SHAUN TAN: Straight Talking Dreamer
Interviewing Shaun Tan is a humbling experience. An Australian who enjoys great local and international success, with an Academy Award to boot; Tan is surprisingly open to engaging with The Pin and discussing all things race, identity and culture. We spoke with Tan over the Christmas break, he apologised for having not been in touch sooner and diligently provided eleven pages worth of responses to what we now acknowledges as...a few too many questions. Here’s a snippet of that fascinating conversation.
THE PIN. You're of Chinese/Malay and Anglo Australian (Irish/English) heritage. Can we ask how your parents met?
SHAUN TAN. My dad came out to Western Australia from Penang, Malaysia to study architecture - well, originally he was on his way to Ballarat, but ended up staying in Perth for some accidental reason. This was around 1960. He later met my mum where she was working in a store that sold drafting equipment; normally she did clerical work in the back of the store, but one day had to fill in at the counter. My dad ended up buying more pens than he really needed! He eventually asked her out to a dance hosted by a club of architecture students. That was pretty much the start of their relationship, and they've been together now for fifty years I think. Their union was pretty radical at that time and place, and there was a fair amount of resistance from my mum's family at first. Not entirely racism (though certainly that was part of it, the White Australia policy in full swing), mainly it was just so strange to them. My mother's family were very close-knit, working-class English and Irish immigrants, and my dad seemed utterly alien to them, at least until they got to know him. Through shared interests such as fishing and gardening he was accepted quite quickly. My mum often says that it never occurred to her that Dad was Chinese, she just thought he was a nice guy and couldn't understand things like a wedding cake maker who refused to work for them; or the concern, often openly expressed by white Australians then, about how mixed-raced children would get on.
Did one culture dominate the household?
S. I would say Anglo-Australian culture dominated, but with a hybrid twist. For instance, we didn't speak Chinese at all, but almost all the food we ate was Chinese, cooked by my mum, taught to her by my dad. I think the fact that almost all of my dad's family was in Malaysia, and that we could rarely afford to travel to them (and vice versa) had a lot to do with that....
We also built a house in what turned out to be a very Anglo outer suburb of Perth, where there just weren't any other Chinese families around, and of course there was zero Chinese element in the education system at the time. Occasional pictures of people with pointy hats riding water buffalos! Which incidentally is what my great grandfather did in China - a water buffalo herder - so not so far from the truth.
You grew up in Perth, Western Australia, and have previously described your school as being 'overwhelmingly white'. Do you recall when and how you became aware of race?
S. Mainly through being teased by other kids, otherwise I wouldn't have thought about it. I don't think it was especially racist, and sometimes not even unfriendly, it was just a matter of convenience when it came to categorisation: a no-brainer, I was the 'ching chong'. I'd be surrounded all day by kids from a mainly English ancestry so that sometimes it would even be a kind of surprise to walk past a mirror or collect a school photo, and realise how different I looked to all my peers. Interestingly, I also felt out of place on the rare occasions I was among Chinese groups, such as at a big Chinese New Year event, visiting overseas relatives or something like that... I was so clearly more 'white' in that context, feeling a bit graceless and awkward.
Was being considered 'different' ever an issue?
S. That's an interesting question, because I think the consideration of difference comes from two directions. One is the way people treat you, but more importantly is the way you feel about yourself. And for a variety of reasons, I always felt quite different, in both negative and positive ways. A lot of this actually had to do with height: I was just so short (and continue to be pretty small) in what sometimes felt like a land of Australian giants. I was a very good athlete as a kid, for instance, but always picked last for a team because my size and Asianness presented a false illusion of weakness, and sometimes I felt quite insecure about this. It's possible I made more of an effort to be liked, or appreciated in some other aspect as a result, so I think I came to be known for being verbally quite funny and also good at drawing. Before long in any primary school class, kids stopped thinking about me as the little Asian kid, but instead as someone who could tell a good joke and draw an excellent dinosaur. I think this fact may have contributed more to my career as an artist and writer than any subsequent education!
Where did you look for role models to help establish your identity?
S. Mainly other artists and writers. I think the closest I came to meeting another writer was a high-school trip to Karrinyup Public Library (northern suburbs of Perth) to listen to Tim Winton talk about his Lockie Leonard books. Interestingly, I was reading some of his adult books at the time, and fascinated by the fact that he grew up in a local place, and looked not so different to anyone else. Funnily, I recall my English teacher finding his jeans and long ponytail 'inappropriate' as if a writer should be in a tweed suit or something, while I was thinking the exact opposite: it apparently didn't matter what an artist looked like.
Closer to home, and more directly and powerfully, my parents and older brother were my main role models. Even now, my freelance practice is based on my dad's small home studio where he worked on architectural projects. My parents are very easy-going, can-do people, building their own house, growing a lot of their own food and things like that, without much of a grand plan. The idea of inventing your own identity, rather than getting it from elsewhere, was in the air to some extent, especially in a place like Hillary’s, Perth which felt pretty devoid of either culture or identity at the time, a kind of far-flung sandy place without bearings. But also a lot of freedom, which I think is why my parents moved there in the first place (plus it was cheap back then!).
We've previously spoken with people who have said their parents encouraged them to be proud of their cultural heritage. Did your parents ever give advice or express much of an opinion on growing up biracial/bicultural?
S. You know, it didn't come up very much. We didn't very consciously see ourselves as part of bigger cultures, perhaps, or just took it for granted. When it came to racism or prejudice - a situation in which pride might be necessary - it was always made very clear to is that bigots were just ignorant. We were in turn quite critical of 'Australians', feeling a step apart, while still accepting that we were also part of the group. One thing about growing up biracial, you have a greater awareness of how truly complex and racist a place is under the surface, you have some possibly privileged insights. You come to know that the social environment, especially out in suburbia, is always a potential tinderbox. I sometimes wonder if some white Australians get a chance to really understand that, especially those that think it's okay to play with fire. I recall more than a few weird party conversations where you might have to remind people that you are in fact half-Chinese, ahem. I had a very racist aunt who just kept forgetting that my dad was Chinese! Oh, he's different, she'd say. But your doctor is also Chinese. Oh, he's different too. So you get to learn how prejudice works, and what a strange creature it is, thriving in a vacuum. Interestingly, I think we’re also critical of the Chinese and European sides to each of us, we would joke about it a lot. I guess we seemed to pick and choose the ideas and values we liked, whether it was spring rolls or Christmas trees, and ignore the rest. There seemed a certain freedom to being bicultural that way, we didn't feel committed to any set of values.
In your focus on ‘displacement and troubled belonging’ have you answered questions you or your younger self may have had?
S. The short answer to your question is that I've come to know that the idea of 'home' is quite important to me, and also family. As far as questions from my younger self go, I guess the main one would have been 'what the hell am I going to do when I grow up?', so yes, I've more or less answered that just by trying to. It feels like my occupation is that of a person who asks more questions, dressed up as funny and colourful stories. But most of them are exactly the same questions I was asking as a child. The difference may be that I now feel that finding answers are less important than the act of asking a question... maybe this is what it means to get older and wiser.
In reference to Tales from Outer Surburbia you have previously said that an ensemble of different stories can...evoke a single collective concept. Looking back on your work thus far, do you see the development of an overall collective concept? Is growing up biracial and bicultural in Australia an integral part of that narrative?
S. Yes, I would say so. It's interesting, this idea of a 'meta-story' that can be seen in the overview of an artist's work. It's probably easier for others to notice than it is for me., I'm too much 'in it' if you know what I mean. But if I do step outside the circle - particularly the rare occasions I've had to put together a broad retrospective exhibition - I can see that biculturalism is a binding theme. In and of itself, I don't think it's necessarily interesting. But being biracial, or in anyway different or tricky to easily define, is a good entry point to broader questions of existence that affect everybody. Who am I, what am I doing here and where am I going. As if the waters have to be muddied first before you can look through them and find any clarity. I'm sure this is also true of people with gender identity issues or something that risks marginalisation: the margins can be a very good place from which to observe the fiction of 'normality'. I think at the end of the day, that's what I'm really interested in, the weirdness of just existing, and the sense that everything we feel or believe may or may not be 'real' or possible to explain. And then the further question of whether that even matters, that maybe not everything benefits so much from definition, labelling and categorisation.
THE PIN. If you could give your younger self one piece of advice about being in the skin you're in, what would it be?
SHAUN TAN. I would tell him that any negativity associated with being half-Asian has more to do with Western Australia in the '70s and '80s - a very awkward, often shitty period really - and that this will change, that being mixed race will come to be a matter of positive interest in the future, and that people will even want to interview you about it! It sounds naff, but I'd just say 'be yourself' and try not to worry so much. In fact, maximise whatever it is that makes you different to other people. Every uniqueness is a valuable resource, at least potentially, and so much pressure to 'fit in' is surprisingly pointless in hindsight. It's actually very funny when I stop to think about it, that so many things that used to make me cringe have since become successful themes in my writing and illustration! It's weird how things turn out.
- This interview has been edited and condensed
Photo credit: Mike Baker