The Colorful Legacy of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora

Chinese immigrants to the West Indies have left a mark on the region’s art.

Circles and Circuits I: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora: installation view. Photo by Brian Forrest and courtesy of the California African American Museum.

500 years ago, Spanish ships carrying Chinese exports and silver sailed from Manila, in the Philippines, to Acapulco, Mexico. According to a new exhibition at the California African American Museum (CAAM), in Los Angeles, these voyages created “an imagined China” in the Latin American consciousness. From the 1800s through the 1900, Chinese immigrants came in several waves to the Caribbean. First, indentured laborers were brought to islands like Trinidad and Cuba, where they sometimes worked alongside slaves even after slavery was officially outlawed. Later, as the slave-supported sugar industry collapsed, immigrants and former indentured workers joined a growing paid labor force.

Circles and Circuits I: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora, on view at CAAM until February 25, is one half of a two-part exhibition, the other displayed at the Chinese American Museum from September 15 to March 11. Both examine the art of the Chinese Caribbean diaspora from the early 20th century through the present day, in places like Cuba, Trinidad and Tobago, Jamaica, and Panama. (Circles and Circuits is part of Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA, an initiative of the Getty that commenced in September.) The exhibition at CAAM traces the history of Chinese Caribbean art from the 1930s through several independence movements.

Carlisle Chang, “Woman with Chickens” (1958), oil on board. Courtesy Central Bank of Trinidad and Tobago. Image courtesy the California African American Museum.

It’s the view of cynics that history is never linear — it doesn’t progress, but is instead cyclical, doomed to repeat ad nauseam. But the cycles of history needn’t be bleak. Putting the pieces together, until they form a circle, can illuminate complex patterns, coincidences that occur across geographical borders, and even habits of an ancestor repeated, later, in the artwork of a descendant. At CAAM, the artworks in Circles and Circuits I are arranged in concentric circles, like the spirals of a snail shell. Though it’s possible to read the exhibition placards as a timeline, you have to do so conscientiously; another approach is to float through.

Pedro Eng Herrera, “Danza de la diosa Aguila y el diablito Abacua” (1999), acrylic paint. Courtesy the artist. Image courtesy the California African American Museum.

As a daughter of someone from the Caribbean, I’m drawn to the region’s endlessly unfolding narratives, though I knew little of the Chinese diaspora. Black history, and the stories of other diasporas, deserve to be defined more broadly. For this reason, I loved the show’s sprawling nature. The amalgamation of culture produces complex work — produced the Caribbean itself — and my favorite pieces in the show address this.

María Magdalena Campos-Pons, “Finding Balance” (2015), composition of 28 Polacolor. Courtesy of the artist and Samsøñ, Boston. Image courtesy the California African American Museum.

Carlisle Chang’s “Red Queen of Mars for Conquest of Space” (1970) is a design for a costume in Stephen Lee Heung’s performance, “Conquest of Space” (1970), presented during Carnival. Chang was born to Chinese immigrants in Trinidad and Tobago, and supported independence in the country, along with Sybil Atteck and a few others; when independence came in 1962, Chang helped design a flag and coat of arms. In its ecstatic portrayals of African harvest festivals, the traditions of indentured workers, and colonial Catholicism, Caribbean Carnival (which is thought to have appeared first in Trinidad and Tobago) was a good medium for kaleidoscopic performances and pageantry; there is a beauty, even, in the early illustrations that served as models for what was to come.

Andrea Chung, “Sink and Swim” (2013), sugar, fishing line, fishing hooks, nuts, and bolts. Photo by Brian Forrest.

Works by Sybil Atteck are on view here, too, including several of her expressionistic portraits. One of the London-based textile designer Althea McNish — “Althea McNish” (1950) — draws its beauty from the geometry of its shading (McNish appears fragmented, like stained glass), the gentle gaze of its subject, and for her implied background: somewhere bluish, rich, and subtle. Atteck was a founding member of the Art Society of Trinidad and Tobago; she studied in both Lima and London, which allowed her to trace the roots — and later the artistic influence — of her Caribbean history.

Sybil Atteck, “Self-Portrait” (1970), oil on board. Collection of Helen Atteck. Image courtesy of the California African American Museum.

The portrait is mirrored by McNish’s hand-printed cotton fabric piece, “Golden Harvest” (1959). As an accompanying placard states, its richly-textured blues and greens reference reference her time in the Essex countryside; perhaps it also, more subtly, alludes to the influence of the Caribbean on the lives of the region’s colonizers — the two forever intertwined.

In a section of the exhibition entitled “Nature, Religion, and Identity,” Flora Fong’s bronze sculpture, “Pronóstico de la temporada” (2007), shows four palm trees — abstract, three-fronded simulacrums of palm trees, really — in various states of bluster.  “Temporada ciclónica” (2009), a huge painted version of the same subject, hangs nearby. “Listos para el vuelo” (2009) is a bronze kite. Fong, who was born in Camagüey, Cuba — she belongs to an early generation of trained artists following the Cuban Revolution — addresses her Chinese ancestry through this imagery: the art of kite-making, the tempestuous experience of immigration.

Circles and Circuits I: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora: installation view. Photo by Brian Forrest and courtesy of the California African American Museum.

In a story as big as the Caribbean’s, you search for patterns that create a sense of continuity. I look, always, for palm trees. They’re often seen rather unfairly as symbols of leisure — travel here, where they grow abundant and sway over you on the beach. But coconut palms withstand hurricanes and live as long as humans, often longer. There are few things more dramatic than the felled and splayed fronds of palm trees. They better symbolize resistance, and the movement of the people who have passed through that region of the world.

Circles and Circuits I: History and Art of the Chinese Caribbean Diaspora continues at the California African American Museum (600 State Drive, Los Angeles) until February 25. For information on Circles and Circuits II, visit the Chinese American Museum’s official website.

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