When we visited my grandparents in Taipei or Vancouver and I got to see my Mom or Dad’s childhood snaps, I would marvel at them, trying to imagine the years and years my parents had already lived before my brother and I came along. I think this is one of the reasons I love looking for old photos in vintage stores here in Taipei. They give me a sense of my own past, even if it is a borrowed past. I like feeling as if I am saving another family’s history because I felt so disconnected from my own while I was growing up.
I wrote on my very sporadically updated style/DIY blog a while ago that as an Asian American, it really meant a lot emotionally to find photos of people who look like me and my family doing normal things during time periods that I enjoy from a historical and aesthetic standpoint.
Before I moved here, I rarely saw images of Asian Americans from before the 1980s. I enjoy watching old movies, but Hollywood productions then and now often depict Asians as either sinister, hypersexualized or just silly (Fu Manchu, Charlie Chan, Suzie Wong). I had no idea about Mickey Rourke’s Mr. Yunioshi before I first watched Breakfast at Tiffany’s with my class when I was about 12. I remember feeling shocked and humiliated. I was surprised at how upset I became watching one of my heroes, Audrey Hepburn, interact with this man wearing big fake buckteeth, his eyelids hiked up with tape, slurring his R’s, as if it was totally normal. I felt my face burning and tears stinging my eyes, but I did not know what to do because no one, including my teacher, was reacting. Even my Asian American classmates watched stoically.
“To photograph people is to violate them, by seeing them as they never see themselves, by having knowledge of them they can never have; it turns people into objects that can be symbolically possessed. Just as the camera is a sublimation of the gun, to photograph someone is a sublimated murder—a soft murder, appropriate to a sad, frightened time.” – Susan Sontag
Sometimes — especially when I was back home in the States — I felt conflicted about my interest in vintage style. It seemed so wrong to squeal over pretty things from an era when Asian Americans were repressed, socially and legally (as with the Japanese internment camps and the Chinese Exclusion Act), and when many Asian countries suffered sociopolitical violence that traumatized millions of people, including members of my family.
But vintage items and design have had an emotional resonance for me since I was very young and, though it’s hard to explain, I can’t imagine my life without them. This is more than a hobby for me — it’s part of my identity. It’s part of my search for an identity and for a better understanding of my family. (On a related note, Gertie at Gertie’s New Blog For Better Sewing has written a lot about the dialectic between being a feminist and enjoying vintage fashion and the domestic arts). A lot of it is about possessing: wanting a back story of my own, wanting to get my hands on these photos before anyone else does. Sally Feldman recently wrote a great article for New Humanist about the ethics behind collecting, as well as the instincts that drive the urge to accumulate and own certain items.
These photos are almost like an emotional surrogate for me, but I’m always aware that I have no idea what the lives of the people portrayed within them were like, especially since they were taken during a turbulent, sometimes violent time in Taiwan’s complicated history. I only possess a second of these people’s lives… but these slivers of their memories are nonetheless in my ownership, sorted into Ziploc bags and stored in my cabinet. I do not feel like it is my right to turn them into nostalgic kitsch just because I think they are pretty and fun to look at, but that is a difficult urge to resist.
“In front of the photograph of my mother as a child, I tell myself: she is going to die: I shudder, like Winnicott’s psychotic patient, over a catastrophe which has already occurred. Whether or not the subject is already dead, every photograph is this catastrophe.” – Roland Barthes
“All photographs are memento mori. To take a photograph is to participate in another person’s (or thing’s) mortality, vulnerability, mutability. Precisely by slicing out this moment and freezing it, all photographs testify to time’s relentless melt.” – Susan Sontag
Every time I look at these old, found photographs, I wonder what the lives of their subjects were like. Many of the people in the older snaps are probably dead or very old. If they are still alive, I hope that they are happy or at least content. Doing so is like saying a prayer for the health of my family. Grief is the price you pay for love and sometimes photos are all you have to ameliorate pain and desperate longing. For some reason, these photos weren’t kept by the people they would have had the most meaning for. All I know of their journeys starts from the minute I found them at a vintage store. I treasure these photos of people I do not know and I hope to keep their memories — even though it is just a millisecond of one — safe and alive for their families.