Before participating in M+ Cinema’s inaugural ‘Screen Encounters’ programme, Hong Kong artist Yau Ching recounts what she learned from studying film and her mentor Yvonne Rainer in 1990s New York
It was not until I, upon graduating from the University of Hong Kong, received an acceptance letter from the MA in Film at Goldsmiths, University of London, together with a tuition invoice, that I realised schooling required money. All my previous studies had been funded by scholarships—except once when I did not make it to the first in class during primary school and got punished by my parents.
What happened in 1989 made it ever clearer to me that studying abroad was a necessity. So, I went to study at an MA programme in Theatre at California State University and dropped out after three weeks, in order to get a 100% tuition refund (CalState was the only school system I knew of at the time that would allow that). After working in Hong Kong as editor for a film magazine and at the film department of the Hong Kong Arts Centre, I found myself taking up an offer from the Media Studies programme of the New School for Social Research in 1990, primarily for the fact that it was one of the most inexpensive media/film programmes I knew of.
Unlike the elitist schools I had been used to for the first twenty years of my life, the New School hosted a conglomeration of young people from Third World countries, who could not possibly afford the fees of Columbia or New York University but by all means sought to pursue further study regardless. By the early 1990s at the New School, one could still sense the remnants of the anti-Nazi Continental European tradition, supported by a marginalised, pro-leftist intellectual community against the headwind of American neoliberalism everywhere. It was in just such an environment that I had the privilege to regroup and unlearn many of my internalised pro-elitist ‘Asian’ values, not without pain. It was also in this environment that I encountered a much more liberal education from fields including cultural anthropology and postcolonial studies, alongside my required coursework in documentary theory and production, video art, and audio production.
Fresh off the boat that weekend I arrived in New York, I started working in Chinatown. I moved into a semi-basement, in which observing pedestrians’ shoes could become a major pastime. The greatness of a city like New York is manifested in the sheer range of illegal job opportunities available. The ones I had personal experiences in were: working as cashier in a West Village vegetarian restaurant for a day, and then, having been found as incapable of balancing the bills that night, being transferred to the waiting team the next day; working as editorial reporter and political columnist for a Flushing newspaper founded by a Taiwanese migrant; translating international news for a Beijing-backed paper; interning for a Jewish media post-production house; and, last but not least, writing ‘cultural sensitivity’ evaluation reports for Chinese-catering commercials of transnational corporations. My only regret was not getting the gig as chef at a ‘gentleman’s club’ in midtown Manhattan; I was not able to convince the white-haired female butler that, although I might not be entirely capable of doing chop suey, filling a trolley laden with colourful hors d'oeuvres would not be a problem. Sad, as I had been dreaming of mastering some Showhand tricks.
With the slim scholarship from the New School, I had to (legally) work as a TA as well. Prepping for the production courses, I got to learn to operate and fix most media equipment and picked up many problem-solving skills—these stayed with me from then on. Severely lacking sleep, I would sneak into unused classrooms between classes to take naps on the cold working tables. As the alarm went off, I would lug my heavy head along with a dozen machines into the next classroom crowded with hanging spotlights and youngsters too awake, as if another universe.
By the end of my first year in New York City, I finished my first 16mm film, Is There Anything Specific You Want Me To Tell You About?, doing the scripting, cinematography, editing, sound recording and mix, opening and end credits all by myself. I had rented a four-plate Steenbeck and set it between the bathroom and the futon, immersing myself in editing around the clock. Tugging and pulling, cutting and taping film frames one by one on this big metal monster, those were the days I was closest to film—film as material. Since then, I’ve fallen in love with editing. I did not know that I would belong to the last generation who would have any memories of film as material.
I was obsessed with editing away. At the end, the hybridity of the material (video transferred to film, Super 8 transferred to 16mm, stills shot on film, original 16mm footage) and the duration of some shots (lasting three frames) put off negative cutters in New York so much that I ended up cutting the negative of this film. Luckily, it did win some awards, and Yvonne Rainer, upon watching this film, accepted me into the Whitney Museum’s Independent Study Program. I also got admitted into the Art Institute of Chicago at the time but chose the Whitney instead, as it required almost no fees and gave me access to a free studio in Tribeca. There were twelve of us in the Studio Program that year, and together with the curatorial folks, we attended two weekly seminars given by scholars and artists. At the Whitney, I finished Flow and The Ideal/Na(rra)tion.
From Yvonne, I learned that the drive for constantly reinventing oneself comes from a place of humility, only through which one can create with honesty; honesty grants the creative product the power it needs. This is the honesty to interrogate one’s limits—not transcending them, but coming face to face with them. Knowing what one can and cannot do—the desires and failures—allows one to explore and perhaps shake some of the borders loose, and then possibly chart some impossibly difficult and unknown grounds. Humility renders one into a form of mirror to oneself. I came from a culture always already overblown and in drag, camouflaging as one’s never-to-be-fulfilled object of desire. These colonised desires of ours, internalised in our bloodstream, have been driving us in self-feeding cycles of arrogance and self-hatred. Through learning to make art and through learning from Yvonne, I slowly approached my immunocompromised bloodstream, hoping to break away at times from those perpetual cycles.
This selfhood, as a meeting ground for the body and society, gender and difference, about a (wo)man who… is also a site of forlorn ruins, buried skin-deep in order for us to cope with the daily and the commonplace. In moving away from the smart-ass flowery cynical gestures, I seek to examine how we are formed, the distance between what we know and feel and what is considered real, the distance as a productive site for asking questions: i.e., making art. The distance between my being and my becoming, between honesty and permeability, hopefully allows for the work to be communicative, to go to places where I cannot, to reach people I may not know of. These are privileges and tasks I have been working on since the 1990s and am still obsessed with practicing.
Want to learn more about Yau Ching’s career and her relationship with Yvonne Rainer? Join us for a screening and talk with the artist on 3 September 2022, or check out the rest of the ‘Screen Encounters’ programmes running from 3–15 September 2022.