Don't ask me where I come from

"Don't ask me where I came from"


Site Specific Installation at Cemetery of Hakka Chinese Ethnic Group

Ceramic, Stainless Steel, Stone

Ethnicity emerges from land. Ethnic groups tend to have a locality that their language, culture and mythology is pegged to, some kind of soil which their identity is entwined with. The hainanese have Hainan island, the Hokkien have Fujian province, the Japanese have Japan, the Egyptians have Egypt and the Jews have Israel. 

The 'Hakka' in mandarin is 客家人, or meaning- 'the guest people'. They were refugees from Northern China that fled southwards probably because of famine and war. They migrated in successive waves since as early as 800 AD and settled in the southern provinces of China. The nickname, 'guest people', were given to them by locals sarcastically, because to the locals of southern china, they were squatters on stolen land, spoke a strange unintelligible language and had unusual gender roles. (See Guest People. Hakka Identity in China and Abroad. Edited by Nicole Constable, Hakka Soul: Memories, Migration and Meals, by Chin Woon Ping)

Much of the origin story of the Hakka people remains veiled and speculated even today. Where did they come from? From which soil did their unusually homogenous culture and language emerge? No one knows. 

The installation is about the irretrievable origin story of the Hakka people. The stones used in the work were picked from several locations in Singapore. Where did those large stones come from? From a local rock quarry? Not likely. From which neighboring country did it come from? From where was it mined? No one knows. These stones are witnesses to a certain history traceable to their origins, but that history is irretrievable. In a similar way, a Hakka person like me carry a kind of history in us, but this history remains irretrievable and veiled.The ceramic loop forms made from non-local raku clay sources also invoke similar questions for the viewer about their origin story. From where was it dug up? How did it end up here? 

One of those repeated forms in the sculptures are the closed loops. Loops are symbols of completeness and of wholeness. That is how the Hakka identity is to the Hakka people. We have our distinct cuisines, language and beliefs, we view ourselves as complete and not lacking, like those loop forms. 

"We’re not that different from other southern chinese ethnicities, really." 

But we often don’t see that although the loop is a closed form, a seemingly complete form, there is a gaping hole in the middle of it. A missing piece. For the Hakka people, the gaping hole is our land of origin. Lost, and irreversibly irretrievable. Hence the title of the exhibition, after an old mandarin song, "不要问我从哪里来", which translate as, "Don't ask me where I come from"

History is lost along with those who pass on. This installation in the cemetery is about the lost story of origin. The Hakka people a thousand years ago probably knew where their ancestral land was, but through a millennia this information did not survive, lost with those who pass on. The gaping hole at the heart of our ethnic identity continues to long to be filled.