TITLE: Dictionary, Masks and Brokern Mirrors: Notes on Ho Tam's Yellow Pages
BY LARISSA LAI
Like the phrasebooks of Chinese immigrants to Canada at the end of the nineteenth century that dealt in such topics as coal mining, cooking, laundry and railway work and sounded out English words in a nonsensical string of Chinese characters put together to approximate English pronunciations, Ho Tam’s Yellow Pages sound out the non-sense of Western representations and stereotypes around race. Yellow Pages is a directory. Directory, direction. Where should I go next? What can I be – how shall I get there? What will it cost me?
Yellow Pages is a dictionary of stereotypes. Dictionary, diction. How to speak playfully of race? How to speak of race without invoking the demon racism? Yellow Pages is a dictionary of contractions, connections and conflations. In it, loaded signs, both image and text, are juxtaposed one against the other to create new meaning – in much the same way that complex Chinese characters are assembled from simpler ones to create a new meaning that is more than the sum of its parts. But in Tam’s case, the “simpler” signs have a long and troubled history, which is exactly what gives them their potency.
From the very first page, things in Yellow Pages are not what they seem. The cover image, that of a masked Bruce Lee as Kato in the Green Hornet, has the artist’s name spelled out clearly beneath it, like the name of a student beneath his yearbook portrait. Andy why shouldn’t we read the name of the artist Ho Tam beneath that prototypical Asian master of disguise? We can see in the rest of the work how proficient he is at redressing various cultural disguises.
Each image, together with its caption, addresses a charged stereotype, still very much in play in popular Western media. Under “A” we have “Asian Crimes,” a phrase calling to mind secret societies and gang brutality – still reported that way in dailies across the country and over-used in bad Hollywood movies. The image accompanying the text, however, is corny to the extreme. Two young boys and an older martial arts “master” perch atop a surfboard, braced for a fight. The side caption says “Surf’s up! Time to save the world.” This could be a movie poster or the packaging for a Nintendo game.
The poster amounts to a kind of “cutesifying,” normalizing or de-spinning of a stereotypical but serious charge against the Asian other, one which underlies Western movies and news items – weather they be films such as Black rain or stories of the Flying Triad murderers. The caption “Asian Crimes” beneath unfurls a tangle of conflations and makes the implicit charge – contained in the bland poster image – explicit. The Asian viewer sees her/himself addressed and laughs.
“A” begins the alphabet, the ordering principle of any Western dictionary or directory. Ho Tam has organized an alphabet of racial stereotypes. A-B-C: first principles of knowledge, something simple, child’s play. How can one play with images as charged as these? Can one play with racial stereotypes without re-invoking and reinforcing racism? There is a playfulness about Yellow Pages, but there is also an intent to destabilize, to re-educate.
“B” is for the Butterfly Syndrome, known also as Yellow Fever. With a large photograph of Woody Allen, calling up the tabloid scandal in which the movie director left his long-term partner Mia Farrow for her adopted Asian daughter Soon-Yi Previn, Tam pokes fun at our obsession with interracial relationships. Scattered across the page are the little icons used as abbreviations in personal ads. Through his selection of icons, Tam laughs out the side of his mouth at the absurd stereotypes that position the Asian love goddess as more reserved, obedient and family-oriented than her liberated blonde counterpart. Ho Tam is playing with fire. But, if there is a playfulness in these images, there is also an accompanying horror. The horror of childhood, of hearing insults hurled carelessly across school-yards.
C is for “Chinks,” the word heavily superimposed over a image of a frail old sage, placed upside-down on the page, his body composed largely of white space. It is a photocopy of a line drawing, rather than that of a photograph. Its faint, ghost-like lines take up less physical space and have less solidity and presence than would the gradations of gray found in the photocopy of a photograph. The connotation of wisdom and longevity called up by the image of an old man, viewed from China-centred universe, vanish like a ghost beneath the crude and dismissive accusation of the derogatory C-word.
“C is for Chinks” – how awkwardly it rolls off the tongue, so difficult to mouth the insult you never wanted to knowledge. Yellow Pages is a kind of exorcism, recalling those childhood terrors, as though to pronounce them would render them less potent. Isn’t that what dictionaries are for? To give the exact pronunciation, the accurate one (if you can decode the cryptic phonetic spellings). Spellings, spell, a counter-charm to ward off the insidious enemy.
And so, playing the trickster, the masked Tam takes us through the alphabet. I was particularly taken with “J,” which in this alphabet, stands for “Joy Luck Club.” This popular film, based on Amy Tan’s bestselling novel, was an exercise in demonstrating Asian material wealth, while using every tear-jerking technique in the book to illustrate the depth of our emotional feeling. The picture, however, is a newspaper clipping depicting young children in what looks like a hunger-stricken refugee camp. Beneath it, a small newspaper caption says, “Nowhere to go and nothing to do: some of Behai’s unwanted Vietnamese.” Suddenly I make the connection: as though there were a little survivor’s angel perched on one’s shoulder saying, “Demonstrate your wealth – otherwise the gwai lo will think you are poor and therefore worthless. Demonstrate your torment, lest the ghost people think you inscrutable.” This particular juxtaposition also calls to mind the Western obsession with what is perceived as the economic pathology of the Asian other – either too rich or too poor.
“O” is for Orientals. The accompanying image is merely a series of small rectangular head shots of well-dressed men and women, arranged in four vertical columns, two of whom are “Oriental.” With any photograph, there is an implicit fiction. What are these people doing here? They could be anyone – actors in a talent guide, members of the Dental Association, candidates for an election. (Why, does my mind turn instantly to real estate agents?!) The accompanying baggage rushes in the door at this, the very slightest of biddings. How insidiously the stereotypes work – through the chains of memory propped up with advertising and news propaganda.
Yellow Pages is about language; but like its many-masked author—Bruce Lee/Kato/Ho Tam – it is a language of disguises, a language requiring deciphering, a language requiring a key. This key opens a door through which many demons will run, screaming their nasty truths and half-truths, lies and contradictions. Like the memory of Bruce Lee, this many-masked language lives in our souls.
Directory, direction. Tells me where to go, how I should live. Show me a map of the invisible, social landscape that overlays the geographic. Meaning shifts moment by moment; we have a choice in what we see. In and of themselves the images have no meaning. What meaning they have is the meaning we bring to them: what context we bring, what history—of other images, other maps, other landscapes. In and of themselves, the images are not stereotypes. Are we trapped then, in this landscape of context? Like Chinese characters, the images become loaded with meaning; but the loading comes from our experience of having lived with them, of knowing (if not in our minds, then in our hearts) what effect they are meant to have. Meaning, meant for – as though meaning has a use, a sue which is implicit. “You know what that means.” Nudge, nudge. Is it possible to unravel these meanings, given their long and complex historical roots?
T is for Tian An Men Square, a place where imperials soldiers have gathered for centuries to honour the emperor safely ensconced behind the walls of the Forbidden City. In the Western imagination it has come to signify repression and censorship at its most brutal. We talk about Tian An Men not as a place, but as an event, the violent suppression of student activism. Tam places beside these words a newspaper clipping proclaiming the Communist Party’s displeasure with a certain Chinese film director. He conflates the two incidents in a single breath, highlighting the absurdity of such a conflation. Separated, these two blips of information can draw a visceral response from the viewer in the dangerous absence of any historical contextualization. Consciously placed side by side, they foreground the Western media’s self-interested agenda to show “Red “ China as repressive and censorious in its implicit comparison with the “free” West.
Yellow Pages is a dictionary for a foreign language. As with other dictionaries, language is broken down into its component parts, alphabetized and its meanings land bare. Laid, or layered? The words in this language are not so easily rendered naked, stripped down to the bone. This language has no bones, no substance; it is illusive and transformative, moving and shifting before our very eyes, depending on who reads it, and when.
We know that masks are magic, that they have the power to transform. But do we know that some masks are impossible to remove and that behind every mask is another mask? Perhaps that is the very power beneath their transformative quality. Ho Tam reveals the instability of stereotypes (masks) and plays with it. The unmasking becomes a game, albeit a dangerous one, since it reveals the memories which most trouble our liberal imaginations.
It is perhaps in projects such as this that the perils of the popular postmodern become most evident. Yellow Pages is a reflection and a reclamation; but can the “slanted eye” ever really turn upon itself, given that this term and these images are not of “our” own invention, nor of “our” own language/cultures? Of course, after hundreds of years of colonialism, imperialism and migration, it is impossible to claim any semblance of racial or cultural purity. Tam pokes fun at the stereotypes that have been thrust upon this mythological, ambiguous and often ignorantly identified “us.” In doing so, he reclaims them by making them a part of a troubling in-joke, bestowing upon theme a kind of “cool” they certainly did not have at their inception.
Yellow Pages is about identity. Who could miss the pun when the notion of “Yellow Peril” has hardly left us? Who could miss the pun, given the recent Asian influence on business, “ the rise of the Eastern dragon?” Yellow Pages is about masked identities, confused and conflated identities. It is a comedy of errors. Who is the hero, who is the villain? Every picture tells a story.
(“Light Year” Catalogue by Floating Gallery, Winnipeg 1994)