In a mosaic of cultural vignettes, Dutch-Chinese-Malaysian multidisciplinary artist Yin Yin Wong recently presented their first Malaysian solo art exhibition at Wei-Ling Gallery, titled Letters from Lalalam. Wong offered a close examination of the realities and everyday lives that underpin the Asian service industry. The exhibition title alludes to the colloquial pronunciation of Rotterdam by the Chinese diaspora in the Netherlands, where Wong is based. Rotterdam harbours the largest population of East and Southeast Asian immigrants.
Wong’s practice spans various mediums, including film, sculpture, drawing, and site-specific installations. Using the auto-ethnographic approach, Wong dissects into the barriers and prevailing frameworks that shape the overlooked minorities and the values they inhabit. Having previously worked as a graphic designer and art director, they focus on democratising access to visual structures through the publication of artist books and the curation of public programmes and presentations. Presently, Wong is researching potential connections between their modernist graphic design education and their Chinese-Malaysian diasporic upbringing. Wong’s recent work has been exhibited at prominent venues such as A Tale of a Tub in Rotterdam, Framer Framed in Amsterdam, and has been featured in the Singapore Biennale ’22 and Venice Biennale ’22.
In 1977, Wong’s parents undertook an expedition from Malaysia to the Netherlands in pursuit of a better life. There, they established their own eatery called Chong Kee (松记), a namesake paying homage to Wong’s father, where they diligently served the local community for more than a decade. While Wong’s mother continued to contribute to the service industry, Wong’s father became estranged following the restaurant’s closure. Growing up within a familial enterprise, Wong witnessed first-hand the challenges of their parents’ arduous labour, enduring long hours that took a toll on their bodies. This plight, often concealed and underappreciated in the communal framework of Dutch society, served as a poignant study in Wong’s artistic practice. Through their work, Wong delved into themes of marginalisation prevalent in the emigration of Southeast Asians. These are manifested in public spaces, predominantly through service-oriented premises in the West, encompassing restaurants, massage parlours, adult entertainment and nail salons, among many others. In questioning the commodification of one’s own culture for consumption by others, Wong seeks to shed light on the complex dynamics embedded in these pooled dialogues.
In their sculpture series, Wong addressed the challenges faced by these immigrants by exploring the visual terminology of shop fonts and their diverse use of jargon. The signage of these shops and services in Rotterdam often displays auspicious words and images, often implying good fortune and promising futures. These messages are etched on weathered lightboxes, articulated through cracked vinyl and inactive neon characters. Wong perceived these expressions as oxymorons. Remembering Pinetrees is a composition piece tracing back to 2021 when Wong, driven by a quest for linguistic proficiency, hired a private tutor to learn Chinese reading and writing. The pivotal moment occurred as they deciphered the characters embellishing the facade of their family’s restaurant. Through literal translation and interpretation by a non-native Chinese reader, the characters are revealed as ‘Pinetree’ and ‘To Remember’. This revelation sparked a connection within Wong, prompting them to perceive commonplace signs as a poetic summons to recall an unsung landscape, or, perhaps, to remember a man whose presence now solely resides in signage.
Holaan Travel Service cleverly engages with the words ‘Holaan’ and ‘lotus’, both commencing with the character Hé (荷). This piece is rooted in a poignant metaphor shared by Wong’s mother. She cautioned against picking lotus flowers in the wild, emphasising their proximity to quicksand, where plucking them might lead to becoming stuck and drowning. Wong decoded this caution as a symbolic reflection of the daring leap taken by their parents and fellow immigrants, venturing to the West in hopes of enhancing their circumstances. Lucky Star depicts the stark reality faced by numerous Southeast Asian women in the Dutch community––engaging in physically demanding labour on others’ bodies as a means of survival. Wong acknowledged these spaces from an exterior point of view, having never ventured inside, but fully aware that many of them serve as venues for illegal adult services. These shops often feature closed blinds with bold and direct words in red or black.
Abbreviations like Kant, Chin, Spec, and Rest are frequently utilised in restaurant signage across the Netherlands––they serve as concise indicators of the specific cuisines and specialities offered. Generally, these abbreviated terms are arranged based on the local immigrant population and culinary preferences, aiming to cater to a diverse clientele. It’s not uncommon in Rotterdam for Chinese restaurants to diversify their menu by incorporating recipes from other cuisines such as Ind (Indonesian), Sur (Surinamese), and Jav (Javanese). On the reverse side of KANT. REST., it showed an image of a man in a kitchen presenting a suckling pig, deliberately omitting his eyes. With this, Wong questioned whether the term ‘speciality’ refers to the dish itself or the individual preparing it. During the inauguration of Wong’s family restaurant in 1994, a traditional lion dance occurred, denoting good luck and the expulsion of malevolent spirits. The restaurant flourished for a decade before familial discord and upheaval eventually disrupted its operations, leading to the closure of the business. Wong’s Exit piece merges the mythical presence of the lion dance, marked by its silent roar, with the commonplace element of an exit sign––a safety bit that’s mandatory across the Netherlands. This fusion encapsulated both mystical and mundane aspects associated with the life cycle of a family restaurant.
From late 2021 to early 2023, Wong embarked on a project to create a self-portrait every day, resulting in a collection of more than 300 self-portraits. The 24 drawings presented at Wei-Ling Gallery marked the first public exhibition of this series. What initially began as a meditative practice and a return to drawing gradually transformed into a tour of self-perception. Growing up in the Netherlands, Wong faced a lack of representation for queers, gender non-conforming, and Asian individuals like themselves. Consequently, they lived much of their life vicariously through the icons of art historical canon, the protagonists in the stories they consumed, and the beauty standards dictated by a primarily straight, white and male perspective. Through self-reflection, Wong endeavours to find belonging within the confines of their own body. In Lotus Flowers, Wong enlisted their mother’s guidance in the art of folding lotus flower napkins, reminiscent of the ones decorating the tables in their family restaurant. Amid this short film, they talked about the varied connotations associated with the lotus flower and looked back on their time at Choong Kee (松记).
Wei-Ling Gallery is located at 8 Jalan Scott, Brickfields 50470 in Kuala Lumpur and operates on an appointment-only basis. The gallery opens its doors from Tuesday to Friday between 10am and 6pm, and on Saturdays from 10am to 5pm. For inquiries, appointments, and information on upcoming exhibitions, interested individuals are encouraged to contact the gallery directly.