A Portrait of the UK’s Chinese Diaspora: “We’re Visible, but Invisible”

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Zhengtao Ding, West Yorkshire, 2022 (2) (web)
Zhengtao Ding, West Yorkshire, 2022Photography by Yan Wang Preston

Shot in 2022, Yan Wang Preston’s new portrait series Here and Now captures British-Chinese individuals and families, community leaders and business founders with a quietly confident sense of place

When photographer Yan Wang Preston was invited by the Manchester Museum to showcase her first major project, Mother River, at its recently opened Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery, she didn’t think the literally and figuratively sprawling work – large format photos of China’s 6,211km Yangtze River shot painstakingly at 100-metre intervals – was the right fit. 

Nonetheless, she showed up to present the work. But at the end of the presentation, Wang Preston asked, “Why would you go that far away to find China, when China – when we – are already here?”

This was the beginning of her new portrait series Here and Now, which captures British-Chinese identity with a quietly confident sense of place. In the portraits, shot between May and October 2022, Wang Preston lensed individuals and families, community leaders and business founders, but placed them firmly in the British landscape. Shan Lin, a master’s student in International Education at the University of Manchester and an aficionado of traditional Han Chinese garments, known as hanfu, is dressed in a full hanfu ensemble by a verdant canal. Olivia Chow (who hopes one day to play for the Lionesses) and her family are shot in their front garden. Dr Yang Hanxin, a retired nuclear engineer and avid gardener, is shot at the Chinese Streamside Garden at RHS Bridgewater.

A firm believer that collaboration produces the best results, Wang Preston asked all her subjects where they’d like to be shot; conveying that connection and sense of integration was key to her process. Having delved into several photographic archives while conducting her research, she found that depictions of Chinese people in Britain were few and far between. “There are many Chinese people here, but in terms of photographs, visual representations, we just aren’t there,” she says. “We’re visible, but invisible at the same time. I felt a responsibility to put us on the map.” 

The portraits not only assert a sense of belonging, but subtly push viewers to confront their own prejudices. A friend of Wang Preston’s saw the photo of the Chows and told her, “They don’t look right here,” and followed it immediately and sheepishly with “I’m just as bad as the others.” 

Wang Preston has long explored displacement in her work. Several of her projects, including Forest (2010-2017) and With Love, From an Invader (2020-2021) do so through natural landscapes and forms – in the former, transplanted old trees in a ‘model town’ convey the promises and shortcomings of urban migration and construction; in the latter, she photographs the same rhododendron bush every day for a year, questioning the language around non-native and invasive species.

It’s an oeuvre that’s both personal and political. Born in China’s Henan Province in the 1970s, Wang Preston launched her photography career after moving to the UK in 2005. Now, she lives in West Yorkshire with her English husband and their daughter, a long-haul flight away from her family in China. Indeed, she only considered how her history as a migrant had informed her work after it was suggested in an essay. 

“As people who have moved from our homelands, we all feel this mixed sense of belonging and longing,” she says. “Sometimes, I so wish my parents were here with me – life would be so much more complete.”

Here and Now expresses the complexity of immigrant identities, but it also reframes displacement in a more positive light. “It’s not always the worst thing,” adds Wang Preston. “So many people move for a better life elsewhere. I like to think I’m more comfortable now living in these multiple universes.” 

Here and Now by Yan Wang Preston was commissioned by Manchester Museums Lee Kai Hung Chinese Culture Gallery