AAt the center of Kurt Tong Cher Franklin’s elaborate visual tale is a doomed love story that’s also a ghost story. It traces the intertwined lives of Franklin Lung, a man who rose from poor beginnings to being part of Hong Kong’s social elite in the 1940s, and a young woman known only as Dongyu, the daughter of a high ranking Chinese general.
They met, fell in love, but soon after their engagement, Dongyu was one of thousands of refugees fleeing the Chinese Communist Army aboard the SS Kiangya when he collided with a former Japanese marine mine. “Their love affair should have ended in this terrible tragedy,” says Tong, “but it continued after his death because Franklin agreed to a“ ghost marriage, ”an elaborate traditional ceremony in which he became eternally married to Dongyu in the spirit world. ”
Soon after, Franklin emigrated to America, settling in San Francisco, where he ran several little-known businesses before returning penniless to Hong Kong. In 1962, still in distress, he jumped into Victoria Harbor during Typhoon Wanda and was never seen again.
Tong discovered the story in 2018, when a friend of a neighbor died, leaving behind an old wooden trunk bearing a Taoist seal. Inside was a storehouse of photographs, letters, notebooks and magazines belonging to Lung, whose life story of Tong evokes the scattered clues provided by these personal effects. There are several bold, blurry and grainy black-and-white shots: one shows couples dancing around a fountain in a ballroom; another is the blurred portrait of a beautiful young woman. A small book of bible quotes on grief and loss contains pressed dried flowers. A typed letter from Lung’s sister, Noo Shan, berates him for associating with “several very undesirable type companions.” The vibe is nostalgic and melancholy, made all the more so by Tong’s still lifes and interiors – vintage dresses, a half-lit room, a shaft of human hair – all of which have a haunting stream of once-lived lives.
Dear Franklin has just won the Prix Elysée à Tong, which provides financial support to an artist to transform a project into a photo book. He describes this work in progress as “a little human story that also suggests the big picture” – which, in this case, is the tumultuous backdrop to the demise of colonialism, war, invasion and destruction. shifting. A two-page magazine from the late 1930s, just before all foreign areas of Shanghai were taken over by the Japanese, shows child soldiers training alongside photos of volunteers handing out blankets and coats to the crowd in Shanghai. As always with Tong’s work, we feel the sweep of the story in which his characters are inexorably caught.
Born in Hong Kong of Chinese descent in 1977 and educated in Britain, Tong has long explored cultural identity and belonging through multi-layered narratives that use images, texts and documents found alongside his own. photographs of interiors, objects and landscapes. Tong moved to Hong Kong in 2012 with his Scottish wife. “It wasn’t until my daughter was born 10 years ago that I connected to my Chinese roots,” he says. “I started to explore my family history – that’s really when my work fell into place. “
Dear Franklin marks a departure from his recent work, which explored his own ancestral lineage and complex cultural and family ties to China. I ask if the recent anti-government protests and the subsequent crackdown by Chinese authorities have affected his work. “With what’s going on now, it’s very divided,” he says. “There are definitely sections of the city where there is a strong resentment towards the government. For the protesters, everything associated with China is bad. As an artist, I want to distinguish between politics and country. But in the eyes of many of my friends, it is impossible.
China has featured prominently in Tong’s work to this day. For his Sweet Water series, Bitter Earth, he has traveled extensively across the country, photographing often haunting and empty landscapes with a 1980s Chinese-made analog camera. During his travels, Tong has felt a deep sense of place in the country’s remote rural landscapes, but struggled to find a deep connection to China’s increasingly consumerist urban culture. “I realized that it is today’s China and its people that I don’t understand,” he wrote on his website, “and my dream of redemption and return to a lost homeland is ultimately a failure.
The landscapes were on display alongside negatives of old family photographs of his fatherly side, which he grieved by dipping into seawater along the same route his ancestors took, and also placing them under his shoes. The rotten negatives, he said, reflected his tenuous and confused connection to his homeland.
In his 2019 book The Queen, the Chairman and I, Tong attempted to answer the question, “How Chinese am I?” By attempting to explore the ways in which Queen Victoria and Chairman Mao – symbols of colonialism and revolution respectively – shaped her family history and, by extension, her own life. His paternal grandfather had left Shanghai for Hong Kong in 1911, attracted by the stability and career prospects of a British-ruled colony. Decades later, Tong’s mother’s family fled China when Mao’s army took over. The book draws on several generations of photographs and family writings punctuated with his own images of Hong Kong, which range from familiar picturesque landscapes to faded interiors reminiscent of colonial times.
For me, Tong’s most touching series is Combing for Ice and Jade, which he describes as a “love letter” to his nanny, Mak, who worked for his family for 40 years. In her early 20s, Mak fled an arranged marriage in China, severing family ties and becoming one of the last Sept or “comb sisters” – women who underwent an elaborate traditional ritual dating back to the early 19th century in which their long braided hair was combed to mark their commitment to a life of celibacy and independence.
“I wanted her story to represent all of these determined Chinese women who are now considered pioneering feminists,” he says. The resulting book is elaborate: hand-stitched pages, excerpts, mounted Polaroid snapshots and inserts adding to the feeling that, of all his complex and ambitious endeavors, this is a true labor of love.
Tong started out as a photojournalist before growing increasingly frustrated with the limitations of form. “I’m a photographer,” he says, “but my fascination is storytelling. I see photography as a place of incredible narrative freedom because there is so much space around an image that you can fill in using your imagination and telling your own stories.
In Dear Franklin, the central figure is not a family member, but a stranger whose Tong life has happened by accident. Perhaps this is why Franklin remains an elusive presence, even though his story has an almost romantic significance and is framed by seismic events – World War II, the sinking of the SS Kiangya, the Chinese exclusionary law. . As always, Tong has discovered some fascinating contemporary artifacts that shed light on the bigger picture, including an instruction book published in the 1920s, when Shanghai was occupied by the United States and Britain. It will be used throughout the book.
“In the book,” he says, “there are letters for all situations, including one on how to offer condolences after a shipwreck, which was quite common at the time. Another provides a template for an application to borrow a grand piano for a party. They provide insight into how people of a certain class were eager to adjust to life under colonial occupation.
Tong’s imagination of an ordinary life in extraordinary times was praised by the Prix Elysée jury, who highlighted his ability to create “a new narrative from stories that already exist.” As such, dear Franklin operates on the hinterland between the real and the imaginary, skillfully tackling the ambiguous nature of photography itself. “More and more,” says Tong, “ambiguity is the essence of what I do. “