“Oriental Silk” by Xiaowen Zhu


Filled with memorabilia, photos and interviews, Berlin-based artist, critic and writer Xiaowen Zhu’s bilingual book Oriental Silk documents a Chinese-American family’s migration story. Tracing Ken Wong’s family past and cultural journeys, from his parents’ childhoods in China to their eventual relocation to the US and ultimately a flourishing business, Zhu reveals the dreams, hopes and struggles of the migrants in the Chinese diaspora.

Blending literary narrative, archive materials, photographs, dialogue and history, the book sheds light on Ken Wong’s family-run silk retail business in LA, founded by Wong’s parents in the 1970s. In a few decades, the shop became so successful that it boasted VIP clientele such as Bob Blackman (costumer for Star Trek), the Hollywood industry, fashion designers and wealthy families. On the other hand, this humble family business also reflect the Chinese-American migrants’ past, and how different each generation’s experience can be. For example, Wong tells of his knowledge about his own great-grandfather’s move to America, a time when moving abroad was known as “being sold as piglets”, as the only jobs they could get in the US were “coolie labor”, and that they were “loaded onboard like cattle and shipped off to California”.’

From Zhu’s interview with Ken Wong, we learn about Wong’s family history. During the Second World War, Ken’s father was sent away for three years in Europe when communications were terrible. Ken’s mother felt completely cut off from her husband’s world:


She told me she lost count of the times she saw heaps of mangled corpses by the roadside and wondered if at any moment she’d end up there too. But for the sake of her daughter and her absent husband, she did her utmost to keep them alive in almost impossible circumstances. Survival meant peddling illegal salt: she would soak the padding of her jacket in brine and get the salt out of the village that way.


According to Wong, back then as many as one-fifth of the Chinese population in the US fought in the war. Precious records such as his father’s discharge records from the military reinforces the importance of preserving and bear witness to history.


Oriental Silk, Xiaowen Zhu, Nicky Harman (trans) (Hatje Cantz, November 2020)
Oriental Silk, Xiaowen Zhu, Nicky Harman (trans) (Hatje Cantz, November 2020)

It is difficult to imagine how that generation has survived and adapted. Through the interview, the reader can trace the earlier period of Chinese-American history and understand what that community has gone through collectively through the individual encounters:


As for my father, in his first three years of war he helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp in Germany; he was in the Sicily landings and invasion of Italy; in France, in the Normandy landings. Finally, when the war was over in 1945, he went back to America. He’d had many narrow escapes from death but the thought of his wife far away in China had made him determined to survive.


At the heart of this book are the lives of the overseas Chinese families, the distance they have traveled and the efforts they put in to setting up a new home in the US, the various gains and losses they have over time, as they build a new life in an unfamiliar country that is to become their new home. The narrative of Ken Wong and his family’s journey as a migrant will no doubt resonate with many who have moved from home to home. After gaining a PhD in computer engineering at UCLA, Ken Wong realized how hard it was to find an academic job to continue his research interest, and eventually he decided to help his father to run the family business. In fact, the idea of the silk shop came after his parents retired from two decades in the laundry business. Eventually, the shop attracted customers from the film and entertainment industry, as high quality Chinese silk became popular among the celebrities, film stars and fashion designers.
The many engaging conversations in the volume prompt reflection on the close connection that overseas Chinese maintain with their country of birth, their sense of nostalgia and ability to assimilate to a new culture, as well as the affinity with fellow huaqiao. For example, from a talk by Xiaowen Zhu and Rachel Silberstein at the Rhode Island school of design in 2016, Zhu remarked on the personal relevance of her project:


One of the main reasons why I can relate to Ken’s story is that I’m also overseas Chinese. The main difference for me, living at home or abroad, is the perception of reality. I feel like I have attained a better understanding of China since I’ve lived abroad.


Xiaowen Zhu has also made a cultural documentary based on Ken Wong’s family silk trading business.

Jennifer Wong is a Hong Kong poet now residing in London. Her books include Goldfish (Chameleon Press), Diary of a Miu Miu Salesgirl (Bitter Melon Poetry) and 回家 Letters Home (Nine Arches Press).