I have been working with Sheffield’s Chinese community since 2012, at that time I did a project called 游子, The Wanderers, with Chinese international students at The University of Sheffield. It was more of a multimedia project – I created a series of photos and made five short films and we had an exhibition which also included the students’ own photos, and some objects from home that they had brought with them from China, like tea, medicine, and rice cookers. That came about as I had been living in China myself and was intrigued to hear so much Mandarin being spoken on the streets when I came back to Sheffield, and to see so many more young Chinese people in the city.
During this project I decided I wanted to find out more about the more established population, the older residents who have been here for a long time, almost like another chapter to the work I’d started with the students. I had the chance to develop this work through a grant from Sheffield City Archives for a project that was funded by the Arts Council, to create new photography to go into the city’s records. I had some links already from my previous work and it was really thanks to the Chinese Community Centre and the Sheffield Chinese School that I was able to eventually meet and photograph the older residents. I first photographed the Chinese New Year celebrations in 2014 and the organisers, especially Tak Liu, also helped to put me in touch with people and so I started to build relationships that way. I also had links with the Confucius Institute as I had studied Mandarin there.
I began to photograph more at the Chinese Community Centre, during the lunch club, chairobics class, iPad class and the women’s forum, and gradually began to arrange portrait sessions with several of the older attendees. We’d spend some time talking about their lives in Sheffield, previous lives in Hong Kong and South China and experiences moving and settling in the UK, and then set up the portrait. As most people who came to the UK in the 1960s and 70s speak Cantonese, I worked with an interpreter, Donna Hamdan, who was also working in the Community Centre so was known already by most of the participants.
I am now planning to develop this work further and extend the portrait series as I think it’s more important than ever to recognise this generation, most of whom worked long hours in restaurants and takeaways to provide a better life for their children and grandchildren. Sheffield’s Chinese community is changing – the language, food and businesses are more closely linked to the mainland than ever before, and direct investment is coming into the city from Chinese companies. It’s a very interesting time to be working on a project which explores the links between our two countries, through the lens of migration, identity, and belonging.
Images courtesy Gemma Thorpe
Near and Far by Gemma Thorpe was part of the fringe exhibition at Constellations for LOOK/17.
An insight to Chinese life in Sheffield, Near and Far acknowledges the history of migration from south China and Hong Kong to South Yorkshire, while exploring how the community is changing as it caters for Chinese international students and the growing influence of the mainland.