Ramabal Espinet (1991)

My Mother’s Place by Ramabal Espinet
(Fuse Magazine, Winter 1991)

Not very much is known about the inner life of the Chinese person in Trinidad and Tobago, nor in the rest of the Caribbean for that matter. This is so in spite of the fact that there are notable artists in the Chinese community such as painters Carlisle Chang and the late Sybil Atteck in Trinidad and Tobago, and more recently, writers Willi Chen in Trinidad, and Jan Shinebourne and Meiling Jin, both originally from Guyana and now British-based. Shinebourne, whose ancestry is Indo-Chinese, and Chen delve more into the socio-cultural reality of Indo-Caribbean peoples, while Meiling-Jin’s poetry breaks set by diving headlong into an exploration of her Chinese identity, and what it means in a Caribbean (and now British) context. On the whole, though, the literature and art of the region has not begun to probe significantly the questions of context and place for the Chinese-Caribbean community either at home or in the ever widening diaspora.

With this in mind, Richard Fung’s videotape My Mother’s Place, which follows his earlier inquiry into his father’s life, The Way To My Father’s Village, is a most welcome incursion into the life of a Chinese woman, his mother, in the society of Trinidad and Tobago. My commenting on this tape, while I also appear in it as one of the interviewees, may seen like a rather curious view from the inside. However, since the interview was done as a separate segment of the production process, I feel myself to be only marginally involved in the process of construction. My other, more tangible insider’s claim, is that I share the artist’s Trinidadian background.

Fung’s definition of the ‘place’ his mother inhabits is approached tentatively, with something of respect for the tacit boundaries of ancestral life in which an intrusive ‘Western’ attitude has no claim. At the very beginning he states: “I know which questions I am not supposed to ask… I’m asking these questions of my mother but all my life I have known the answers.”

There seems to be a marked difference between this approach and the one taken in his earlier videotape, The Way To My Father’s Village, where distance was tempered, perhaps, with gender identification and subsequent possession. One might speculate that such a distance is inevitable in the mother/son dialogue as distinct from a man’s exploration of his father’s life. At any rate, the question of gender inquiry was one of the first issues which this work raised in my mind.

This is a video where images of great lyrical beauty are orchestrated along with voice, home-movie footage and an individual’s uncorroborated memory, in order to tell the story of a life. The life, though, is only in part personal biography. This is, as well, the story of ‘place’ told in a manner which transcends the island boundaries of Trinidad and Tobago. There has been an expansion of the notion of ‘place’ into a dimension which integrates the personal account (derived form specific questions posed by Fung himself), a detached primary sense of place as geographical location, and an attempt to create several parallel perspectives of its history and geography.

The video begins with an invitational drumming upon one’s childhood consciousness by the evocation of a patois lullaby. “Doh, doh pretty popo” (translated as “Sleep, sleep, pretty baby”). The song, sung by Rita Fung herself, creates an aura of nostalgia which is further underlined by the intersection of an array of photographs in varying stages of yellowness. The artist himself states, at this point, the tentative nature of his exploration of his mother’s place. One is provoked by this to wonder about the degree to which the parameters of inquiry will be cast by the artist’s own prior knowledge of his mother’s life. But the opposite view is also suggested: since the artist himself is already a part of the biographical framework, both mother and son, beginning in this pre-formulated mode, might well find themselves breaking through their own frames of self into areas of discovery for which they are unprepared. And, in fact, there does occur a spontaneous critique of this nature by Rita Fung, when she discusses her colonial education. She reminisces about her school days and in doing so, remembers that at one point she knew all the ports and bays in Scotland and all the cities in Europe. She repeats this eclectic fact, almost to herself, and then exclaims in wonderment, “When you think about it, it didn’t make sense.” Rita Fung’s comment is a striking echo of the same sentiment uttered by the radical poet Merele Collins in her post-Grenada collection Because the dawn breaks (London: Karia, 1985). In “The Lesson” (pp. 17-18), Collins writes:

Din remember
No Carib Chief
No Asante King…
Her geography
Of de Arctic Ocean
An’ de Mediterranean
She spoke of
Francis-Joseph Land
And Spitbergin
In de Arctic Ocean
Of Ireland
And de
Pharaoh islands
Belong to Denmark
De Lomen islands
An’ de islands
Of de Archipelago
In de

To his credit, however, Fung is not tempted to validate his mother’s record of her time and place by other, parallel interpretations. His chosen method is to allow her pictures of her “place,” with all of its gaps, blank spaces and unfinished sentences, to surface as a document with its particular integrity intact. His utilization of the perspective of four other women (two of Caribbean descent, one from India and one British), almost at the beginning of the video, achieves its objective of providing contrapuntal versions of reality from differing vantage points on the colonial continuum. Each woman brings a different vision, unlike his mother’s, to the shared experiences of gender and colonial history. The artist’s stated intention is to utilize these comments as “reading instructions” for the material which follows. The device is interesting, but the question of how seamlessly its understated intent merges with the overall narrative thread is by no means a settled one. On the other hand, if a dislocation of the viewer’s sensibility is desired, the effectiveness of such a device to achieve this end is equally questionable. The movement from these spliced interviews to that of points of view known and shared by people who knew his mother, is signaled by the title, “Friends.” In fact, titles and headings are employed with great effect throughout the videotape.

For the viewer with some knowledge of Trinidad and Tobago, tantalizing tidbits are offered, almost as part of the overall backdrop, without being taken further. We are told that Rita Fung is a descendent of the Atteck family, and her cousin Mona Sinkia, remarks that “(her) mother was first cousin to Sybil Atteck.” But the Trinidadian’s ardent interest in connection (artistic ones in this instance) awakened by this remark, is neither acknowledged nor indulged. Many other episodes like this remind us of the use of Rita Fung’s eye, true to its own notion of form, to shape her own sense of her “place.”

The account of the daily life of Chinese children, born into a shop keeping family in the tiny village of Moruga in the southern part of the island, is rendered in vivid detail. Rita Fung recalls lighting joss sticks as part of her father’s daily religious ritual, walking in a line with the other children to the outhouse at night all armed with sticks, and observing her mother’s horror of lizards. The verbal portrait of her father as a rigid patriarch (“He trained us, not my mother”) who would not allow his children to mix with non-Chinese children is splendid. Needless to say, in the fluid amalgam of cultures which forms part of the Trinidad picture, it was a restriction which she and her siblings ignored. Rita also recalls that even though her father was in Trinidad for over 60 or 70 years, “all his thinking was to go back to China. He always felt that his Chinese children were better than this Western-born children.”

The section of the video “Word of Mouth: Four Heirlooms” is beautifully conceived and framed. Here the storytelling tradition takes over the narrative, and the truth of what resides in memory unfolds. The two segments “Ah Pak and the Opium: and “Play Mas” are complete little vignettes on their own. Orality is the clear intention of “Word of Mouth, “ yet I found myself groping for more actual explanation and historical detail in “The Curse of the Warahuns” and “Soucouyant will get you.” The Warahuns are not placed, either by Richard or Rita Fung, into an appropriate context for the benefit of the uninitiated viewer. In actual fact, they were well known in South Trinidad as Amerindians who traded in parrots, hammocks and other goods during the early part of his century. The accompanying visual essay does not sufficiently elucidate this piece. We are allowed to rest in the knowledge that a policeman in Moruga drove the Warhuns away and their curse then drove him to ruin. Similarly, Richard himself tells us that it was only recently that he first heard a feminist interpretation of the soucouyant – the female blood-sucker with supernatural powers. Is this interpretation part of the changing dynamic of his mother’s place? What is it? This veiled hint of other existing perspectives on these phenomena must suffice though, since they do not impinge upon his mother’s conception of her “place.”

Rita Fung’s journey from the Moruga of her childhood and the Cedor village of her young married life to the well-to-do suburbs of Port-of-Spain is encapsulated in the brief and very powerful sentence: “Nobody knows you when you’re poor.” The home-movie footage interjected here, when the artist himself is a young boy, reveals lavish manicure gardens, beautiful homes and treed surroundings. The artist’s observation that this is more how his parents would have liked to live than how they actually lived, is substantiated by his mother’s halting account of her daily double chores of running the family business as well as her own household. One imagines that it is an immigrant story of thrift, hard work, long hours and sheer grit. But this is one of the blanks not really filled in. And the anguish and loneliness of her account of childbirth while her husband was in hospital in Suriname, together with the death of two family members in rapid succession, are also sketched only in outline. One concludes that perhaps these are some of the questions that the artist/son must not probe. The hidden life of the woman, however, in these areas of significance for other women, remains hidden.

Then there are charming patches, such as Dorothy Smith’s discussion of the construction of housewifely attitudes in remote parts of the world, by means of magazines such as Good Housekeeping, juxtaposed with her own private musings: “There’s this way in which femininity has an almost textual construct.” Another effective passage is the one entitled, “Shifting Ground.” Here Rita Fung begins her reminiscence by asserting that, in the Trinidad she knew, everyone knew his place and everyone was happy: the whites in their Country club, the Chinese in their Chinese Association and other races in their own social and recreational organizations. Yet, as in her memory of her own education, her comment on politics invokes the race question in a head-on confrontation. In speaking about Eric Williams, the Prime Minister of Trinidad and Tobago for the greater part of its period of self-government, she remembers: “…(h)e had a grudge too, because he was Black… he hated the whites… he went to a hotel in Bermuda and they wouldn’t give him a pillow.” After Rita gives several potent examples of injustice, Richard asks, “How could you say then that everyone was happy?” But the uncomplicated rejoinder is brief and assured: “They were happy because they couldn’t do better.”

At the end of this video, the artist constructs, through the medium of his own voice as well as through visual detail, a brief essay of generational difference and mutual tolerance which never explodes into conflict. For my part, he has not really asked the questions which he feels to be indiscreet or improper and so, there are many, many unanswered ones. But this rare picture of a Chinese woman’s life in the protean mirage that is contemporary Trinidad, is a generous addition to the unfocused picture which both Trinidadians and others discover, as they try to fix in static forms, the shifting and compulsively unfixed nature of the “place.” And it is in this respect, more than any other, that the sensitivity of the artist to the non-monolithic quality of his mother’s place is so acute. In the end, celebration becomes resolution as Richard Fung himself catalogues his constant reference to his mother for everyday clues.

”(H)ow to burn sugar, how to stir a callalloo… In this sea of whiteness, of friends, enemies and strangers, I look at her and know who I am.