Studio Photography and Performance: Lai Yong and Fong Get's Response to the Lie of the Colonial Situation

Ekalan Hou

Keywords: racial performance; critical mimesis; U.S. immigration; photography; Chinese diaspora

Participation: Presential

Lai Yong and Fong Get, studio photographers who worked in San Francisco during the Chinese Exclusion Era, understood the necessity of performing stereotypes––what Tina Chen and Karen Shimakawa variously call impersonation and critical mimesis––and found respite in fungibility. Lai, an export painter from Guangzhou and the first documented Chinese portrait painter and photographer in California, produced cartes-de-visite that trafficked in stereotypes of Chinese people. Looking through the metaphor of his reification––the camera––and performing the mechanical and imitative role to which he is consigned, Lai casts in relief the fabricated and detachable nature of identity, the contradictory ontological allegiances of the Chinese photographer, and the room for agency in a perpetual foreigner’s compliance with white consciousness. He co-authored The Chinese Question from a Chinese Standpoint in 1873 to reveal the U.S.’ contradictory wishes to internationalize its economy and to consolidate the nation-state as a vehicle for exercising hegemony. Lai moved back to China in 1882, the year the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed, and opened a photo studio in Shibafu where he offered portraits of Chinese people in American costumes. Nationality for Lai was a synthetic invention and commodified fetish––Chineseness in his cartes-de-visite was something to be put on and circulated according to market demands. Lai subsisted at the intersection of what Graham Huggan calls postcolonialism and postcoloniality––simultaneously working toward the dissolution of imperial epistemologies and institutional structures and toward the transnational appetite for cultural otherness. Arriving a decade after Lai, Fong Get worked in the studio of Bradley & Rulofson, who sold prints of Chinese people as racial types. He instrumentalized perceptions of Chinese Americans as interchangeable to evade immigration policies. He helped Chinese immigrants falsify the identity photographs on their certificates, and encouraged Francis Powers to include this practice of “paper substitution” in The First Born (1897). Fong twisted Chinese people’s reification into the intimacy of passing as each other and of inhabiting a shared identity that makes collective action possible.


Ekalan Hou (she/they) is a PhD candidate in the History of Art at Yale University and holds a B.A. with honors from Stanford University in Art History, English, and Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity. Her research focuses on late 19th- and early 20th-century Chinese diasporic photography, and she is interested in questions of (anti-)surveillance and racial performance as well as the imbrications of capital, identity, and transnational migrations. She has worked on the Asian American Art Initiative at the Cantor Arts Center, Constellations at SFMOMA, and Chinese Pioneers at the California Historical Society.