Haitian Ma


November 28, 2023

Gathering in the Drift

Keywords: Diaspora, Gathering, Moving Image, Glitches, Intimacy, Collective

Pushing open the graffiti-covered front door of OT301, the audience were at a loss with the long hall of the old Film Academy building. It was ten minutes before the screening  Rebinding Home: Family in the Diaspora by the Miao (渺) Collective established by Yirou Xu,  Audrey Jiang and Yiran Zhao. After some orientation into the space, a few of us walked up the  winding staircase. Others hesitantly followed. There was an unspoken, quite ‘diasporic’ bond on our way to the cinema on the top floor.  

Yirou was still doing soundcheck with the cinema staff. Anxiety started to grow a bit on her. It  is, after all, Miao’s first screening. With its name alluding to the insignificant, the boundless and  the intangible in Chinese, the collective hopes to focus on people and lives in motion, with the  moving image as their witness. The first event featured two films Welcome Back, Farewell (Marcos Yoshi, 2021) and Papaya (Dédé Chen, 2022), both recounting the filmmakers’  reconciliations of being in diaspora.  

Such reconciliations are, on the one hand, lonely tasks, partly because each and every diasporic identity is anchored in its own time, space and the positioning of the subjects themselves. The Jamaican-British sociologist Stuart Hall defines diaspora as “the recognition of a necessary heterogeneity and diversity”; Chicana feminist scholar Gloria Anzalduá compares it to the condition of a Borderland– “a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural boundary”; Chinese-American novelist Ha Jin talks about the desire to arrive somewhere and in the meanwhile needing to “become our own monuments” between two cultures and languages.1 A sense of irreplicable singularity permeates the experience of diaspora by those who write about and theorise the term itself. 

Yet on the other hand, there remains the innate thrust of binding to one another, of finding a shared language to articulate these experiences together, for all their singularities. Austrian literary scholar Monika Fluderik, in her writing on multiculturalism, comments on Vijay Mishra’s evocative use of the term ‘diasporic imaginary’ as describing “a landscape of dream and fantasy that answers to their [the diasporic subjects’] desires.”2 For the programmers of Miao, the motif of home constitutes one such locus of binding. It offers a soft ground for the diasporic subject to unleash their vulnerabilities and loneliness. The emotional register of home lends power to open up and work through memories of (in)voluntary displacement. 

I still remember the first time Yirou told me about the desire to screen Welcome Back, Farewell last winter. In search of better opportunities in Japan, the parents of Marcos (the director) left him and his two sisters at a young age in São Paulo, only coming back 13 years later. Upon their return, Marcos used the camera as a way of getting to know his parents again. Images captured on screen range from his father’s pinky finger when drinking wine, his mother’s tranquil recollection of  their decision to leave Brazil, and the occasional outburst of tensions that were otherwise unsaid. “I feel everyone can resonate—the complex relationship with our own parents, the failure of reaching a resolution with each other, oftentimes precisely out of love,” said Yirou. 

What bound Papaya—an experimental short by Dédé Chen—to the programme, was a similar resort to the first-person as the prism of the collective diasporic past. Starting from 1979, the one-child policy in China for birth planning caused increasing numbers of abandoned children–primarily girls–in orphanages. In the 1990s, the Chinese government made use of international adoption as a way of releasing the burdens on orphanage institutions. Overshadowed by the nation’s buoying rhetoric of entering the market economy and joining globalisation, this wave of displacement remains untold until this day. Were one to recount this history from the here and now, however, from whose perspective shall it be told, and at what scale?  

As a Sino-Canadian adoptée undergoing the experience of incest, Dédé used her art to resist the reiteration of institutional violence that discounts her personal memories. The individual experience here, constitutes the surrogate for a shared history, both as its embodiment and an occasion of enacting history otherwise. Dédé aspired to create something reparative, to foster an intimate space to breathe through the collectivist past. She resorted to the performative arena of dance and theatrical spectacle. Performance, writes American historian Joseph Roach, is centred around “the pleasures and torments of incomplete forgetting.”3 Here, one sees Dédé juxtaposing the home footage of the traditional Chinese opera with contemporary choreography to parse the trauma that lives in her work. At the same time, she uses the motif of the papaya to express female sexuality, pleasure and self-emancipation. The work exposes us to the glitches of the birth-planning machinery and its aftermath, that is, to observe a continual and powerful counterforce from the locus of the body, speaking the language of desire.

One unforeseen situation that furthered the personal touch: the screening of Welcome Back, Farewell experienced drop frames, leading to a lag in the projected moving image. The ‘unfortunate’ aspect lay in that the film is suffused with close-ups and slow movement of the camera, making the drop frames especially obvious, the characters and their bodies moving as such seen in stop-motion cartoon releases. At the same time, a vulnerable, ephemeral and intimate effect grew from the technological glitch. It was as if everything happened in a fictional world, in the delicate drawings of a faraway dream. I couldn’t help fearing that the footage would break down at some point, and with that came the realisation that memory itself is always in flux. The diasporic drift is in its full power.

The sense of intimacy continued in the Q&A afterwards. Audience questions took a personal turn, querying the directors’ own experiences when making both works. From the other end, Marcos and Dédé tried their best to catch snippets, keywords, and described their ongoing struggles without reservation. Eventually, we moved to the ground floor restaurant De Peper, where Audrey and her friends were busy preparing the meals for the participants. The miso soup was a love gift from Audrey's ex-partner from Kyoto, where the bacteria in the wooden bucket used to ferment the miso has a history of 200 years. Liv, the partner of one of the kitchen helpers, came up with the idea of adding taro to the soup, which gave it an extra creamy texture. We also had shoyu sweet eggplants and tomato mac & cheese from Marcos’ and Dédé’s home recipes. There, between the umami of the miso paste and dashi, the audience shared their personal lives, struggles, thoughts on the experience of diaspora with each other—the drifting boats in the ocean coming to a joyful encounter.

In many ways, this first-trial programming was flawed. And yet, these imperfect moments also remind us of the liveness in the here and now: we are with the programmers, the directors, the technical crew, trying to make a gathering happen. The desire to return to the collective  experience of art-making is of course not new; various research projects, art initiatives and exhibition programmes have been carried out on the topic. In the Netherlands, for instance, these can range from the stress on interdisciplinarity in academic conference calls and the debates in museum institutions on steering their curation to more diverse topics and audiences, to the emphasis on collaboration and knowledge exchange in artistic grant themes. What is sometimes missing in the discussions, however, is the way collective practices operate in the process of organising and hosting such programmes itself, which can mean working with messiness, exposing the backstage of productions, sharing the invisiblised labour put into setting up the programme in the first place. Intentionally or not, the unfolding of Re-binding Home allowed these back-end operations to be part of the audiences’ experience. The glitches and contingencies in them, to some extent, furthered the desire to share among the organizers and the participants, and took the programme to flow in multiple, unexpected directions. Dédé’s comment at the end of the Q&A found its secret echo: “to resist, we need to stop talking in the way the majority wants us to talk about.” In a way, the make-shift moments throughout the screening are one such gesture of resistance. This arduously put-together gathering holds the diasporic experience together, even just for one rainy afternoon. 


I am grateful to the entire Miao team Yirou Xu, Audrey Jiang and Yiran Zhao for sharing their programming ideas and suggestive comments with me in writing this review, and their kind provision of the event images.

[1] Stuart Hall, “Cultural Identity and Diaspora,” in Colonial Discourse and Post-colonial Theory: A Reader, edited by Patrick Williams and Laura Chrisman (Routledge, 1994), 402; Gloria Anzaldúa, “The Homeland, Aztlán/El Otro México,” Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza, 3rd. Edition (Aunt Lute Books, 2007), 25; Ha Jin, “Exiled to English,” in Sinophone Studies: A Critical Reader, edited by Shu-Mei Shih et. al. (University of California Press, 2001), 121.

[2] Monika Fludernik, “The Diasporic Imaginary: Postcolonial Reconfigurations in the Context of Multiculturalism,” in Diaspora and Multiculturalism (Brill, 2003), xiii.

[3]​ Joseph Roach, “Introduction: History, Memory, and Performance,” in Cities of the Dead: Circum-Atlantic Performance (Columbia University Press, 1996), 7.

Works Cited


Haitian Ma is a researcher, producer and note taker of ephemeral art forms. She now works as Lecturer in Television and Cross-Media culture at the University of Amsterdam. Coming from a background in literary studies and moving-image archiving, her research and writing draws comparison between the technique of translation and the conservation of live art. Haitian works with the arena of loss in documentation practices and how it opens up a different mode of remembering.

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