Crossing Cultures: The Compelling Tug of Chinese Memories on Belle Yang

Belle Yang never knew her great-grandfather, or the world he inhabited, but her father did. Yang's stories and paintings based on her parents' experiences bring a lost China to life in the US.

Belle Yang never knew her great-grandfather, or the world he inhabited, but her father did. Yang's stories and paintings based on her parents' experiences bring a lost China to life in the US. (Photo: Courtesy of Belle Yang)

Belle Yang wasn’t always graciously fascinated with her parents tales of days gone by. The family arrived in the San Francisco Bay Area when she was just 7 years old, and like many children of immigrants, Yang was eager to put the old world behind her.

“Growing up here,” she says, “I started to go my own way.”

The Yang family, early upon their arrival in San Francisco in 1967, looking a little shell-shocked.
The Yang family, early upon their arrival in San Francisco in 1967, looking a little shell-shocked. (Photo: Courtesy of Joseph Laning)

Yang is more frank in the autobiography on her web site, where she writes that she “raged” against the language, iconography, beliefs of her parents: “I wanted to run away from the Chinese universe I had been born into and launch into an American world view, free of the weight of memories.”

But after college, in her mid-20s, a relationship went sour, and her physically-abusive boyfriend became a violent stalker. Yang fled to China to escape. For three years, she toured the country and studied classical Chinese art.

A panel from Belle Yang's graphic novel Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale.
A panel from Belle Yang’s graphic novel Forget Sorrow: An Ancestral Tale. (Photo: Courtesy of Belle Yang)

Then, in 1989, the Tiananmen Square Massacre snapped her to attention. Yang watched in horror as Chinese troops fired on unarmed protesters. Yang wasn’t among the protesters, but the massacre proved to be an “a-ha” moment. She was watching something eerily similar to her own personal experience with the ex-boyfriend.

“I was watching the government silencing and mentally abusing its own citizens,” Yang says. “That hit home, and I realized that when I got home, I wanted to serve as a witness to these events.”

Back In The US, With A Different Attitude

After three years in China, Yang was ready to relate to her parents with much more intimacy. She wasn’t simply more fluent in Chinese language and art. She had traveled over the landscapes her parents had traversed when they were young.

Initially, the stories they told her were snippets of half-awakened memories – not enough detail to constitute a complete narrative. But she persevered. “I set the stories down, and it just grew,” she said.

Eventually, she published her first book, Baba: A Return to China Upon My Father’s Shoulders.

Detail from "Cat At Window," by Belle Yang. Steeped in Chinese tradition, but also evocative of Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall.
Detail from “Cat At Window,” by Belle Yang. Steeped in Chinese tradition, but also evocative of Henri Matisse and Marc Chagall. (Photo: Courtesy of Belle Yang)

Over roughly three decades, she’s published 10 illustrated books and a graphic novel.

Folksy Treatment of Dark History

For her work, Yang draws on her classic Chinese training and the influence of her father, who’s also an artist. But Yang’s art is a personal amalgamation of her travels through China and Europe. Many of her bright, folksy illustrations bring to mind Marc Chagall, famous for his dreamy depictions of Eastern European Jewish folk culture, a culture that no longer exists. That’s another parallel with the subject matter of Yang’s work.

“I fell in love with the folk art that was colorful and naïve and just playful,” she says.

There’s another way in which Yang differs. Unlike Chagall’s post-Holocaust work, more nightmarish than dreamy, Yang’s art inhabits a calm, witty space where the viewer is invited to observe the pain and sadness of China’s blood soaked 20th century from a safe distance. Some of her books are for children; some are decidedly not.

Detail from "Fishmonger" relates a story of post-Communist China, when her father returned to a village where he had many friends, only to find people too afraid to talk to him. The village children, the eyes and ears of local party officials, followed close on his heels until he left.
Detail from “Fishmonger” relates a story of Communist China, when her father returned to a village where he had many friends, only to find people too afraid to talk to him. The village children, the eyes and ears of local party officials, followed close on his heels until he left. (Photo: Courtesy of Belle Yang)

“The dark seems darker when juxtaposed by something light, bright,” Yang says. “The incongruity of humor makes the words plus pictures much bigger.”

A Mission to Keep Chinese History Alive

Gene Luen Yang of San Jose swims in similar artistic waters. He’s a graphic novelist – no relation – who has also mined his experience as a Chinese-American in illustrated books and graphic novels.

He compares Belle Yang’s work with that of Art Spiegelman, whose graphic novel Maus, about the Holocaust, is credited with helping people see graphic novels and the like as fitting places to explore tough topics.

“Maus is drawn in a way that emphasizes the personal nature of the events,” he says. “Belle’s does the exact same thing. Her art is about drawing the reader into the story.”

Detail from the cover art for "Hanna Is My Name: A Young Immigrant's Story."
Detail from the cover art for “Hanna Is My Name: A Young Immigrant’s Story.” (Photo: Courtesy of Belle Yang)

Gene Yang adds Belle Yang’s work chronicles a history lost to many Chinese-Americans, especially those who parents aren’t as open with their memories, or whose Chinese language skills make it difficult to grasp the subtleties.

“Chinese history always feels new to me,” he says. “We are so familiar with European history, that the history of any other country, including the country our ancestors came from feels foreign and now.” Yang’s work, he says, “is bringing something to me that ought to be familiar with me but isn’t.”

A Few More Stories to Collect and Retell

Now 56 years old, Belle still lives with her parents. Yang’s dad is 88. Her mom is 84, and because Laning sleepwalks, Belle sleeps in the same room. Which provides yet more material for future stories because her mom also talks in her sleep.

“And she enunciates so clearly! She speaks Japanese, she speaks Mandarin Chinese, and also Fujianese, which is a dialect in Taiwan. She has conversations with her mother at times. I don’t know what that will become, but it could be an interesting project,” Yang said.

You can see for yourself at the de Saisset Museum at Santa Clara University, which is hosting an exhibition of her work through December 4, 2016.

Author

Rachael Myrow

Rachael Myrow is KQED's South Bay arts reporter, covering arts and culture in San Mateo, Santa Clara and Santa Cruz Counties. She also guest hosts for  The California Report and Forum, files stories for NPR and hosts a podcast called Love in the Digital Age.

Her passion for public radio was born as an undergrad at the University of California at Berkeley, writing movie reviews for KALX-FM. After finishing one degree in English, she got another in journalism, landed a job at Marketplace in Los Angeles, and another at KPCC, before returning to the Bay Area to work at KQED.

She spent more than seven years hosting The California Report, and over the past 20 years has won a Peabody and three Edward R. Murrow Awards (one for covering the MTA Strike, her first assignment as a full-time reporter in 2000 as well as numerous other honors including from the Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television News Directors Association and the LA Press Club.
Follow @rachaelmyrow

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