A Bitter Pill - David Diao

In a distinguished career as an artist spanning over forty years, the work of artist David Diao continues to challenge and provoke.  Diao was born in Chengdu in 1943, the eldest grandson of a wealthy family and came to Hong Kong as a refugee in 1949 when he was six years old.  He lived in Hong Kong until 1955 and emigrated to America where he has lived ever since.  His provocative work has and continues to form a persistent critical presence within the very art system of which he is a part, questioning the tenets of key art movements of the 20th century and the debates concerning formalism, authorship, originality, ethnicity and identity.

In the 1980s and 1990s influential writers such as Homi Bhabha, Edward Said and Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak challenged the predominantly Eurocentric thinking on race and identity, introducing new perspectives on race, representation and the domination of other cultures through literature, politics and economics.  Postcolonial theory aside, the debates on ethnicity and identity in essence turn on the one hand on self-perception - how one defines ones own identity, and on the other, how one is defined through the pre-conceptions of others.

Diao’s “Da Hen Li House”, “Yellow Peril” and “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” series of paintings are self-referencing both of Diao as non-white artist working within the closed system of art and as a reconstruction the artist’s past. “Da Hen Li House” refers to the artist’s childhood home in Chengdu, which his family was forced to leave and he never saw again.   On his first trip back to Asia in 1979 bought a small lacquered leather suitcase which became the inspiration for the phrase “one suitcase per person” As a metaphor for identity,  the idea of “One Suitcase Per Person” also begs the question, how, if constrained to do so, would we choose to define ourselves?

The family home and its absence has stayed with Diao for fifty years.   Diao’s account of the house is based on his childhood memories augmented by the remnants of information, hearsay from surviving members of the family and their diagrams drawn from memory, and the “Da Hen Li House” series includes the painting “All I Can Remember”.  After the  series was completed, Diao was given a small photograph of himself as a four year old child, in the courtyard of the house, the only surviving photograph of him from that time.  The works also recall the emotional loss of separation and how, despite the elapse of time and distance, the house continued to intersect with events in the artist’s life.   Examples include how the family home included the modern Western innovation of a tennis court, and how, years later, the artist’s father passed away while playing tennis thousands of miles away in New York; how, after the family fled, the house became the headquarters for the Sichuan Daily, the newspaper edited by author Jung Chang’s father whose activities were later described in her book Wild Swans

Diao still has memories of the traumatic journey to Hong Kong, of only having chocolate wrapped in silver foil to eat, of Woba (5th Uncle) complaining about having to throw out his good suits to lighten the plane’s load while Erniang (2nd Aunt) was allowed to bring her rag dolls…Diao also has memories of life in Hong Kong and of his childhood living in the same apartment block as cinema legend Li Li Hua,  “I lived there from October 1949 to August 1955. It wasn’t the slums but the family had basically lost everything. It was a new five-story apartment right on Chatham Road. The sea was directly in front with the railroad and a park between.  Li Li Hua lived on the first floor.  I remember peering into her door to see a beautifully furnished place.  Ours on the top floor was very basic; we moved in just as the building was finished, the apartment never received a proper coat of paint.  My grandfather was an impoverished, beaten, retired KMT general.  Still he met his pals for tea at the Peninsula Hotel and proceeded to lose the last bit of his money in the gold exchange.” 

For Asians living outside Asia, the definition of identity and how Asians are perceived has a long and fraught history.  Migrating to foreign countries as cheap imported labour, Asians came to be perceived as a threat to the livelihoods and dominant culture of white workers.  Described as the “yellow peril” a derogatory reference to skin colour, the Hollywood film system, literature, the media and the political establishment perpetuated and legitimized this particular form of xenophobia against Asians, kept alive by stoking people’s deepest fears of losing their jobs, endangering national security and destruction of the moral and social fabric.  The threat of this “yellow peril” was crystallised in the exclusion laws enacted in countries such as Australia, Canada, the United States, New Zealand and South Africa.  These laws included denial of citizenship to Chinese people, prohibiting them to hold own property and forbidding marriage to whites.

Popular culture breathed life into grotesque “inscrutable” stereotypes such as Dr. Fu Man Chu and his evil daughter Fah Io Suee created by British author Sax Rohmer, Ming the Merciless from the comic books and film “Flash Gordon” and Dr. Yen Lo from the 1962 film “The Manchurian Candidate”.  In the 1929 silent movie “Piccadilly”, screen legend Anna May Wong is depicted as an exotic seductress of white men while her emasculated Chinese boyfriend and murderer looks on sullenly. Villains such as Henry Chang (played by white actor Warner Oland) in the 1932 film “Shanghai Express” with Marlene Dietrich, were depicted as sexual predators and ruthless warlords, while Hui Fei, played by Anna May Wong, is seen as a self-sacrificing prostitute.  Li Li Hua also went to Hollywood and starred in “China Doll” (1958) playing a character who is sold by her father to Victor Mature’s battle weary US pilot and who later fall in love but then die in tragic circumstances.

Bearing the tag line “They found a love they dared not touch!” the 1933 film “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” starring Swedish actor Nils Asther in “yellowface” in the title role (US anti-miscegenation laws forbidding the mixing of different races) narrates the sexually charged but ultimately redemptive relationship between a Chinese warlord and white missionary Megan Davis played by actress Barbara Stanwyck.  After being betrayed by his concubine Mah-Li played by Toshia Mori, Davis pleads with General Yen to spare the concubine’s life, offering to give her own life if Mah-Li betrays him again.  After Mah-Li’s final ruinous betrayal, he finds that despite their deal, he cannot kill Davis, but instead kills himself with a cup of poisoned tea.

Against the context of relentless negative stereotyping of Asians in popular culture, Diao’s paintings from “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” and “Yellow Peril” were created at a time in the late 1980s and early 1990s when postcolonialism, race and ethnicity were very much under discussion and Diao wanted to include them into his work in some way.  “The Bitter Tea of General Yen”, is a pun on the word “yen” which, in addition to being the name of the character in the film, has the meaning of to “long” for something.  In selecting the name of the film Diao anticipated that the work was likely to provoke negative criticism and that he wanted to “to pre-empt the negative response I was expecting. Is it not the "general" "yen" of every artist to be so honored?  And "bitter," I put the word into play before the audience can accuse me of it.” 

In a move that was both provocative and audacious, but at the same time self-mocking, Diao created a series of paintings based on invitations to openings to his own fictitious exhibitions at illustrious museums such as the Museum of Modern Art in New York and the Centre Pompidou in Paris.  Despite the anticipated backlash, “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” received positive reviews, in particular from the magazines Artforum and Art In America.

The painting “Carton d'invitation” (1994) is a large-scale invitation card to the opening at the Pompidou Centre of an exhibition of David Diao’s work.  Based on an invitation to a Joseph Beuys exhibition, Beuy’s portrait is replaced by a portrait of Bruce Lee bare-chested and poised to attack.  “Carton d’invitation was the first instance of my using Bruce Lee as a stand-in for myself.  I was making these fake invitations to make- believe shows of my work in major museums.  I would use actual invitations for other artists (as a template) to recreate ones for myself.  With the Centre Pompidou I was looking at one for Joseph Beuys with his portrait.  I did not want, or at least at that point, was not ready to use my own image.” The paintings reflect both his yearning for recognition but also the sheer improbability in his mind of ever being called upon to exhibit in those institutions.  “I employed fantasies of what I would like to happen rather than what actually happened.  …As long as I still held out hope that MoMA would come knocking, I don’t think I could have so openly revealed my desire to be embraced by them.”

Another work, “Slanted MoMA” (1995) provocatively employs the word “slanted” used in a derogatory way to refer to the shape of the Asian eye, whilst another “Pardon Me Your Chinoiserie is Showing” (1993) appropriates the word “chinoiserie”, originally a fanciful pastiche of Chinese design and a cipher for Chineseness, attacking the unconscious assumptions still made by others of the Chinese: “Despite the growing demography we still somehow are perceived as other.  I haven’t experienced outright discrimination in most of my life in the United States; usually it's at an unconscious level. I guess it's analogous to how women and gays might feel in our society when there is somehow an unspoken accepted norm.” 

Whilst “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” met with critical acclaim, most of the “Yellow Peril” series has never been exhibited and there are currently no plans to show the paintings.  The “Yellow Peril” paintings locate themselves, perhaps to an even greater extent than the Bitter Tea series, in the uncomfortable space that exists in all multicultural societies, struggling to negotiate between cultural difference and discrimination.  Speculating as to the reasons why most of the work was never selected for exhibition, Diao suspects that the paintings were considered too one dimensional for American audiences.

The works and the later painting “IMPERILED” (2000) are an open acknowledgment and attack on the entrenched perceptions of “otherness” that still prevail.  The works were created in 1992 to 1994 and are text and colour based paintings.  Using different shades of yellow and detailed attention to language and text, the paintings feature translations of the words “yellow peril” in English, German, Chinese, Vietnamese, Dutch and Korean using “quasi-ethnic” fonts.   Not stopping at the clichéd “chop suey” font of faux brush strokes for the English words “yellow peril”, Diao also uses the cliché of the gothic font for the German translation “Die Gelbe Gerfahr”.  “Yellow Peril” is more subtle than the simple appropriation of a perjorative term.  Something else happens when that term is translated into the languages of those against whom it is directed, displacing its significance as in Diao’s earlier words, an unspoken accepted norm. 

Dealing with the postcolonial debates surrounding self-identity and the perjorative norms and expectations imposed by others, Diao’s provocative and highly personal paintings graphically expose the debates around race and identity to public view.  “Bitter Tea” moves the debate away from theoretical objectivity and broad brush repercussions of “Yellow Peril” to the artist’s personal desire for institution validation despite his unease with the authoritarian roles played by these institutions within the closed system of art. “Da Hen Li House”, “The Bitter Tea of General Yen” and “Yellow Peril” critiques these discourses using Diao’s characteristic rigorous and ultimately uncompromising approach.  

Davina Lee

©Davina Lee 2013

This essay was first published in Chinese in Harper's Bazaar Art, Hong Kong, May 2013