Fiona Tan’s 1997 documentary May You Live in Interesting Times explores complex ideas of cultural identity, navigation of in-between spaces, and fractured sense of self through the artist’s journey retracing her Chinese-Indonesian family history across multiple generations and cultures displaced by politics.
Artist and filmmaker Fiona Tan’s 60-minute autobiographical documentary, May You Live in Interesting Times (1997), was included in the first edition of Cities on the Move, which opened in late 1997 in the Vienna Secession. The travelling exhibition sought to examine the dynamic changes taking place within and beyond cities in Asia during the turn of century, and Tan’s film located that dynamism within the Chinese diaspora.
Commissioned by the Dutch public broadcasting system, May You Live in Interesting Times is Tan’s directorial debut and follows the artist as she traces her family history in search of her own identity. What emerges is an exploration of the Chinese diasporic experience, which Tan describes as a ‘personal odyssey in search of the cultural identity of Chinese in foreign lands’.
Tan was born in Indonesia in 1966 to an Indonesian-Chinese father and an Australian mother. Her family history, like those of many others, is shaped by globalisation and the negotiation of transnational politics. Members of the Tan family scattered across the world—to Australia, Germany, Amsterdam, China, and Hong Kong—as a result of anti-Communist persecution in Indonesia in the 1960s. Tan grew up in Australia before moving to Amsterdam in the 1980s to study at the Gerrit Rietveld Academie and the Rijksakademie van beeldende kunsten, where she developed her practice of using moving images to explore individual and collective entanglements that shape notions of cultural identity.
May You Live in Interesting Times grapples with in-between spaces and split identities, yielding no conclusive or simple answers. In one scene filmed in Beijing, Tan’s cousin says to Tan, who describes herself as a ‘professional foreigner’: ‘You have Chinese blood; you are a descendant of China’. The concept of a multicultured foreigner who is ethnically Chinese reflects notions of ambiguity, displacement, and uncertainty that Tan’s film amplifies in an attempt to mediate the awkwardness of making descent a determining factor of identity. Various family photos in the film highlight the Tan clan’s multi-ethnic composition and intricate relations to propose identity as a complex orchestration of cultural differences. In all of the photos, a sense of otherness and alienation comes between the artist and her relatives, who are her subjects in the film. In one scene, Tan is the only Asian-Caucasian in a group photo taken at the family village in Fujian, China; in another scene, her multicultural outlook, along with that of her mother and siblings, stands out awkwardly in contrast to the views of her Indonesian relatives.
The sense of foreignness and alienation that is entangled with Tan’s identity is vividly revealed throughout the film. At the beginning of the documentary, Tan shows how the literal English translations of her Chinese-Indonesian relatives’ names highlight a distance between cultures. Meanwhile, Chinese idioms related to the concept of a single origin, such as ‘whilst drinking water, remember to thank the well’, are visually presented alongside those about underlying disharmony and divisions, such as ‘sleeping in the same bed, dreaming different dreams.’ The film also includes symbols from different cultures. For instance, Tan’s Indonesian aunt, who practices Christianity, also engages in ancestral worship by burning incense sticks in the home.
Tan’s way of engaging linguistic discrepancies and visual contradictions reveals a shared affinity with Homi K. Bhabha’s postulation of existence in the context of globalisation as an ‘overlap and displacement of domains of difference’, wherein notions of identity, nationality, community interest, and cultural values are negotiated in conditions of constant human displacement or relocation. In his book The Location of Culture, Bhabha points out that culture is not defined by stable parameters such as race but rather by the mediation of differences and diversity.
This notion of culture as a constant mediation of differences connects to the enmeshed and evolving networks that exist beyond geographical boundaries in May You Live in Interesting Times. Challenging the idea that identity is defined exclusively by a fixed locality and single ethnicity, Tan’s study of embodied fluidity circles back to Cities on the Move and its articulation of Asia as an enmeshment of the local and global. In one scene of Tan’s film, she asks her siblings to define their ‘Chineseness’ during a family gathering, and their unease is captured with a long shot. Tan’s brother eventually replies, plainly yet with hesitation, that he regards himself as a ‘world citizen’.
May You Live in Interesting Times is now on view at M+ in the Mediateque. All images: M+, Hong Kong. © Fiona Tan