a new zine is exploring melbourne’s asian youth culture
Photographer Clair Bai is unravelling the pride, identity and alienation of being young and Asian in Australia.
When Clair Bai was 10, she and her family moved to Australia from China. Settling in Melbourne, the future photographer was immediately struck by the city's unique cultural fingerprint, and the 200 cultures it homed. But as she entered her teens, her experiences of the city's multiculturalism became less idealised.
Through high school, experiences with racism and intolerance acted as catalysts for an identity crisis of sorts. Less than a decade after leaving, she began to actively disguise her Chinese background. Masking her identity with hair dye, make up, a new accent and a fresh crop of very white friends Clair tried to remake herself in another's image. But ultimately this self-imposed cultural exile only left her feeling more alienated.
She knew she needed a different approach, so rather than divorce herself from the past she decided to explore it. Researching Chinese art and culture in her final year of school, she began reconnecting to her heritage and ultimately developed a sense of peace and pride in asserting her identity. Now in an upcoming photo project, she's once again using art to engage with race and racism. The publication is a photographic exploration of Melbourne's diverse Asian youth culture, she hopes it will help challenge stereotypes around Asian young people. Alongside the following pictures are profiles of her subjects where they too discuss how growing up and pushing past discrimination has made them feel powerful in their identities.
Hey Clair, tell us about what it was like arriving in Melbourne as a kid.
It so different! When I first moved to Melbourne from China I was exposed to so many different races that fascinated me. But I guess the language barrier stopped me from interacting with people and making friends, and having less friends than I did in China really bothered me. I was an extroverted young girl with no one to play with, which made me so bored.
Your photos deals quite directly with racism, is it something you faced when you arrived?
Yes. These experiences are something I can never forget. The most disgusting one was during recess in year six when this girl's mother interrupted me and my friends on the playground to discuss an incident involving her daughter. Things escalated quickly and all of a sudden she called me a chink followed by other swear words. My friends and I were so shocked that an adult actually said that to an 11-year-old.
That's awful. What kind of impact did that have on you?
As time went on, I started to be ashamed of my race and culture. I tried so hard to get rid of my accent so people wouldn't think I was an international student. I had almost no Asian friends because I wanted to be a typical white washed girl.
When people asked where I was from I would always say I was born in New Zealand, or bullshit like my dad was half Chinese. I pretended I couldn't speak Chinese, died my hair blonde, caked my face with makeup and dressed like everyone else just to blend in. I am honestly so embarrassed about that, but I'm so glad I evolved into who I am today.
Could you tell us a little more about that evolution?
I guess choosing to study theEmpress of China Wu Zetian for my detailed study in final year Chinese at school, and exploring China in 2015 made me in-tune with my culture. I also explored Chinese history through my parents, museums and books which made me feel so rewarded and peaceful.
How do you tie this all together in your work?
My photos are showing my subjects as their true selves. It showcases the beauty of appreciation and self-love, and what impact they have on each individual. I hope I can inspire people out there to be true to their identities and realise their self-worth.
Do you have any advice for kids who are going through what you did?
Don't ever let those comments bring you down: people only attack you because they don't understand you. Learn to appreciate your race and culture, and always know who you truly are.
Text Alex Manatakis
Photography Clair Bai