It’s been three years since Covid-19 triggered lockdowns around the world, including here in Aotearoa New Zealand. We’ve just published a collection of online comics, highlighting a multitude of experiences faced by members of the Chinese New Zealand community during this time. Here, curator Grace Gassin introduces The Pandemic Chronicles.
Talk us through these comics, and the project behind them?
The four comics we’ve lovingly brought together for this project are our attempt to shine a light on the experiences of ethnic Chinese people (of diverse cultural backgrounds) during the Covid-19 pandemic in Aotearoa New Zealand. The characters and storylines in these comics are inspired by the real-life experiences of 18 participants I interviewed between April 2020 and early 2021 for research associated with our Making Histories project.
It’s surreal to think that I first began planning it almost three years ago during the first nationwide lockdown! At that time, a lot of the focus was on China’s role in the pandemic globally and this was translating into a greater racial targeting of people who looked Chinese or East Asian. Yet somehow there still seemed to be very little activity happening in terms of talking to or documenting the experiences of people of Chinese heritage as part of Aotearoa’s history of the pandemic. It was actually a bit strange, because we were so undeniably associated with the pandemic and yet also apparently invisible in this space. I felt that it was my job to step up.
These comics don’t represent ‘typical’ or ‘representative’ Chinese New Zealand stories. Rather, they offer highlights drawn from the project interviews and subsequent conversations in what we hope is an engaging way. The comics also incorporate some of my own perspectives and those of the two talented illustrators who helped bring these stories to life, MZ (Instagram: @fufighterarts) and Chloe de la Lune (Instagram: @chloedelalune). We are all very different and I think this has been a strength in our collaboration. In our wider collections and on the Making Histories hub, you’ll also see objects and stories which highlight the experiences of other marginalised communities during the pandemic.
Why did you decide to go the creative route of commissioning comics rather than sharing the interviews more directly?
The conversations I had with the interviewees were very wide-ranging, often lasting up to two hours, during which we discussed everything from teddy bears to very personal experiences of anti-Chinese racism. The interviewees also shared a lot of personal information with me, including screenshots of posts, memes, their own private chats, and even their own crafts. In order to be able to share their stories freely, quite a few chose to remain anonymous and so, for ethical reasons, it would’ve been tricky to safely share their stories directly. Quite apart from this, we would have come up against all sorts of legal and copyright challenges if we had tried to reproduce any of the digital materials they shared, such as memes and posts, directly. These issues forced us to get creative!
Through these comics, we’ve been able to collaboratively craft four considered stories which both reflect our interviewees’ experiences and honour their privacy arrangements. Each comic conveys, in slightly different ways, the seamless interaction between our participants’ on- and offline worlds, something which would otherwise have been difficult for us to capture.
You worked with a whole range of people to create these comics. Can you give us some insight into the process?
Once the interviews were done and revisited, I had to work out the best way to share given the various issues noted above. Once we decided comics were the way to go, I recruited MZ and Chloe de la Lune to collaborate with me and the participants in bringing these stories to a wider audience.
We invited participants to be part of the creative process from the very beginning and at each stage in the development process. We also reached out to specific participants whose stories were to be especially foregrounded in a particular comic and shared early drafts with them first to ensure they were comfortable with how their stories were being told. At times, this meant some inevitable back and forth as part of the process. We then shared the drafts with the wider participant group to give them a chance to comment. All of this was fairly time-consuming as you can imagine, but as this project involved combining stories from people of diverse cultures, social backgrounds, and politics, it was vital. I’m really grateful to all those who offered comments on our various drafts and scripts, and I think these comics are stronger for it. I’m also grateful to our illustrators for their commitment, patience, and professionalism throughout.
Are there any special stories or connections with Te Papa’s objects woven into these comics?
There certainly are! The Food of the People incorporates Te Papa quite explicitly into its storyline when a character discovers their ancestor’s photographic portrait on Te Papa’s online catalogue during lockdown. This is based on the real story of project participant, Glynis Ng, who discovered her grandfather Young Sou Lum’s portrait in the collection during lockdown. At the time it was simply labelled ‘unnamed man’, as in the comic. We have since added Sou Lum’s story to his web entry and Glynis has generously donated two of his handwritten notebooks to Te Papa. These are currently being translated.
Young Sou Lum’s notebooks and portrait on Collections Online
The Worlds I Live In centres on the story of Wuhanese international student, Xinyi. It draws significantly on several interviews I conducted with international students and recent migrants from mainland China, among whom was Cat Xiao. Cat later donated this powerful protest T-shirt to the collection.
One of my favourite hidden gems is the handwritten recipe featured in The Food of the People – the recipe was quite literally traced from an actual handwritten recipe provided by an anonymous participant…the handwriting is their father’s! I felt so honoured to be trusted with taonga like that recipe, and I’ll always be moved when I look at that drawing.
What do you hope people will get out of reading these comics?
I, for one, hope these comics will speak to multiple audiences: for readers who are not Chinese, I hope they offer insight into how our unique contexts (which differ from each other as well as those of non-Chinese) have shaped our experiences of this time. I hope they also see the richness in Chinese New Zealand stories of the pandemic that aren’t solely about the trauma of interpersonal racism. Certainly, as you will see, we have not shied away from addressing racism in these comics – but we have also tried to situate these experiences alongside the many other stories we have to tell about our lives in this period of history.
Finally, my wish for fellow ethnic Chinese readers is that they will find in these pages both some comforting food for the soul and also some food for thought. We are all so different and I hope there will be opportunities in these comics for all of us to think about how our experiences may differ to those Chinese whose backgrounds and histories diverge from their own.