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Gerard Choy

Published date
23 May 2019

Sounding Chinese: tracing the voice of early 20th century to present-day transnational Chinese

College: Wimbledon College of Arts
Research: Dr Yuko Kikuchi, Dr John Wynne, Dr Michael Asbury


Going beyond the North/South/East/West/us/them dichotomies, this project looks at how people who experience multiple migrations and call more than one place home, that is, the transnationals, conceptualise themselves.

Does migration change the way people speak and consequently change their sense of self?

  • What is the impact of migration on voice and identity?
  • Can difference be discerned in sound, specifically the sound that identifies Chineseness?
  • How is different Chineseness and being Chinese in a transnational context voiced?

These questions are the departure points for launching an inquiry into the construction of the identity of transnational Chinese – what does it mean to be a transnational Chinese and what does one sound like? Taking off from the writings of post-colonial theorists Ien Ang and Homi Bhabha and art historian Sarat Maharaj, the practice-based research considers how identity is understood in the face of perceptions, expectations or impositions.

Context and background

The questions frame the five volumes of a project The Phrase Book of Migrant Sounds. Just as transnationals do not fit into popular binaries, this work offers an alternative to the standard Euro+ perspective of art history. The genesis of The Phrase Book of Migrant Sounds lies in phrase books written in the late-19th and early-20th centuries for Cantonese migrants to North America. Of great interest is not the fact that English phrases were translated into Cantonese but that English is transcribed phonetically – an approach that is still used today – which helps migrants wrestle with an array of sounds of which they have no history or experience. This helps them articulate what has not been heard before, the unfamiliar sounds made familiar, the alien made closer to home.

The project relies on sound recordings and the collaboration of contemporary transnationals to map a recent sound history of Chineseness yet unrecorded. The rhetoric and policies that shape identity is looked at from the everyday experience of transnational Chinese who have multiple homes in various parts of the world. The Phrase Book of Migrant Sounds, Vol. I-V presents an alternative to discussions on identity and contemporary art.