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Yarli Allison In 1875 We Met At the Docks of Liverpool 於梨花埠遇上 2021 Image by Drew Forsyth

Blog: Exploring Liverpool's old Chinatown in Future Ages Will Wonder



Part of the Radical Ancestry season

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Exploring Liverpool's Old Chinatown

Future Ages Will Wonder is a brand new, major exhibition of works by nine UK and international artists at FACT. The exhibition is open until February 2022 and visitors are invited to explore an ‘alternative museum’ that includes a reconstruction of Liverpool’s old Chinatown and tells the stories of its lost Chinese sailors.

In the exhibition, artist Yarli Allison presents a series of works with a unique connection to Liverpool, focusing on Pitt Street, a part of the city that a multicultural mix of migrant workers, including the British Merchant Navy’s Chinese seafarers, inhabited at the turn of the 20th Century.

These communities experienced increasing racism in the 1930s and the old Chinatown they inhabited eventually disappeared after the bombings of World War II. The disappearance coincided with the sudden repatriation of Chinese seamen, who were forced to leave their British and Irish families behind.

Using oral history, interviews from the dual-heritage descendents of the seamen, census data, digital mapping and virtual reality, and working with queer performers, Allison rebuilds this lost Chinatown as a digital landscape with imagined inhabitants’ daily lives: making visible these forgotten diaspora histories.

In Cigarette Cards - Ethnic Chinese Seafarers in Britain 1900s (2021), watercolour drawings are displayed in a set of 8 lightboxes in the style of vintage cigarette cards, a popular collectable item issued by tobacco manufacturers between the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. The timeline of production and distribution of cigarette cards directly overlapped with the era of Chinese seamen in Britain, with over 50,000 recruited and relocated to the west to help power the Merchant fleet.

The men were overlooked by tobacco manufacturers who instead chose to portray other desirable people, animals and objects on the cards to attract people into purchasing cigarettes. Cigarette cards were mostly discontinued after World War II around the same time that the Chinese men were repatriated. Allison’s drawings offer a sense of closure, portraying the seamen in the style of the popular cards, whilst raising questions of how the men were perceived by the Western gaze and whether they were neglected by history and deemed undesirable in comparison to other personnel who had featured regularly on the cards.

In Dear Child, Guess What I’ve Seen Sailing (2021), a hand-written letter from a father to his child, describes what he has seen during his journeys at sea. In the final part of the letter, the father tells his child about a model shop that he has built for them and asks them to guess where it is.

The letter is displayed alongside a miniature model, Dear Child, Guess Where This Is (2021), which portrays the father’s depiction of a Chinese provision and grocery store named Low Chung. The store was located at 3 Pitt Street, in the old Liverpool Chinatown, and was a place where the father took his family and children to spend time with other members of the community.

“Growing up in British colonial Hong Kong, I learned about the port of Liverpool and how Chinese men were recruited for labour there. I knew that I had a great-great-grandmother from Britain but nobody knew how she came about.

When digging into these mysteries, I started to imagine the romantic link between these historical facts, thinking about how my great-great-ancestors met, with two heritages and working class backgrounds.”

Yarli Allison