Lee Wen: Performing Yellow
Alice Ming Wai Jim
I’m already yellow. Why do I still paint myself yellow? Yellow is the colour of the sun, the colour of the moon, the colour of the river that runs in the old country. It is the spirit of nobility, the glow of precious gold. The warmth and abundance of harvest, the power and faith in temples. In a different sense, yellow can also be the colour of dangerous hazards, confidential secrets, pornography and vices. It is also the colour of the persecuted and the oppressed.
– Lee Wen1
Singaporean artist Lee Wen’s series Journey of a Yellow Man (1992–2012), one of his most famous and long-standing performances, was not simply a personal affront, it was a political affront. At the intersection of Asian art history, critical race theory, and migration and diasporic studies, one is never far (enough away) from the chromatic framing of race and ethnicity: yellow race, yellow peril, yellow face, the forever foreigner. Born in 1957 in colonial Singapore and having grown up in the postcolonial republic, Lee Wen is no stranger to his persona’s explicit, racially marked body. Bald and barefoot, naked except for a pair of briefs and covered completely in bright yellow paint, ‘Yellow Man' spectacularly wandered through the urban spaces of different countries in various situations. The work presages art historian and performance artist Ray Langenbach’s comment on performance art as a way of thinking: ‘“performance art often operates between”: between the state and civil society, between public and private spaces, between “appropriated speech, parody, mimicry, or re-constituted social rituals.”’2 Yellow Man’s third instalment notably premiered in Singapore in 1993, just before the National Arts Council placed harsh restrictive funding conditions on performance art, essentially banning it for a ten-year period.3
Lee Wen’s series continued after the funding cuts eased in 2003, his persona occasionally guest appearing in other works. Yellow Man's actions were quotidian yet measured; few props were used, most regularly being rice and eight red chains at times deployed in combination with other typical Asian cultural markers such as red lanterns (Strange Fruit, 2003) and birdcages (Journey of the Yellow Man No. 5: Index to Freedom, 1994). At its most carnivalesque, the performer's naked physicality and the extraordinary yellowness of tinted skin were what grabbed the viewer's attention. Yellow Man was the very incarnation of the ubiquitous racial stereotype of Asians since eighteenth century Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus proposed his theory of race-based classifications for the human species according to skin colour in his Systema naturae of 1735: ‘Homo Asiaticus’ were ‘yellowish, melancholy, endowed with black hair and brown eyes... severe, conceited, and stingy’; Homo Europoeus, white; Homo Americanus, red; and Homo Africanus, black.4 Linnaeus’s theory on the concept of race, and others after his, laid the spurious foundations for scientific racism used to justify colonisation, slavery and dispossession of non-Europeans and indigenous peoples, their lands and waters.
Yellow Man was not the ripped bodybuilder type; he was spindly, muscular, resilient. He was also vocal, socially competent and had an actionable politic. Consistent with the series was the unabashed construction and deconstruction of the hyper-racialised body though a blend of gravitas, humour and mindful reckoning with critical matters at hand. Yellow Man didn’t always show up in his yellow full-body mask. Sometimes he put (splashed) it on during the performance; other times he washed it off immersed in a tin tub of water, as he did for the SeptFest Art Conference, ‘Multiculturalism In Practice and On Paper’ at The Substation in 1997. The denouement for this performance/lecture, Journey of a Yellow Man No. 11: Multi-culturalism, consisted of the spiritually cleansed Yellow Man offering his bath water of ‘yellow essence’ in plastic bottles to audiences with the words, ‘I’m a water-colourist too!’5 Like his speech, the quip was intended as a jab at, among other things, the conservatism and populist curatorship of Singapore Art 97, which privileged Chinese painting and calligraphy above all other art forms. The inequitable representation, to use Lee Wen’s words, ‘seem[ed] to signal an obsessive preoccupation with ethnicity. An underlying trait, which is not only due to the ethnic Chinese majority but also a new nation-state to link itself historically to an immemorial past’.6 According to the Singapore Department of Statistics, in June 2016, Chinese citizens made up 74.3 per cent of Singapore’s resident population, followed by Malays and Indians at 13.4 per cent and 9.1 per cent, respectively.7 The city-state’s colonial heritage linked to the complexities of Singaporean’s multiracial identity and unequal ethnic capital were themes that preoccupied both artist and his persona.
First performed at the City of London Polytechnic in April 1992, Journey of a Yellow Man was initially intended to ‘problematise Chinese identity, in particular Lee Wen’s own, and that of many Singaporeans […] who still claim a Chinese identity that is tied to the mainland’.8 In the United Kingdom, Lee Wen was constantly mistaken for a Chinese national and confronted by ethno-nationalist assumptions about his diasporic identity as a Chinese Singaporean. What does it mean to be predominantly Chinese but yet be in a multicultural society? As Lee Wen states: ‘There is such a thing as diasporas and it does make a difference to one’s identity.’9 Migration studies scholars Brenda S. A. Yeoh and Weiqiang Lin would agree, writing that Singapore ‘is at its core a “child of diaspora, (…) a polyglot migrant world constituted by streams of immigrants from China, India, the Malay Archipelago, and other far-flung places”.’10 Singapore was under British rule for 144 years, until 1963 when it merged as part of Malaysia. The political and religious tensions of the 1960s culminated in the violent 1964 race riots between ethnic Chinese and Malay groups. In 1965, Singapore separated from Malaysia and founded itself as an independent republic; since then its government has prioritised maintaining social harmony regardless of race, language or religion.
Dubbed the world’s most expensive city in 2018 for the fifth year running,11 the sovereign city-state and economic superpower prides itself in being a multiracial and polytheistic society, though Chinese people have long been the ethnic majority on the island, unlike its close neighbours Malaysia and Indonesia. ‘Founded’ in 1819 by Sir Stamford Raffles as a colonial entrepôt, Singapore became part of the British Straits Settlements in Southeast Asia (with Penang, Dinding and Malacca) in 1826.12 European colonialism demanded cheap ‘free’ labour in its growing colonial holdings. Workers were required in labour-intensive industries such as cash crops, plantations and mining activities. In the early nineteenth century, the transatlantic African slave trade having been abolished in 1807 within the British Empire, this demand drove the development of the ‘coolie’ trade, which looked to China as a main labour-exporting country. As Lisa Lowe writes, ‘the Chinese were used instrumentally’ in Britain’s political discourse on the ‘so-called’ transition from ‘primitive slavery’ to ‘freely’ contracted debt labour, ‘as a collective figure, a fantasy of “free” yet racialised and indentured labour, at a time when the possession of body, work, life, and death was foreclosed to the enslaved and the indentured alike’.13 Recruited Chinese indentured or indebted labourers were transported like cargo and ‘shipped on vessels much like those that brought the slaves they were designed to replace’.14 The Chinese who came to the Straits Settlements through the Southeast Asian coolie trade were largely from Fujian and Guangdong provinces in search of better economic opportunities. By 1827, they became the most numerous of Singapore’s various ethnic groups, largely due to the city’s role as a major destination and coordination centre for Chinese migrants bound for the British territories in Southeast Asia.15
The racialised transitional figure of the coolie is a not-too-distant cousin of Yellow Man. As historian Moon-Ho Jung states: coolies ‘were never a people or a legal category. Rather coolies were a conglomeration of racial imaginings that emerged world wide in the era of slave emancipation, a product of the imaginers rather than the imagined.’16 In the colonies, coolies represented the stereotype of Asians, in the case of Singapore, predominantly Chinese people, as unassimilable perpetual foreigners, or, to be more precise, a foreign-born, faceless ‘alien’ labour force that worked only to save money and return home.17 Decades of imported economical Chinese labour to the colony meant, however, that by 1965 when Singapore became an independent country and multiracialism was written into the constitution, alien status gradually changed to citizenship with Chinese Singaporeans remaining the dominant ethnic group.
Whether in Europe or Asia, Yellow Man, as the figure of the hyper-racialised ‘Oriental’, is literally marked as ‘indelibly alien’ on account of being yellow; Lee Wen of course is not and neither are Asians although they might be perceived as such in (neo)colonial contexts. Notably Yellow Man was conceived during the artist’s two-year sojourn in the UK where he encountered first-hand yellow perilism as a persevering estranged condition of Asian diasporas, not only in European settler colonies but in the centre of the empire. By the turn of the twentieth century, the pernicious racial concept of ‘Yellow Peril’, referring to the alleged threat of ‘Asiatic invasions’ by unassimilable ‘filthy yellow hordes’ to the preservation of white nations, became the prevailing imperialist discourse legislating Chinese identity and immigration across the British Empire, including territories in North America (present-day Canada and the United States), Australia, South Africa and elsewhere. Affected by reports from its colonies and other European nations, Britain also saw Yellow Peril gaining wide currency in Victorian public discourse despite the Chinese population in the UK being minuscule. Deeply rooted anti-Asian xenophobia was not only fuelled by media accounts of the alien threat of ‘John Chinaman’ (another generic racial epithet referring to all Chinese) to the jobs and other means of livelihood of white workers, but also endorsed by state-institutionalised racism in the form of systematic policies governing Asian immigration such as head taxes and exclusionary acts.
The Explicit Yellow Body
Nearly a century later, Lee Wen’s racial stereotyping performance Yellow Man would not go unrecognised in most postcolonial contexts as the Yellow Peril incarnated in the figure of a sole ‘Chinaman’. Decidedly, to invoke images of Asians as alien using a body already racially marked is fundamentally complex, complicated and conflicted. Colours, however, register times of shifting perspectives and accelerated change as much as they project the honourable aspirations, failed ideals or destructive beliefs of an epoch. Myriad meanings for the colour yellow aside from its tether to a globalised discourse of race have come to bear on Lee Wen’s project. Unsurprisingly, as curator June Yap points out, while the Journey of a Yellow Man series was performed in different parts of Asia, its signification changed: ‘“mistaken as a sadhu or shaman” in India, linked to “religion, monarchy and modern dangers and illicit sex” in Thailand, and in a complete antithesis to his original purpose, read as advocating “Chinese pride” in performances in Taiwan and China.’18 Foreseeably, in both mainland and diasporic Chinese contexts sinocentric references are predominant. Considered an auspicious, lucky colour along with red in Chinese culture, yellow has long symbolised power, elevated status and prosperity, and continues to give expression to the historical narrative of China as well as the impressive ascendency of the Asian twenty-first century.
In the 2000s, Lee Wen expanded his colour palette, so to speak, in his ‘revisits’ to past well-known performance works involving pigment, such as Nam June Paik’s use of black ink, re-enacted as Zen for Head, Clay and Leg (2009) and Yves Klein’s signature International Klein Blue (IKB), for Anthropometry Revision: Yellow Period (after Yves Klein) (2008) in which Lee Wen used his own signature yellow paint in place of IKB in a strident critique of biometrics and anthropometric photography to justify colonial rule.19 Through these revisionist iterations of canonical performances, Lee Wen was able to not only sketch out for local audiences ‘who may not be acquainted about the constituents of performance art’, but also, by engaging with material in a changed modality not unlike his approach to Yellow Man, meaningfully resituate each ‘revisitation’ in an Asian context.20
For Lee Wen, the journey in the title of his performance series refers less to his persona’s perambulations and more to the increased contemporary migratory flow of Asian diasporas.21 But as this sinuous traipse around performing yellow highlights, one other very present, ongoing and insidious form of travelling is further evidenced by Yellow Man: the global dissemination of racist ideology and the dark concepts that travel with it. Performing the explicit, racially marked body in art practice is of course not new. In her book, The Explicit Body in Performance, Rebecca Schneider coined the term ‘explicit body’ to argue the ‘explosive literality’ of feminist performance art since the 1960s as a form of cultural criticism concerning gender and race that ‘explicates bodies in social relations’.22
To follow Schneider’s formulation, Lee Wen’s series is clearly an actionable explicit body performance intended to critique deeply entrenched notions of difference and alterity in multicultural contexts. What interests me is the theatrical risk inherent in mobilising an essentialist trope that so powerfully performs in excess of itself. The present-day celebration of cultural diversity and multiculturalism, if contrived and limited, has not diminished how colour matters. As Brian Massumi writes, ‘our entire vocabulary has derived from theories of signification that are still wedded to structure even across irreconcilable differences’.23 In Singapore, where discussions of race and racism are still sensitive subjects, Lee Wen’s own practice has critiqued the Singaporean government’s classification of its citizens by race through the Chinese-Malay-Indian-Others (CMIO) model in place since 1824, even if the framework that governs almost every aspect of social policy has been continued to counter race-based social inequities and protect minority rights, notably for Malays who are recognised as the indigenous peoples of Singapore by its Constitution.
Today, being truly Singaporean is to be of the country’s four ‘founding races’ (CMIO) of Singapore but this is an identity (ironically, given the island’s history) exclusive of the ‘new’ Chinese migration of ‘differently incorporated citizens and non-citizens, residents and transients from the PRC’ to fill in shifting labour gaps since the 1990s.24 A recent survey in The Strait Times (15 November 2017) revealed an ‘emerging sense of S’porean identity independent of ethnic heritage’ with a majority of respondents who viewed speaking good English as more important to national identity than being able to trace one’s ancestry, a stereotypical rebuttal to the alleged ineptness in English of PRC nationals as Singapore ‘sit[s] uncomfortably between being predominantly “Chinese” and anti-Chinese”’.25 Clearly, discussions on what forms Singaporean identity and the issue of ‘Chinese privilege’, a term coined by Sangeetha Thanapal,26 has not abated since independence, and more recently, increasingly against the backdrop of a rising China and Singapore’s own economic ascendency.
The importance of the lessons learnt from the fraught Journey of a Yellow Man to not only Singapore but also the current global political climate cannot be understated. Yellow Man’s live performances or reappearance through photography and video in major international and local festivals and exhibitions are not only tied to a global history of performance art and Singaporean identity and politics, they also implicate, cringingly so, the present-day resurgence of racism and anti-foreigner sentiments directed towards people from the imaginary ‘Orient’ – South, Southeast and East Asia, Central Asia and the Middle East. The new historical preoccupation with coerced labourers in the past has yet to dispel race-based discourses about allegedly unassimilable immigrants and refugees from outside one’s own national borders. From Singapore’s stake in the rise of China and the global city’s ‘(re)encounters with Chinese migration’27 and talks around the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) to the current US presidency’s divisive foreign policy on racial lines, the spectre of Yellow Peril discourse has obviously not receded into the past, in fact, it’s in our face.
Lee Wen, ‘Journey of a Yellow Man No.5: Index to Freedoms’, artist statement for 4th Asian Art Show, Fukuoka Art Museum, 10 September–16 October 1994.↑
Ray Langenbach, talk as part of Appreciating Art Lecture Series, Singapore Art Museum, 2011, quoted in Lee Weng Choy, ‘Stars and Spine’, Lee Wen: Variations On The Exquisite Body (ed. Lucy Davis et al.), Palo Alto, CA: Issuu, March 2013, p.67.↑
For a description of the 1993/1994 Artists General Assembly controversy over Josef Ng’s New Year’s Eve performance Brother Cane in which he cut his pubic hair and was subsequently charged and fined for public obscenity, see Lee Weng Choy, ‘Chronology of a Controversy’, Looking at Culture (ed. Sanjay Krishnan, Lee Weng Choy, Sharaad Kuttan and Leon Perera), Singapore: Artres Design & Communications, 1996, p.63.↑
Gregor Benton and Edmund Terence Gomez, The Chinese in Britain, 1800–Present: Economy, Transnationalism, Identity, London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2008, p.287.↑
Lucy Davis, ‘Wings (Metamorphosis)’, Lee Wen, op. cit.,p.36.↑
Lee Wen, ‘Will the Real Singapore Art Please Stand Up?’, talk presented as part of ‘Post-Ulu' exhibition organised by The Artists Village, The Substation, Singapore, 7 January 2000, Republic of Daydreams [blog], available at http://leewen.republicofdaydreams.com/re-imagined-self.html (last accessed on 15 April 2018).↑
Singapore Department of Statistics, ‘Report: Population Trends, 2016’, Republic of Singapore: Department of Statistics, Ministry of Trade & Industry, September 2016, p.4.↑
June Yap, ‘I Feel the Earth Move…’, Lee Wen, op. cit., p.50.↑
Lee W., ‘Will the Real Singapore Art Please Stand Up?’, op. cit.↑
Brenda S. A. Yeoh and Weiqiang Lin, ‘Multiplying Diversities: How “New” Chinese Mobilities Are Changing’, Chinese Encounters in Southeast Asia: How People, Money, and Ideas from China Are Changing a Region (ed. Pàl Nyíri and Danielle Tan), Washington: University of Washington Press, 2017, p.43.↑
According to the Worldwide Cost of Living Survey published by the Economist Intelligence Unit. See Karen Gilchrist, ‘Singapore Named the World’s Most Expensive City’, CNBC, 3 March 2018, available at https://www.cnbc.com/2018/03/14/singapore-named-the-worlds-most-expensive-city- to-live-in.html (last accessed on 15 April 2018).↑
Until Raffles arrived, the island was occupied by 1,000 Malay people, a handful of Chinese farmers and the Orang Laut (sea people) indigenous to the region. The Orang Laut lived along the coasts of the region, including the settlement known up until the fourteenth century as Temasek (present-day Singapore), until they were dispersed to isolated parts of Southeast Asia as assimilation set in in the early 1900s. In Untitled (Raffles) from 2000, Lee Wen built scaffolding alongside the sculpture of Raffles standing at the Singapore River so that the public could look him in the eye at the same level.↑
Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2015, p.24.↑
B.S.A. Yeoh and W. Lin, ‘Multiplying Diversities’, op. cit., p.44.↑
L. Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents, op. cit., p.25.↑
Instead of Straits Settlements currency, coolies in Singapore were paid in porcelain pieces that could only be used as currency in the ‘registered coolie house’ of the respective paymaster, in order to deter them from saving money and returning to China. See Roger Loh and Patsy Lee, Coolie Currency: Personal Reflections on Collecting History, Singapore: Invasion Studios, 2015.↑
J. Yap, ‘I Feel the Earth Move…’, Lee Wen, op. cit.↑
Adele Tan, ‘Lee Wen and the Untaming of Yves Klein: Art and the Iterative Force’, PAJ: A Journal of Performance and Art, vol.32, no.2, May 2010, pp.18–19 and p.21.↑
Ibid., pp. 18–19.↑
J. Yap, ‘I Feel the Earth Move…’, Lee Wen, op. cit., p.50, fn.5.↑
Rebecca Schneider, The Explicit Body in Performance, London: Routledge, 1997, p.2. ‘Explicit body artists “peel back layers of signification that surround their bodies […] to expose not an originary, true, or redemptive body, but the sedimented layers of signification themselves.’↑
Brian Massumi, Parables for the Virtual: Movement, Affect, Sensation, Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2002, p.4.↑
B.S.A. Yeoh and W. Lin, ‘Multiplying Diversities’, op. cit., p.52. ‘Other’ in the CMIO designation generally refers to Eurasians connected to the first three ethnic groups.↑
Sangeetha Thanapal, ‘Chinese Privilege, Gender and Intersectionality in Singapore: A Conversation between Adeline Koh and Sangeetha Thanapal’, boundary 2, 4 March 2015, available at http://www.boundary2.org/2015/03/chinese-privilege-gender-and-intersectionality-in-singapore-a-conversation- between-adeline-koh-and-sangeetha-thanapal/ (last accessed on 15 April 2018).↑