The visual dialectics of golf, leisure, and beauty in Eva Fong Chan's paintings.
Eva Fong Chan (1897-1991), a Chinese-American artist who actively painted and exhibited her work between 1925 and 1940, painted Bo Kay Chart Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching (1931) and Portrait of Tom Yuk Lan (1930). Born in Sacramento, this California native studied art in San Francisco and exhibited in local institutions such as the San Francisco Art Association at the Palace of Fine Arts. (1) Though briefly affiliated with the Chinese Revolutionary Artists' Club, an avant-garde Chinatown-based painter's coalition that studied abstract painting, Chan's own work stuck closely to realistic landscapes, portraits, and flower paintings that betray the influence of American oil masters such as Winslow Homer.
The uniqueness of Chan's paintings lie in the strange everydayness of her style and subject matter and the way in which that everydayness engages visual constructions of race and class in California's 1930s Chinese American community Bo Kay Chart Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching resembles images of golf outings that frequently appeared in period American newspapers and magazines such as McLure's and Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly. Chinese Americans, however, hardly populated California golf courses, much less golf courses in the larger United States. Portraits of beautiful Chinese women, like Chan's Portrait of Tom Yuk Lan, certainly flooded the Chinese and American retail market. The great majority of these images, however, were calendar posters: glossy lithographic advertisements for consumer products such as cigarettes, beauty products, and medication. Courtesans and actresses often modeled for these advertisements. This was hardly the demographic with whom Chan, a piano teacher, an organist and Sunday school teacher at the San Francisco Chinese Congregational Church, and the wife of a prominent Canton businessman, associated.
The contradictory choices and experiences that Chang paintings record eloquently project the privileges and constraints of a female, Chinese American, upwardly mobile, and fashionable individual. Chan's paintings carry on a nervous flirtation with contemporary images of privileged leisure and metropolitan life. They confront their audience with images that link Chinese Americans with that double-edged sword, sobriquet, "model minority."
The lived reality of Chinese Americans, like those Chinatown denizens of the Chinese Revolutionary Artist's Club, did not encompass the social mobility that Chan's paintings implied. Of all the members of the painting club, Chan was likely the only one who could afford to buy her own set of paints, canvases, and art classes--the rest were largely Chinatown laborers. The members' professional lives overlapped with the rowdy 1920s and 1930s employment disputes surrounding Asian laborers in California. Asian women in 1920s and 1930s California did not fare much better than Asian laborers. The 1924 Immigration Act kept Chinese women from entering the United States for permanent residence. By the 1930s, new marriage laws stripped citizenship from female citizens who married those without citizenship. (2) According to these laws, Asian American females, whose families may have resided in the States since the 1880s, could not retain their citizenship if they chose to marry an illegal immigrant or choose a mate from China. Asian females also received a particular sexualization in United States media, especially through films that highlighted prostitution. Despite social reformers' reports that, with the exception of San Francisco, the overwhelming number of prostitutes in American cities were white, "Chinese prostitutes" retained a larger-than-life notoriety in the United States. (3)
Compared to the vast majority of Asian Americans living in San Francisco's Chinatown during the early twentieth century, or even under today's standards, Chan belonged to a privileged class. Her family could afford her taking music lessons, going to art school, and attending a music college. Noted for her beauty, Chan won the 1915 Chinatown Queen contest. (4) Before her 1919 marriage to Bo Kay Chan, Eva spent a few years vacationing in Canton and Shanghai, two cities that were the hub of metropolitan life during the Early Republican Era. Her husband hailed from a prominent Canton family with nationalist affiliations. Together the Chans owned a restaurant and an export-import company with branches in San Francisco and China. In 1949, within a few years of their first daughter's birth, the family moved out of Chinatown and into a townhouse near San Francisco's affluent Russian Hill. In 1986, former mayor Willie Brown presented Chan with a California State Assembly resolution that commended Chan for her life achievements.
Indeed, the very subject and style of Chan's paintings betray the wide socioeconomic gap between her and her Chinese-American painting fellows. Members of the Chinese Revolutionary Artist's Club, including the well-known artist Yun Gee, painted Chinatown cityscapes, street musicians, and other subjects within close range of Chinatown's observable environment. (5) Chan's 1931 landscape, Bo Kay Chart Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching, portrays her husband, Bo Kay Chan, playing golf with his friend on a beautiful green complete with mountains rolling in the background and lush pine trees framing the foreground (see Figure 1). (6) The specific dating of the painting (October 30, 1931) and Chan's own writing on the back of the canvas, "Bo Kay Chan Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching," indicates that this painting portrays an actual event, not an imaginary outing. On October 30, 1931, accompanied by Chan, who recorded the event, and Kwan, a golfing buddy, Bo Kay Chan traveled to one of the many well-pruned golfing greens in California and played rounds of golf while his wife sketched on her canvas. In comparison, Chan's fellow painters rarely left Chinatown, and given their stretched economy, did not consider golf a viable option on their rare days off.
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During the turn of the twentieth century, golf was one of the dominant forces behind the creation of new country clubs in America. (7) The Scottish import began attracting members of the affluent American middle class by the 1920s. (8) By the 1930s, golf became an important part of privileged, white, middle-class, American culture; newspapers touted its contributions to physical health and published photographs of lithe, clean-cut young men enjoying a round of golf on a picturesque green. Country clubs around the country opened up membership quotas in order to draw more members and golf players onto their well-maintained grounds. (9) By recording this golf outing, Chan associated herself, her husband, and Thomas Kwan with this affluent, American cultural phenomenon and displayed that association to whoever examined her painting.
Chang very recording of this outing betrays the values of an upwardly mobile, middle-class, Chinese American family of the 1930s. Of Chan's ten or so extant works, this painting alone records an event--this event is not a birthday party, a wedding, or any other gathering that might mark significant events in modern family life; it is a leisurely afternoon of golf with friends. Something about this outing made it more worth recording than the myriad of other equally important vicissitudes in Chan's life in 1931. I believe that "something" was the privilege and middle-class stability that golf outings represent. Chan tells us, through this painting, that not only did the Chan family have the time and money to indulge in lengthy, leisurely activities, they indulged in affluent, white, middle-class American activities such as golf.
Positioning herself as an unseen observer who watches from behind the golf players, Chan offers the viewer two perspectives--that of her husband, the expert golf player, and that of herself, an accomplished woman, able to produce paintings comparable to those in classical American genre painting. Caught in the moment after he completed his swing, Bo Kay Chan expertly wields his club above his shoulder while he surveys the trajectory of his golf ball. He wears golf shoes, socks, and pants, as well as a hat, as does his partner Thomas Kwan. These accoutrements imply that Chan's husband regularly plays the game, enough to own the appropriate clothing and a set of golf clubs, which rest alongside him.
In fact, the composition of figures and scenery in Chan's painting matches that of golf advertisements in contemporary newspapers and country club brochures (see Figures 2 and 3). (10) Chan's own painterly perspective directs the viewer's eye toward the painting's setting--a beautiful expanse of rolling California hills. Tall pine trees that frame the edges of the painting direct the viewer's eye to a small clubhouse nestled in a grove of trees in the middle ground of the painting. The viewer looks past the well-pruned, grassy green to uniformly aligned shrubs that dot gentle mountain ridges. Regardless of which California golfing green this painting represents, the historic Lincoln Park golf course by the Legion of Honor or the exclusive Lake at Olympic Club golf course, the difference between this idyllic escape and those congested urban streetscapes that other Chinese Revolutionary Art Club members painted and lived in is vast. Chan's depiction of her family's very access to these lush surroundings, as well as this opportunity to enjoy leisure, indicates an economic standing that sets her apart from other members of her art club.
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Artists in the Chinese Revolutionary Artist's Club focused their studies on abstract painting (see Figure 4). (11) They painted avant-garde works of art that veered away from realistic depiction, played with the use of color, and distorted three-dimensional form. The club members saw avantgarde painting as representative of new and modern forms of expression. (12) Learning to paint in this method signified a turning away from established artistic genres, be that method Chinese literati painting, which some of the club members studied and then relinquished, or perspectival painting as taught in traditional painting studios. (13)
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Chan's paintings, on the other hand, retained the realistic representation taught by older masters in California art schools. The difference in visual representation here hints at Chan's position in regard to the Western painterly tradition. She associated with, but ultimately abandoned, the in-vogue, avant-garde painterly path that absorbed the edgier students in California art schools. As a Christian wife and stay-at-home mother, she, the occasional painter, studied the traditional American genre painting style of Winslow Homer and not the avant-garde painting style of Otis Oldfield.
Chan's life choices paralleled the more traditional leanings that her paintings already imply. Although she and Bo Kay purchased a home near the more polished, Russian Hill district, she stayed close to her Chinatown community, taught Sunday school, and continued teaching those piano classes that earned her respect and prestige in the Chinese Congregational Church of San Francisco. While Chan painted with professional ease and exhibited her paintings regularly, she did not claim painting as a career. In fact, she gave up painting a few years after giving birth to Rosalind, her daughter. While she carried on her profession as a piano teacher, she did not leave home--Chang students came to lessons in her living room. Indeed, if avant-garde painting represented the new, the modern, and the relinquishing of traditions for other members of the Chinese Revolutionary Artist's Club, Chang rejection of avant-garde painting represented her self-alignment with more traditional, white, American middle-class values as they percolated through Chinatown's rising merchant families.
The socioeconomic aspirations in Chan's 1930s paintings bring a unique historical perspective to the 1960s media designation of Asians as model minorities. During the 1960s, American media cited Asian Americans' higher academic and financial attainments, as well as their expertise at math and technology, despite the long history of anti-Asian immigration laws and hostility toward Asian Americans in the States. These reports designated Asian Americans as model minorities-the minority race that achieved, through hard work, a privileged status. (14) Facing the threat of the 1960s Black Civil Rights movement, American media chose to draw upon Asian Americans' historical groping toward white, middleclass privileges in order to create model-minority Asians, as opposed to sly, ruthless, untrustworthy Asians, who simultaneously existed in the racial vocabulary of the time. (15)
The visual allusions to white American upper class, country clubs, and privilege are crucial to the historical importance of Chan's work. The 1931 landscape's racialized investment in golf's socioeconomic footprint negotiates Chan's lived reality, namely her association with Chinatown laborer/artists and other members of the Chinatown working class, with the display of her own middle-class stability. The painting represents what she achieved--a systematic investment in American identity and privilege, and what she relinquished in return for those achievements--the possibilities of which are too numerous to list.
Chan's willing alignment of herself and her painting style with American genre painting is precisely what makes her 1930 painting, Portrait of Tom Yuk Lan, so strange (see Figure 5). (16) The portrait draws stylistic elements from advertisement calendar posters: large, consumer-oriented lithographs of beautiful Chinese women. Having lived in Chinatown and Shanghai, Chan was steeped in the advertisement calendar posters that circulated in Shanghai and overseas during the 1920s and 1930s. Although Chan designed the portrait so that Tom Yuk Lan resembles a dignified, composed lady, the visual allusions to beautiful women in calendar posters give the portrait an edgy, sexual undertone that contemporary viewers would have immediately recognized. Why would Chan, a member of Chinatown's privileged, older establishment, choose to create this sexually charged portrait of a woman who might presumably have been a member of her social circle?
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At the turn of the twentieth century, Shanghai commercial advertisers used lithography, a Western import, to design highly popular and successful posters that circulated throughout China and the overseas Chinese community. (17) By the 1920s, these posters by and large depicted urban beauties--beautiful women in modern, westernized Shanghai. (18) Merchants from professions as different as butchers, grocers, booksellers, and magazine publishers commissioned these posters and gave them to customers. They also sold the posters to buyers willing to pay the cost of producing the posters. (19) Bazaar stalls sold calendar posters on street corners. (20) Overseas Chinese merchants likewise sold and gave away these posters to their customers in San Francisco and New York's Chinatowns. Calendar posters propagated through Shanghainese popular culture and became part of the visual culture of the 1920s and 1930s for Chinese and overseas Chinese communities. Some of these posters even became prized collector's items for art connoisseurs.
The models that posed for calendar poster artists included known courtesans, prostitutes, and, in later years, movie stars. (21) Although these pictures borrow from traditional visual references to beautiful women in Chinese popular media, such as prints in the Illustrated Biographies of Worthy Women and the Illustrated One Hundred Beauties, the overwhelming visual reference for women in the calendar posters come from images of Qing dynasty courtesans and Early Republican Period prostitutes. (22) Urban guides to Shanghai featured illustrated biographies of famous courtesans and prostitutes, (23) newspapers such as the Dianshizhai Buabao featured titillatingly illustrated stories about public courtesan behavior, (24) and popular romantic fiction, such as Mandarin Duck and Butterfly literature, featured prints of courtesans on their publication covers. (25) Indeed, as early as the 1880s and certainly in the 1920s and 1930s, images of urban beauties were an inescapablepart of modern life.
The ubiquitous flood of early twentieth-century calendar posters transformed courtesans into urban beauties who actively participated in fashionable metropolitan life. (26) Images of the urban beauty symbolized Shanghai's glamour, commercial might, and urban follies, while the urban beauty herself was admired for her looks, clothes, and accessories. These women wore the latest hairstyles, dressed in fashionable Western and Eastern-style clothes, lived in lush, modern interiors, and entertained themselves by going to popular Shanghai dancehalls. (27)
Overseas Chinese communities displayed advertisement calendar posters in much the same way as their counterparts did in China. In addition to using the posters as calendars, people separated the images from the calendar and used them for decoration. (28) As the 1925 Chinatown Studio Photo from the Bancroft library demonstrates, images of urban beauties stood alongside framed copies of calligraphy, photographs of family relatives and a myriad of other knick-knacks that Chinese Americans hung on their walls during the early twentieth century (see Figure 6). (29)
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A comparison between Portrait of Tom Yuk Lan and contemporary calendar posters will show the many similarities between the women's hairstyle, makeup, and choice of clothing. Despite the Western pedigree in Chan's use of oil paint and a frontal, three-quarter pose, the painting draws visual references from calendar posters to depict Tom Yuk Lan as a well-dressed, well-manicured, and well-groomed lady--an urban beauty who stands at the height of Chinese metropolitan fashion. Chan's painting, however, reveals an important difference from its Shanghainese source--and perhaps this is the answer to why Chan would use the risque calendar poster girl as a reference. Although in her portrait, Tom Luk Yan looks every bit the urban beauty, her lack of jewelry, her air of reserve, and her choice of clothes filter out the posters' allusions to courtesans and everyday Shanghainese consumer culture. Chan's painting gentrifies the urban beauty image into that of a privileged, middle-class woman.
Some of the most popular and widely circulated urban beauty images of the 1920s and 1930s came from the hand of Xie Zhiguang (1900-1976), a commercial artist who created innumerable illustrations for newspapers and magazines, as well as hundreds of advertisement calendar posters and hangers. Not only were Xie's work popular in China and overseas, they were representative of other urban beauty images circulating in advertisement calendar posters in the 1920s and 1930s. Two examples of Xie's work from the 1930s include Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box and Girl Holding a Lily (see Figures 7 and 8). (30) Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box advertises medicinal tablets made for the Japanese Ken-i-kocho-jo Company, whose products are featured prominently in the lower right-hand corner of the poster. Like many cigarette advertisements of the 1930s, Girl Holding a Lily features no products, though the name "Russia-China Tobacco Manufacturing Company," boldly printed in Chinese and English, makes clear the poster's intent.
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The urban beauty in Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box represents a more outgoing, modern beauty: she sports a carefully maintained, short, curly bob, and lives in a spacious, modern home that only wealthy Shanghainese could afford in the congested 1930s urban housing market. The mix of Eastern and Western accoutrements in the room indicates her access to the wealth of foreign and domestic imports in Shanghai the chandelier, fireplace, and couches reflect European tastes, while the Chinese prescription for Japanese medication on her marble-top table remind the viewer of Shanghai's importance to international and interregional trade. The urban beauty drips with jewelry, as if further underlining her metropolitan affluence. She wears two long pearl earrings, while two jewel-encrusted rings adorn her left hand. In fact, Xie turns the woman's hand unnaturally forward so that the center of this image focuses on the medicinal pills and the large stones on her rings.
The calendar poster entitled Girl Holding a Lily represents a more demure, traditional variety of urban beauty. Portraits of beautiful women holding flowers appear so often in Ming, Qing, and Early Republican Chinese art that the pose became a cliche. (31) This urban beauty also sports a fashionably short bob but covers her ears with her hair and shyly conceals her body from the viewer by sitting sideways. She wears a traditional one-piece mandarin dress that has fashionably widened sleeves and a shorter hemline. Here, Xie again employs his stylistic display of the urban beauty's jewelry, in this case her ring and bracelets. This urban beauty's accessories, however, are much less elaborate and gaudy in comparison to that in the medicinal advertisement. Furthermore, while the urban beauty in Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box wears translucent fabric that tempts the viewer to peep through the clothing at her underlying skin, the school-girlish urban beauty in Girl Holding a Lily sits primly in an opaque, one-piece dress, contemplating her sprig of lilies.
Tom Yuk Lan's slick, short, curly hairstyle resembles that of the two urban beauties in Xie's advertisement calendar posters. Like the westernized urban beauty in Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box, she brushes her hair away from her face to reveal her forehead and ears. The frontal perspective of the painting and the close-up focus on her face, however, gives her hairstyle the smooth, traditional respectability of the urban beauty in Girl Holding a Lily. Tom's finely drawn eyebrows have the same pencil-shaped quality as the neatly plucked and shaped eyebrows in Xie's posters. The three women have identically applied eye makeup and similar nose and lips, as if Chan used the ideals of beauty pictured in advertising calendar posters as a model for her own portrait of a San Francisco urban beauty. Even the application of oil paint in Chan's portrait gives Tom Yuk Lan's features a graphic, flat quality that highlights the similarities between this oil painting and its lithographic cousins.
Despite the similarity in hair, makeup, and dress, Chan's San Francisco urban beauty has a seriousness that the alluring, calendar poster women do not. Tom Yuk Lan has a solemn face and an observing gaze that make the viewer aware that she looks back as much as the viewer looks at her. In contrast, the urban beauty in Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box looks askance and smiles at someone beyond the viewer's immediate surroundings, simulating a friendly, almost flirty conversation wherein she recommends the health tablets to one of her friends or admirers. Compared to this smiling gamine with an inviting smile, Tom Yuk Lan's firmly pressed lips remind the viewer that she is a lady of quality, one who does not laugh and smile for any consumer's entertainment.
Even the urban beauty in Girl Holding a Lily, whose downward gaze and shy smile more closely resembles Tom Yuk Lan's contemplative quality, exudes a flirty invitation that Chan paints out of her portrait. While Tom Yuk Lan gives the viewer no indication of whether she wants the viewer to step further into her space or otherwise, Girl Holding a Lily turns toward the viewer and rests her arm on an imaginary ledge behind her, opening up the space around her body to the approaching individual. The urban beauty in Girl Holding a Lily even begins to smile, assuring the viewer that, yes, the space next to her has room for two. Tom Yuk Lan, on the other hand, cocks her head to the side with the seriousness and propriety of a woman whose sense of status and social etiquette makes her approachable only under more formal social circumstances.
The composition of Chan's portrait also imposes a rigid formality on Tom Yuk Lan that filters out the more blatant sexual messages in Xie's calendar posters. Tom's bust-length portrait cuts off her arms and torso, rendering only the most concealing parts of her qipao accessible to the viewer. Unlike the urban beauty in Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box, whose translucent sleeves fall teasingly away from her arms and whose billowing clothes cling to her body, Tom wears a thick silk fabric that reveals none of her underlying skin; in fact, the mandarin dress creases around her shoulders, implying that the clothing fails relatively loosely on her body Both women have the accoutrements of wealth--the San Francisco urban beauty as indicated by her elaborate heavy-silk qipao and the Shanghainese urban beauty as indicated by her jewelry and luxurious surroundings. Chan's composition, however, erases the urban beauty's accessibility by turning the woman's body away from the viewer and shielding the woman's body with the accoutrements of her wealth.
Even Chan's composition indicates that her visual intensions for Tom Yuk Lan's dress are different than Xie's for his urban beauty In Portrait of Tom Yuk Lan, the qipao's elaborate design, its pearlescent, silky sheen, and the color resonance between the fabric and the woman's makeup opened up the painting's dark background. The bright colors flatten the perspective and keep the viewer's eyes on the painting's surface. The urban beauty in Girl Holding a Lily wears a loose fitting qipao, similar in design to Tom Yuk Lan. Xie's composition of Girl Holding a Lily, on the other hand, pulls away from the Shanghainese urban beauty in order to reveal the soft drape of a dress of undeterminable material, which enhances the urban beauty's fashionably slim body underneath the dress.
Looking at the three urban beauties, one immediately notices that in Chang portrait, Tom Yuk Lan wears no jewelry, whereas Xie's two urban beauties twist and turn their bodies in such a way that their jewelry appears as much on display as the women themselves. In Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box, the rubies, diamonds, and pearls take as central a space in the poster's composition as the urban beauty herself. Even the more reserved gamine in Girl Holding a Lily positions her arms and her lily so that her ruby ring and cloisonne bracelet appear in plain view. Tom Yuk Lan, on the other hand, does not even have pierced ears.
In the visual culture of calendar posters, Tom Yuk Lan's lack of jewelry may indicate Chan's unwillingness to associate this portrait with visual indicators of prostitution and courtesan life. Newspaper reports on Shanghai courtesan life often describe the women's wealth of jewelry and their catty fights over each other's jewelry; the newspapers' accompanying illustrations likewise highlight the urban beauties' jewelry-encrusted attire. In fact, admirers and customers often used jewelry as a way of introducing themselves to courtesans and prostitutes. One famous story about a particularly lavish dancehall customer documents him as giving bejeweled hairpieces to each of those courtesans and prostitutes who entertained him. When one greedy courtesan took two, the customer bid the servant holding the jewelry box not to scold the courtesan, but to allow her to take as much as she liked. A 1923 short story, written for the Zi Lan Hua Pian by Zhou Shou Juan, a student who traveled to Shanghai to make his living as a writer, describes his astonishment that a prostitute who could not afford jewelry wore electric bulbs to attract customers' attention. (32) In the narrative, Zhou's friend confirms that many lower-level prostitutes in city brothels wear electric bulbs as jewelry. (33)
In contrast to those courtesans and prostitutes, whose jewelry delineate their commodified status in Shanghai's consumer culture, Tom Yuk Lan's bare ears and her lack of a necklace gentrifies her. Her lack of jewelry reminds the viewer that this woman cannot be purchased by jewelry, nor does she reveal her gaudiness by displaying her jewelry to all and sundry. By filtering out rings, necklaces, and bracelets, Chan filters out a significant element of her urban beauty's association with the courtesans and prostitutes who model for calendar posters, making Tom Yuk Lan at least a woman of quality, if not a woman of the upper class.
Some might argue that Chang San Francisco urban beauty takes after those more gentrified versions of advertisement calendar posters that portrayed women as mothers and housewives. Certainly such posters existed and circulated with equal ubiquity in China and overseas in the early twentieth century. Xie Zhiguang himself depicted a well-todo, gentrified mother figure in his 1930s advertisement for the Haofen Cigarettes Company entitled A Mother and Her Children (see Figure 9). (34) What underscores the role of the woman in Xie's poster as a mother, however, are the telltale markers of motherhood and marriage, not her physical appearance.
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The urban mother in A Mother and Her Children is also covered in jewelry Xie turns her body toward the viewer to reveal her large jade ring, the matching, long jade earrings, and her elaborately decorated qipao. Much like the other urban beauties in Xie's and other calendar posters, her carefully drawn face, well-groomed attire, and luxurious accessories keep her in the visual formula of an inviting, alluring urban beauty. It is her three children, one of whom she holds in her arms and the other two of whom cling and clamor for her attention, that conceal her body and designate her as a mother. The idyllic country house in the background further underlines her comfortable, suburban lifestyle. Without the context of her house, her children, and the placement of the ring on her ring finger, the urban mother in A Mother and Her Children does not differ greatly from the urban beauties in Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box or Girl Holding a Lily. The urban mother's smile, glittery wardrobe, and her very appearance on a cigarette poster designate her as a beauty to be admired by consumers.
What is extraordinary about Chang paintings are their careful selection of visual elements from select sources in early 1930s visual culture and Chan's own volition to do so in her upper-middle-class, San Francisco social circle. As previously mentioned, San Francisco's rhetoric on prostitution in Chinatown cast a particularly sexualized light on Chinese American women living in early twentieth-century San Francisco--with so many purported prostitutes, madams, and pleasure houses in San Francisco's Chinatown, how can a casual visitor distinguish a well-dressed woman from a well-dressed prostitute? The proliferation of calendar posters featuring titillating illustrations of Chinese urban beauties, as well as foreign companies' steady investment in the production of these posters in China and overseas, did not help the situation. (35)
American film media likewise marked Asian women with a particularly sexual image. Films such as Sternberg's Shanghai Express titillated audiences with Marlene Dietrich, the sexually promiscuous "Shanghai Lily," who associated with Chinese prostitutes. Alan Crosland's 1927 film, Old San Francisco, features Asian American film star Anna May Wong as a "Flower of the Orient," a prostitute with connections to San Francisco's opium ring and white slave trade. (36) The tensions between privileged, middle-class consumers, Chinatown laborers, and these sexualized urban beauties in American as well as Chinese popular culture come to a head in Chan's paintings. Tom Yuk Lan's concealed body, her solemn expression, and the formal three-quarter pose structure of her portrait filter out the sexual markers prevalent in calendar posters because this San Francisco urban beauty wants no association with those prostitutes in American media nor those courtesans and prostitutes in Shanghai nese popular culture. Instead, Chan's portrait gives Tom Yuk Lan markers of Asian American, middle-class privilege and propriety--the costly, dazzling yet conservative heavy silk mandarin dress makes clear Tom's comfortable economic status, the formal composition gives the painting the propriety of a formal portrait, and the lack of jewelry makes Tom a modest, chaste member of Chinatown's privileged class.
The markers of privilege and class in Tom Yuk Lan's portrait indicate an investment in upper-middle-class, white American culture that underlies immigrant upward mobility in the early twentieth century. Like the 1931 landscape, whose leisurely golf outing represents social and economic privileges that the working-class members of the Chinese Revolutionary Artists Club had little access to, the urban beauty's luxurious accoutrements in advertisement calendar posters represent social and economic privileges that everyday Shanghainese people and overseas Chinese American laborers had little access to. (37)
Despite Chan's careful filtering of visual markers in her paintings, however, contemporary audiences would have considered her work edgy, even somewhat racy Chan's Christian Chinatown community, with which her family socialized for four generations and in which her husband conducted his entrepreneurial ventures, were steeped in calendar posters. Similarly, the older Chinatown residents were directly involved in the economic tensions between newer and older immigrants.
Since I first visited Rosalind Chan, Eva Fong Chang daughter, and saw Chan's work, her paintings have both puzzled and fascinated me. They illustrate, in an artistically polished, visually satisfying, yet contentious way, the complicated dynamics of Chinese Americans who tasted, and continued to strive for, middle-class status in early twentieth-century San Francisco. The painter's willful choosing and relinquishing of specific visual markers brings up the question--how many of her choices were dictated by her aspirations to middle-class American life, and how many are dictated by middle-class American life itself? The rigor of raising a family in San Francisco, her responsibilities as a prominent member of the Chinese American community, and her social aspirations marked her paintings as well as her artistic legacy.
Chan stopped painting shortly after her daughter Rosalind Chan's birth in 1940, although she continued to display her painting in her home as well as the homes of relatives across America.
(1.) This exhibition record was gathered from an exhibition label on Chang 1932 painting, Seascape. The painting resides in the private collection of Rosalind Chan, Eva Fong Chan's daughter.
(2.) Laura Hyun Yi Kang, Compositional Subjects Enfiguring Asian/ American Women (Durham and London: Duke University Press, 2002), 139.
(3.) Robert G. Lee, Orientals: Asian Americans in Popular Culture (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1999), 90.
(4.) All personal information on Eva Fong Chan's life come from interviews conducted with her surviving relatives, such as Mei Ping Wang, who lived with the artist until her death, and Rosalind Chan, the artist's daughter.
(5.) Lee, Popular Culture, 201.
(6.) See Figure 1. Eva Fong Chan, Bo Kay Chan Golfing, Thomas Kwan Watching, October 30, 1930, oil on canvas, private collection of Rosalind Chan Wong, San Francisco, CA.
(7.) Richard J. Moss, Golf and the American Country Club (Urbana and Chicago: University of Illinois Press, 2001), 21.
(8.) Ibid., 83.
(9.) Ibid., 102.
(10.) See Figures 2 and 3. Figure 2, picture taken from Andrew Lang, "Pleasures and Pains of Golf," Frank Leslie's Popular Monthly 32, no. 1 (July 1891): 108. Figure 3, artist unknown, print advertisement in McClure's Magazine 52, no. 1 (January 1920): 65.
(11.) See Figure 4. Yun Gee, A Minimal Vision--Furniture with Painting, 1915, oil on canvas, private collection.
(12.) Judith Tannenbaum, "Yun Gee: A Rediscovery," Arts Magazine 54 (May 1980): 165.
(13.) Ibid., 165.
(14.) Jean Kim, "Asian American Identity Development Theory," in New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development: A Theoretical and Practical Anthology, ed. Charmaine L. Wijeyesinghe and Bailey W. Jackson, III (New York and London: New York University Press, 2001) 69.
(15.) Kim, "Asian American Identity," 69.
(16.) See Figure 5. Eva Fong Chan, Portrait of Tom Yuk Lan, 1931, oil on canvas, private collection of Rosalind Chan Wong, San Francisco, CA.
(17.) Ellen Johnston Laing, Selling Happiness Calendar Posters and Visual Culture in Early Twentieth Century Shanghai (Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2004) 3.
(18.) Ibid., 93.
(19.) Ibid., 29.
(20.) Ibid., 3.
(21.) Ibid., 103.
(22.) Catherine Vance Yeh, "Creating the Urban Beauty: The Shanghai Courtesan in Late Qing Illustrations," in Writing and Materiality in China: Essays in Honor of Patrick Hanan, ed. Judith T. Zeitlin and Lydia H. Liu (Cambridge and London: Harvard University Press, 2003), 397-98.
(23.) Ibid., 400.
(24.) Ibid., 413.
(25.) Lu Hanchao, Beyond the Neon Lights Everyday Shanghai in the Early Twentieth Century (Berkeley, Los Angeles, and London: University of California Press, 1999), 59-60.
(26.) Yeh, "Creating the Urban Beauty," 432.
(27.) Laing, Selling Happiness Calendar Posters, 132-35.
(28.) Ibid, 3.
(29.) See Figure 6. Unknown photographer, Untitled (Chinatown Studio Portrait), ca. 1925, Bancroft Library, University of California, Berkeley
(30.) See Figures 7 and 8. Figure 7, Xie Zhiguang (1900-1976), Girl Holding Ken-i-kocho-jo Box, advertisement calendar poster for Ken-i-kocho-jo Tablets, 1931. Figure 8, Xie Zhiguang (19001976), Girl Holding a Lily, advertisement poster for Russia-China Tobacco Manufacturing Company, 1930s, collection of Agnes Tabah, Washington, DC.
(31.) Laing, Selling Happiness Calendar Posters, 101.
(32.) Zhou Shou Juan, "Small Electric Bulbs on Prostitutes [researcher translation]," in Jiu Shanghai Feng Qing Lu, ed. Yu Zhi and Cheng Xin Guo (Shanghai: Wen Hui chubanshe, 1998) 149.
(33.) Ibid., 150.
(34.) See Figure 9. Xie Zhiguang, A Mother and Her Children, advertisement poster for the China Haofeng Tobacco Company, 1930s, collection of Ellen Johnston Laing.
(35.) Many of the companies using advertisement calendar posters were Western, such as the British American Tobacco Company, the aforementioned Russia China Tobacco Company, My Dear Cigarettes, and so on. Though the calendars primarily targeted Chinese audiences, many calendars featured bilingual printing, implying that the advertisements targeted foreign as well as Chinese readers. Considering the number of foreigners traveling for pleasure in Shanghai during the early twentieth century, Western audiences certainly saw these posters; Western collectors amassed several large advertisement calendar poster collections, such as that of Agnes Tabah of Washington, DC. Laing, Selling Happiness Calendar Posters, 3.
(36.) In Chinese media, the term "flower" is synonymous with prostitute. Popular Chinese fictional magazines featured successive covers that depicted "famous flowers (prostitutes) of society," early twentieth-century newspapers famously published "huabong," or flower lists, which refer to a list of famous prostitutes in any given city.
(37.) As social historian Lu Hanchao eloquently points out, "While Shanghai has the reputation of having a diverse and rich cuisine, the standard breakfast for the people of Shanghai was, and remains, tasteless paofan and pickles. In high fashion, the city led the nation (the Paris of the east), but ordinary people seldom purchased clothes off the rack at a fashionable shop. What most Shanghainese wore was made either by the handy housewife (as most of them were) or a Ningbo or Suzhou tailor, whose shop most likely sat right on the corner of the alley.... While automobiles were found in abundance on the streets of Shanghai, most people had never taken a taxi; for the majority, to ride in a sedan would have been considered a once in a lifetime experience" (Lu, Beyond the Neon Lights, 14).
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|Title Annotation:||6J Paper|
|Author:||Lu, Di Yin|
|Publication:||Chinese America: History and Perspectives|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2007|
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