Qingxi is a 50-minute soundtrack inspired by an ancestral quest of DJ Sun and photographer Jasmine Lee Richardson. The project was originally commissioned in 2015 by Asia Society Texas Center (ASTC) and produced as an audio visual performance by DJ Sun and Richardson’s company, Everyday is Sunday.
This quest focused on DJ Sun’s Chinese ancestor (Soon Sam Sin), who departed in 1858 from the South of China via Macau to Suriname, South America as an indentured servant. Soon Sam Sin’s historical travels were investigated by DJ Sun and Richardson during a 10-day trip, generously funded by ASTC. The journey led to a creative impulse to develop the album “Qingxi,” named for the city in the Dongguan region of South China from which Sam Sin originated.
This uniquely derived soundtrack is composed of 7 chapters, each of which fluidly meld the real-life experiences of DJ Sun during his investigation and those imagined for his ancestor. The end product yields the fine balance of an artistic assumption and the factual documentation of an important event not only for DJ Sun, but in the wider scope of 19th century migratory patterns as well.
The sources of information regarding this history included writings and correspondences from Professors Paul Brendan Tjon Sie Fat and William Man A Hing, along with local guidance from Saint Joseph University (Macau) Professors Alvaro Barbosa and Francisco Vizeu Pinheiro.
The Qingxi region, “Deer City,” in Guangdong Province, China has historical
symbolism in Hakka culture. It’s terrain, mountainous and desolate, is one that at first
tested its inhabitants. But after discovering deer drinking from crystal clear streams
dripping out of the Yingping Mountain, the Qingxi people resettled into the low plains
and enjoyed a much more abundant existence from that point forward. Being the
assumed ancestral origin of my ancestors, Qingxi Forest is where my journey began,
following the flow and life of the streams as my ancestors may have.
It was at the foot of the mountain in Qingxi Forest where we met the Bee Keeper,
a welcoming man who accepted my journey with due and needed warmth, as if he
himself were my kin. In Chinese sociocultural lens, the bee keeper is held in high regard
as other land-workers are, their commitment to earning an income off the land embraced
as evidence of loyalty to place over all else. And while this Bee Keeper depends on the
sales of his carefully harvested honey, we departed with gifts of two large jars. And in
keeping with the familial vibe, he extended additional generosity in a shared tea
ceremony and access to his private beehive boxes.
To understand my ancestor’s steps, it became clear that we would need to
understand the ground upon which he walked. For example, in 1858, when he arrived in
Suriname from Qingxi (via Macau), that ground was steeped in strife and chaos
including the Opium War, famine, overpopulation, tribal wars, and local fighting
between Hakkas and indigenous peoples of southeast China. On top of that, the
government was extremely unstable as the Qing dynasty attempted to unsuccessfully
gain trust from the Chinese population. All of this represented a culture in a tug-of-war
transition between sudden growth and the overstretched, resistant tendrils of tightly-knit
communities often unfairly forced to adapt.
Prompted by Sinologist Tjon Sie Fat (specialist in Chinese migration to Suriname),
we began searching for historical areas that potentially dated to the time of my ancestor.
The first stop was the Hakka Towers, which led us to unexpected array of ancestral burial
commemorations. Continuing the scuffed shoes investigation, we found our way from
those burial grounds to a Hakka shopkeeper who we hoped would have insights about
the area and its ancestors. Yet, unlike the Bee Keeper, her reception was cold and
conditional upon the exchange of money for more information and further
documentation. While jarring, this seemed consistent with what we had been learning
concerning the discrepancies between land-workers and business-workers.
The more we trekked, the closer we began to feel to my ancestor, but only in the
sense that the historical context drew us more deeply into questions around his personal
situation. Why did my ancestor leave southeast China to embark on an arduous journey
to a land unseen at only age 20? How did he do this? What was the impetus to follow
through with such drastic measures like giving up his surname, his ancestry, his family,
and land? Was this voluntary? Was he co-erced? Was he duped? Was he abducted?
Was there a debt he was evading? Was it for refuge from the chaos of war?
Because Macau’s historical district is still intact, we could literally walk the paths
that my ancestor may have traversed on his way to embarkation to Suriname. Macau
would be his final Chinese “home,” as he would never seen the land again once arriving in
Suriname. Thus, a nostalgic atmosphere joined us as we, guided by Professor Francisco
Pineiro, visited significant architectural landmarks and places as they related to
activities in 1858. The vast and textural landscape was astounding, most notably the
Barracoons, where indentured servants were held; the old harbor; tea and the ceremony
of tea; opium and gambling houses; and the old Buddhist temple. We could see as well
how the European influence from it’s Portuguese grasp created a confluence of cultures.
No journey comes with security, and as we reflected on my ancestor’s mysterious
and seemingly bold movements from China to Suriname, this remains the constant
thread. Whether he knew of his destination to a plantation where he would be
indentured until he earned his freedom or whether he traveled blindly, we know that the
pulse of curiosity and the plunge of anxiety must have been in every wave of the water
upon which he sailed.
released May 24, 2016
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