Kurt Tong, Combing for Ice and Jade

JTF (just the facts): Published in 2019 by Jiazazhi Press (here). Hardcover, 278 pages with 8 booklets and 1 unbound leaf. Includes reproductions of archival photos as well as photographs by the artist. With various short explanatory texts by the artist and journal entries by Mak Ngan Yuk (in English and Chinese). In an edition of 700. (Cover and spread shots below.)

Comments/Context: While it might be tempting to think that Hong Kong’s broadly accepted social tradition of domestic service must be a relic of its British colonial past, the employing of an amah (generally a mixed role of household help and nanny when children are at home) actually has roots that go much deeper. While in recent decades, most of the amahs in Hong Kong have typically been women from the Philippines, the practice of a woman declaring her independence, leaving her home, and taking a job elsewhere actually has its roots in the centuries-old silk trade of Southern China.

In pre-revolutionary China, choosing to separate from one’s family and live a life independent of men was no easy road. The generally uneducated women who took this autonomous path participated in what was called the “comb up” ceremony, and from that day forward, they would wear their hair in long braids and only wear the uniform of light tunic and dark trousers. They took a vow of chastity, relinquished their obligations to their parents (and could therefore avoid arranged marriages and other familial constraints), and were free to travel and earn their own living (typically in silk production), instead of being forced into staying within the limiting confines of the family. When the silk trade ultimately declined in the early 20th century, many left China for domestic jobs in Hong Kong.

The photographer Kurt Tong clearly has deep affection for his family’s Chinese amah, so much so that as he got older, he wanted to better understand her past and the life she had led. This photobook is a sensitive rediscovery of the life of Mak Ngan Yuk, in a sense merging Tong’s own fragmented family album reminiscences with deeper and more thorough investigation and reconstruction. In piecing her story together, he attempts to fill in the arc of a specific person important in his own life, but in the process, also defines the larger pattern of the forgotten and overlooked sisterhood of “combed up” women who made the same choices.

For families that have live-in domestic help, there can be an odd imbalance of intimacy and deliberate distance between the family and the worker. Domestic servants and nannies care for young children, shop for food, cook, clean the house, do laundry, and more generally run the household, sometimes for decades on end, and yet may be largely unknown, at least on a personal level, by those that employ them. They flit like shadows in the background, living in small rooms or servant’s quarters with few possessions, present and often dearly loved (especially by the children), but also sometimes invisible. Combing for Ice and Jade is Tong’s admirable effort to re-establish a sense of engaged attention (catalyzed by the nanny’s bout with lung cancer), but his journey to know her better turns out to be more complicated than he initially expected.

The challenge was simply the availability of visual raw material – to make a photobook, one needs photographs, and there just weren’t that many portraits of Mak anywhere. In fact, after all of Tong’s research, there turned out to be only eight pictures, each a photobooth-style headshot taken at different points in her life. In the rest of the images he found of her – from Mak herself, from his own family, from Mak’s more distant relatives – Mak is a bystander, often just out of the frame or out of focus, in attendance but not the primary subject. Only later in her life is she more visibly included in group shots of Tong’s family.

So Combing for Ice and Jade is largely an indirect photographic essay, where Tong creatively uses archival material drawn from a variety of sources, including his own photographs made recently, to tell Mak’s story. The book is broken up into two sections, to some extent separating her younger and middle age years from her later life with the artist’s family. While there is a natural forward progression, the narrative is told somewhat elliptically, with flashbacks, memories, and explanatory tangents mixed into the flow.

The design of the photobook’s cover sets the framework of the eight available portraits of Mak – empty die cut rectangles are backed by white paper, and as the viewer begins to flip the pages, more cut through pages iteratively introduce the first few pictures of Mak. Tong then uses family photos to locate Mak – in the background, on the fringes, at a distance, in a doorway, just in sight but out of the center, like a benevolent presence with a long braid and a high contrast uniform. Almost like a ghost, she hovers at birthday parties, in the park, in the kitchen and bathroom, always caring for the children, her outstretched hands ensuring they don’t fall, her face always obscured or out of focus.

To provide more historical context for the parallel possibilities for Mak’s life, Tong has included inset booklets that reproduce various Chinese women’s magazines of the period. With names like The Young Companion and Free World, they range from newsweekly-style magazines to full propaganda pamphlets, tracking the freedoms (or lack thereof) for women as the decades pass. Women are variously seen as water carriers and farm laborers, dutiful patriots and factory workers, glamorous singers and airline stewardesses, alternately upholders of tradition and modern citizens.

Mak arrived in Hong Kong in 1948 and Tong uses a series of journal entries to lay out her movements from employer to employer over the period of several decades in the 1940s, 1950s, and 1960s. Tong’s own photographs (often seen across a spread or in fold outs) provide resonant details and landscape studies of village life back in China, and the images that accompany her diaristic notes are nearly all dark scenes, the deep shadows matching the stories of struggle and hardship associated with difficult employers, poor conditions, and sleepless nights. During the dark days of the Great Leap Forward, Mak’s family was pushed to the brink of starvation, and she supported her relatives with food, clothing, and money from her wages.

In the second part of the book, there are many more images where Mak is seen in the midst of the Tong family. She plays with the kids, goes on vacation, lights sparklers on the beach, makes sure there is birthday cake for everyone, holds the family cats, and even attends the graduations of the now-grown children. In working for the Tongs for over 40 years, she has clearly become part of the family, and there are many more photographs that celebrate her. These are matched by more of Tong’s images of life back in China, where Mak’s monetary contributions to the education of nieces and nephews and to the starting of family businesses have created new layers of happiness and prosperity. Snapshots from those relatives attest to her influence from afar, and Tong’s photographs of the industrializing country reinforce the sense that time continues to flow forward, new and old in uneasy coexistence.

The photobook ends with a small insert of Mak’s possessions, and amazingly, beyond her various tunics and dark pants, she hardly has anything, aside from a comb, a back scratcher, and an aging wok – it seems she led (and continues to lead) a very simple existence and everything she earned went back to someone else. A self portrait with the artist (with her hand holding the long shutter release) seems like an apt spot to finish, as his infectious smile makes the central reason for the existence of this endearing photobook obvious – it was a labor of love.

As an integrated photobook object, Combing for Ice and Jade is full of layers and details that are smartly woven together to create Mak’s story. These disparate elements feel loose at first, but as they slowly coalesce, we start to have a better feel for the rhythms of Mak’s unusual life. In the end, her story has the ring of understated and unacknowledged heroism, especially at a time and place when it was particularly difficult for a woman to head out to find a life of her own. Tong has turned a simple family remembrance into something richer and more three-dimensional, putting a determined but warm face on a whole group of hardy women who toiled in the shadows.

Collector’s POV: Kurt Tong does not appear to have consistent gallery representation at this time. As a result, interested collectors should likely follow up with the artist directly via his website (linked in the sidebar).

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