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Image: Grandville, J. and Forest, E. (1839-1842). Commerce Anglais. Lithograph, asset no. 106779001. © The Trustees of the British Museum.  https://www.britishmuseum.org/collection/image/106779001. Translation: “You must buy this poison immediately. We want you to really poison yourselves, so that we will have enough tea to comfortably digest our beefsteaks!”

Artist Jack Tan has been commissioned by the Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA) and the University of Salford Art Collection to create Tale As Old As Time, a series of Bone China afternoon tea sets inspired by a 19th century tradition of British ceramics that commemorated major public disasters on functional pottery. As a contemporary iteration, this work highlights particular moments of disaster in Chinese civil rights history that tend to be overlooked in the broader Black and Asian histories as well as the official canons of Chinese history in the United Kingdom.

The tea set designs are inspired by a selection of tragic events from Chinese civil rights history in the UK over the last 200 years, notably: the Opium (or Tea) Wars (1839-60); the deported and disappeared Chinese seamen from Liverpool (late 1940s); the violent murders of takeaway workers Simon Tang (2013) and Migao Chen (2005); the mass Chinese deaths at Morecambe Bay (2004), Dover (2000) and Essex (2019); and the racialised response to the Foot & Mouth (2001) and Covid-19 (2020) epidemics.

Drawn together in this work, Tale As Old As Time makes visible a number of consistent themes and stresses experienced by the Chinese community over the years: isolation, vulnerability, rural racism, subjection to racist legislation, racial violence and murder, disposability of Chinese bodies and labour, and the association of Chineseness with disease. While these disasters do not exist in isolation from the struggles of the wider British Black and Asian communities, they draw attention to how overt and institutional racism manifests particularly for the Chinese in the UK.

The work will be activated later this year at Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art in a ‘Chinese Civil Rights Tea Party’. Acting as conversation starters, the tea sets will invite participants into a performativity of tea-drinking and discussion which investigates contradictions in British politics, law and society today.

Artist Jack Tan says:

“Very often Chinese, East and Southeast Asian communities are viewed as trouble-free and inoffensive in Britain. We are good minorities because we work hard and ‘keep ourselves to ourselves’ I’ve heard it said. But our experience of racism is no less fraught or tragic or long; it is one where this inoffensiveness or politeness becomes both how we are perceived and also the manner through which we experience discrimination.”

An element of the work will be shared on the CFCCA and the University of Salford websites on the 31st of July 2020. The final artwork will be displayed in the New Adelphi Exhibition Gallery, University of Salford at a date to be confirmed.

Zoe Dunbar, CFCCA Director, says:

“We are extremely excited to be working with Jack Tan for this co-commission with the University of Salford Art Collection. Tale As Old As Time is a pertinent and timely work that explores the struggles and civil rights of the Chinese community in the UK through the colonial history of tea culture. The activation of this work through the format of a civil rights tea party will create a space for much needed conversation, challenge and debate on wider issues of discrimination and equality.”

Lindsay Taylor, University of Salford Art Collection Curator, adds:

“When building the Collection our aim is to tell a story of now to future generations. Covid-19 has been, and indeed remains a challenging time for all, and we want to reflect a number of stories of this time within our Collection. Jack’s work will encourage audiences to consider some of the important and uncomfortable histories within the UK. The work will be a valuable addition to our Collection.”

Jack’s work will be acquired into the University of Salford Art Collection.