The Coalescence of Identities on Multiple Axes: Dorcas Tang's "Los Paisanos del Puerto" Photography Exhibit

Photo of Tang by Laurence Kesterson

Photo of Tang by Laurence Kesterson

Every artist wants to tell a story through their work, and that is no different when it comes to Dorcas Tang ‘19. Dorcas is a third generation Chinese Malaysian, soon to graduate with a degree in Studio Art and a double minor in Spanish and Educational Studies. Dorcas loves photos—old photos, I might add—to the point that she will unabashedly ask to sift through your family albums. “When I was younger, I would literally go onto these photography websites, instead of Facebook or something, to procrastinate,” she said. “TIME has something called Lightbox and I remember scrolling through it and looking obsessively at people’s photo projects.”

For Dorcas, “photographer” has very interesting connotations, conjuring up a figure who has an affinity to the more technical aspects of using a camera. “It’s a work in progress, but I will say I use photography as a medium to convey what I want to and to tell stories.” “Storyteller” or “visualizer” are more fitting terms to describe Dorcas at this junction in her life. She is currently telling the story Los Paisanos del Puerto: Living Narratives of the Chinese Diaspora Community in Puntarenas, Costa Rica. This story, told through a series of specially curated photos, visualizes the historical, yet often marginalized narratives of a Chinese Costa Rican community.

As children of the Chinese diaspora, Dorcas and I know very well the struggles that come along  with our multivalent identities. “I’ve always grappled with the question, am I Chinese or am I Malaysian?” she said. “I never felt sufficient enough to be both. I think that is always something us diaspora folks grapple with.” Though we come from different diasporic spheres—I am Chinese Filipino American and Dorcas is Chinese Malaysian—we both understand the importance of resisting the construction of monolithic narratives around identities. With this framework in mind, Dorcas traveled to Puntarenas, Costa Rica to not only prove a point that identities coalesce on multiple axes, but also to discover something about her own identity as a Chinese Malaysian and as an artist.

Executing a photo project like Los Paisanos del Puerto was a laborious process, spanning from research to post-production and requiring a vast amount of time for planning. “I don't think people realize exactly how much work goes into a project like this,” Dorcas said. “The inklings of it began when I was studying abroad in Costa Rica and I came across a book about anti-Chinese racism in Mexico called Chino, by Jason Oliver Chang. I was like, ‘Woah, I didn't know there were Chinese people in Mexico,’ because I had never heard of that before.” An idea was immediately born. One thing led to another, and Dorcas got in contact with academics working on research of the Chinese community in Puntarenas.

When Dorcas first stepped foot onto the coastal town of Puntarenas, she quickly organized herself so she could begin enacting her project. “My main thing was, I want to do as much as I can in as little time as possible, and so I was taking photos every single day.” Dorcas recounts the beginning of her project with much excitement, expressing a big smile as she basks in nostalgia. Yet, this project did not come without its challenges. “There was no distinction between work and play. I was getting so into the project and that my body gave in and I got sick for two days.”

“In editing, I had such a hard time trying to cut down to the photos that I wanted because I could only show fifteen photos,” Dorcas continued. “How can I represent this community in fifteen photos? I talked to so many people. I had so many interviews. I felt like it was going to be a disservice to them.”

Eventually, Dorcas did manage to choose fifteen photos for display, and these fifteen shots give a fascinating glimpse into the everyday lives of the Chinese people living in Puntarenas. Luxuriating in the mundane, Dorcas’s photos show students playing basketball, a woman twirling in a vibrant dress, a family together at the dinner table, and much more. “Narratives don’t always have to be one of struggle and bitterness; it can be about celebrating this life and this place.” These photos are not meant to replace the forgotten histories of the Chinese in Puntarenas, but they do reveal a snapshot of community life told from Dorcas’s point-of-view.

Los Paisanos del Puerto will resemble a traditional photo exhibition, but with a few twists.  “There is going to be a case full of old photos, showcasing the history of this life, and I included this element because I love old photos,” she said. “Another key component is the audio interviews, because it is really important for me that they are still the ones with the agency to tell their own stories.” Here, Dorcas is getting at the notion of the power and its relation to photography. Photos can reveal as much as they conceal, so having the photographic subjects speak on their own terms is a way to alleviate that limitation. In this way, Dorcas is using photography as a means to conduct her own social justice work.

Los Paisanos del Puerto will be exhibited in McCabe Library’s Cratsley Lounge Exhibits (2nd floor) from April 2nd to April 30th. Furthermore, Dorcas will be giving an artist talk in McCabe Library Atrium on April 18th at 4:30 p.m. Viewers should not miss the opportunity to witness the extraordinary intersection between art and activism. These photos are more than what they depict; they also reference lost histories that are only now being awakened. As Dorcas concluded, “I want them to be heard. I want them to be visibilized. I want the beauty of this community to be known to this audience.”