“Houseboy” Photography by Brandon Leung


Photography by Brandon Leung


We encounter history through remnants, fragments, ghosts. History is not the stories of the past, but an ongoing narrative. Whoever has past through our world and has moved into the realm of ‘history’ is not gone. They leave their marks. Look into archives and their holdings. Archival objects are kept so their narratives are (ostensibly) remembered.

But when one looks at archival photographs of Chinese houseboys, servants to well-to-do White families, does one remember houseboy Wong Foon Sing, who was abducted and tortured for a confession on the pretence that he murdered his co-worker, White, Scottish housemaid, Janet Smith? How may such documents lead us to the narratives behind them, behind their realistic, yet illusionistic veneer? How may we remember the past in the present, that the past is in the present, that the past can be (or is) the present?

My Houseboy project is partly a meditation on representation, what the photograph cannot tell, what it can and through what means. Can the documentary photograph do more than merely document, depict what is in front of the camera? Can it tell the hidden narratives it may seek to record? By using different types of photographs, through different types of representations and vision, I hope to create an increased awareness of a too easily forgotten period in our history, even though the evidence has been left behind, categorized and tucked away.

If we still have such images we can still remember these events. History is always with us, haunting us from a hidden world we have tried to forget and keep unseen. Yet its fragments continually appear in our own present realm–if only we can find ways to see them.

Further reading:

The archival photograph used: http://searcharchives.vancouver.ca/stark-family-and-cook-assembled-on-porch-of-summer-cottage-at-english-bay-2

“Saltwater City: An Illustrated History of the Chinese in Vancouver” by Paul Yee (http://www.paulyee.ca/historyDetail.php?Saltwater-City-an-Illustrated-History-of-the-Chinese-in-Vancouver-2006-1)

“The Janet Smith Bill of 1924 and the Language of Race and Nation in British Columbia” by Scott Kerwin (http://ojs.library.ubc.ca/index.php/bcstudies/article/viewFile/1488/1530)

“Artifact: House Boy Blues” by Jim Wong-Chu in Ricepaper Magazine 15.2, “Representasians”