more truthful version of history.
“The term archive, for me it associates with authority, or a certain truth, or it holds certain accuracy. But actually, who can identify or determine whether that archive or material is related to what actually happened? It always [goes] back to humans, it always relies on a person. This relationship is really interesting.” –Lau Wai
It is foreseeable that online archives will largely replace physical archives in the future. Most families stopped printing albums of camera captured photos when smartphones were popularised. Every detail of our lives can be traced online, whether through the camera rolls on our phones, the social media or simply institutional databases. It is also prevalent that most old physical archives are digitised and can be easily accessed online, whether that be personal photos or historical documents. Apart from being a more organised and easily accessible system, online archives are also believed to be more long lasting, and will be within a type’s reach as long as the internet continues to function.
However, with 657 billion photos uploaded onto the internet every year and humans taking more photos every 2 minutes than ever existed in the last 150 years, there is an overabundance of pictures floating around on the internet. Just as how it is difficult to locate a specific picture in our photo albums, the over saturation of online archives might hamper more than enable us. This is especially since we are not deliberate with what we want to shoot, not to mention the relationship of the new generation with social media is one of public identity. Many of the photos we choose to upload on the internet serve to build up a certain public image instead of preserving personal memory. They, therefore, do not accurately represent one’s life. In comparison, the small amount of physical archives of printed photos or posters that are hand-picked are truly important to us. With many of us leaving online traces of ourselves every minute, it is also questionable whether it is a good idea to let everything, from a simple comment to scandalous photos, be immortalised in history and for our past to be openly uncovered by our future generations.
Furthermore, the sense of flipping through photo albums, and inspecting an item in close proximity cannot be replicated through digitised archives. For historians, artists, or simply one who seeks to enclose memories or unlock stories through archives, the physicality of physical archives is irreplaceable. From observing the creases symbolising age on fading paper archives, to staring at a painting on a wall, online archives cannot replace physical archives for artistic and sentimental purposes. Physicality in an increasingly virtual world is harder to come by, and I suspect that we cannot truly allow physical archives to die out.
‘Archive itself tends to give people this very overly black and white, TPRto photograph, of people and characters that we love to imagine. In this case I also look into what if our archive as present days are found in platforms like on instagram. In this exhibition I have also included the work of Miti Ruangkritya’s work called ‘Thai Politics’. ‘Thai Politics’ brings in materials that we have been, in a very democratic way, happily sharing images of our selfies, of our images or even very spontaneous images.’ –Gwen Lee
At the end of the day, despite the tense and complex dynamics between private and collective narratives, individual histories are a microcosm of the wider histories– reflecting power struggles between generations, genders, and social classes that pervade in all corners of societies. In turn, official history affects our personal cultural identities and attachments– to what we call home and how we perceive the world. Archives play a significant part in keeping a piece of history alive, notwithstanding the fast changing external environment. Whether physical or digital, the art of collecting, interpreting and reimagining, and creatively using archives remains an attractive process of answering our own questions of our families, our city and the wider world.
“And also the claim of history, or a claim of a sense of belonging, it’s a non-stop or constant renegotiation of history itself. We try to reestablish certain things that were established by certain people, by a small group of people. They claim it as authority, or the truth of the history, or the major history that is being told. I guess what we try to do… this process of telling our own story is like reclaiming our own territory, and trying to retell history. I find that this is very important for this project– to exist and reproof.” –Lau Wai
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Katie Luk is a former winner of the WYNG Philomathia Student Essay Contest. She is currently a politics undergraduate at Durham University, and is passionate about politics, social issues, and cultures across the world, especially those of Hong Kong and East Asia.