Elaine E. Kim (2002)

Knowing Your Place by Elaine H. Kim
(originally published in Like Mangoes in July: The Work of Richard Fung ed. Helen Lee and Kerri Sakamoto, 2002)

In Richard Fung’s early video My Mother’s Place (1990) feminist scholar Himani Bannerji suggests that we think about who our work is for instead of continuing to address an invisible white audience, I feel that Fung’s tape is addressed directly to me, another child who needs her mother’s answers, however loaded, coded, layered and contradictory. Like him, I now have “feminist perspectives” and “historical contexts” for my mother’s stories, which invariably slip through the frameworks I try to construct for them.

My Mother’s Place is about the interstices of impossible “full disclosures” and “all-out lies.” History, like film or video, is constructed artifice, like Rita Fung’s accent when she is aware of the camera. Memories are unreliable, like Fung’s memories of his mother’s village, where he has never been. Photographs and home movies represent desires more than actual lives, like the home movies of Rita Fung in her stylish 1950s dresses and shoes as she walks among her English roses, looking like a Good Housekeeeping housewife instead of a Trinidadian Chinese woman who gets up before dawn to bake bread and works in the family store until midnight.

How completely different my parents were form the black-and-white image of them as a smiling Korean immigrant Bonnie and Clyde couple leaning insouciantly against some else’s 1930s Ford Car. My mother, like Rita Fung, marked “housewife” in the occupation box on our school forms, even though she worked hard all her life as a farm labourer, an Avon sales lady, a department store clerk.

Our histories and names are forged in colonialism and patriarchy. Rita Fung’s family name became “atteck” in part because the British officials in Trinidad could not pronounce it in Chinese. Other indentured Chinese workers took the names of their employers. Rita Fung’s Chinese name was “fragrant Moon” until her husband noted that moons don’t smell. I am not sure of my mother’s name because so many Korean commoners didn’t name their girl children at the turn of the century. My father named her “Chung-hi,” a typical female name. She took the name Anne, perhaps after Little Orphan Annie. I’m not sure of her surname-she never knew her father, and we didn’t know her stepfather’s name. No one can impersonate me at a bank using a mother’s maiden name.

Though Rita Fung kept home movies of Queen Elizabeth’s visit to Trinidad, she did not film the visitors of Senghor, Selassie or Indira Gandhi. But she also admits that “it didn’t make any sense for people in Trinidad to study in detail the cities and climate in England, Ireland and Scotland and that the British colonials who occupied the top-level positions in Trinidad were “dumb” know-nothings. Likewise, I was sometimes disappointed when my parents seemed to go along with white supremacist views. But they often surprised me with withering comments on empire that came from their experiences which directly contradict the fictions that America tells about itself as benevolent abroad and inclusive at home.

In response to her youngest son’s gentle questions, Rita Fung insists that even though certain places on the island were “off limits” to all but white people, everyone was “happy” because they knew their place. To me, “knowing your place” means not only accepting unjust hierarchy without complaint but also, paradoxically, being happy to have your own place. Though we can only understand them imperfectly, we cherish our mothers’ filtered stories because they connect us to a past that seeps out from under our grids of rhetoric and schema and, at the same time, eludes empire’s relentless attempts to bury it.