For a while now, I have been following Swedish artist Lap-See Lam’s work. She explores the Cantonese diaspora in Sweden through multimedia, using 3D scanning, VR and animation to capture pieces of disappearing Chinese restaurants in Stockholm. She questions the relationship we have with time and space, and memories of physical venues.
Many years ago, I was intrigued by Lap-See Lam’s creative project titled ‘Mother Tongue’ (2017). It began life as an interactive smartphone app modeled after those virtual/digital tours. Visitors to the show could sit around a Chinese dining table, part of the set, put on VR goggles to take a tour. Viewers are transported into Chinese restaurants which have fantastical hyperrealistic interiors. The Chinese restaurant itself is the narrator, a female. There're subtitles, but the voice uses vocabulary and phrases from a mixture of Swedish and Cantonese. I love it! To me, it's hilarious, because I understand Cantonese, and I could vaguely make out the Swedish since it is rather similar to Norwegian which I haven't entirely lost.
It’s fascinating to read about what Chinese restaurants mean to the diaspora, and how many of these restaurants were owned by Cantonese-speaking folks churning out familiar-to-me foods. It is no longer like this now. A new generation of Chinese migrants opening up restaurants and cooking have redefined ‘Chinese’ menus in cities outside of China. Every continent’s Chinese restaurants trot out different foods. Hotpot is ubiquitous. However, American Chinese food (died laughing when I realized what the heck ‘moo goo gai pan’ is. 蘑菇雞片 in a pan lah) isn’t anything like Swedish Chinese food. Care for a Swedish smoked salmon wrapped in a Chinese bun (mantou)? Anyone?
Eva Heisler’s interview of Lap-See Lam for Asymptote noted that,
Mother’s Tongue has several iterations, and the same 3D scans of Chinese restaurants used as a source for Mother’s Tongue have been reworked in other creative projects. The recent 2020 exhibition Phantom Banquet at Galerie Nordenhake, Stockholm, included an immersive virtual reality work as well as sculptural objects. The objects—archeological, speculative—are ghostly fragments of Chinese restaurant décor assembled from 3D scans using a process similar to archeological and forensic reconstructions.this Asymptote interview titled ‘Lap-See Lam, The Chinese Restaurant as Portal’, the writer asked the artist to share more about “her interest in documenting Stockholm’s Chinese restaurants, her fascination with the immateriality and negative space of 3D laser scanning, and her creative exploitation of the vulnerabilities of the scanner to errors and glitches.”
The artist explained how the sale of her 36-year-old family restaurant in 2014 pushed her to document the space she was so familiar with, only to have the new proprietor decline. So she was inspired to find other similar restaurants in the city to document. She began this project with fellow artist and friend Wingyee Wu.
Mother’s Tongue is not only a fantastical hyper-real journey through Chinese restaurant spaces, but it is also a fictional narrative told in the voice of the Chinese restaurant. Where did this voice come from? Is it at all autobiographical, based on your family? Or did you conduct interviews with restaurant owners?
The story is divided into three chapters set in the past, present, and future through fictional monologues led by three generations of women. All three women reflect on someone who’s in some way “foreign” to them. In “Peach Tongue” (set in 1978), a daughter reflects on the relationship with her mother; in “Miss China” (set in 2018), a former Cantonese restaurant proprietor talks about the restaurant’s new proprietor, a mainland Chinese woman; and in “Cyborg World” (set in 2058), a grandmother records a voice message to her possible future grandchild. These stories are not only about the history of Chinese restaurants in Sweden, but also stories about human relations, community, language, othering, and mortality. We created these characters so, no, they’re not autobiographical nor based entirely on my family. The idea of using the restaurant’s own voice came from a need to problematize ideas of representation.
The artist had a solo exhibition at Galerie Nordenhake in Stockholm last June themed and titled ‘Phantom Banquet’ (2020). She has a major solo upcoming exhibition in mid-January 2022 at contemporary art museum Bonniers Konsthall in Stockholm. With all these global lockdowns, may that open as scheduled. Sweden is still holding out with no official lockdowns, although they’ve finally passed an emergency lockdown law last month. It’s a pity that I’m likely not going to be able to travel and see this show IRL.