Minnesota photographer borrows clothes in China to explore 'Chinese-ness'

Wing Young Huie
Minnesota photographer Wing Young Huie's latest project examines the idea of "Chinese-ness."
Courtesy of Wing Young Huie

It's not every day some guy asks to try on your button-down shirt or polyester pants.

But when Minnesota photographer Wing Young Huie goes to China, people share the clothes off their backs — from migrant workers to restaurant owners.

"What I'm doing is photographing Chinese men about my age and then wearing their clothes," explained Huie. "Then I'm giving my camera to them and they photograph me."

Huie is known for large-scale exhibitions, like "Lake Street, USA" and his "University Avenue Project," for which he took thousands of portraits of area residents, documenting the diverse neighborhoods along the way.

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For his latest work, Huie focuses his camera on his own background in a series called "Chinese-ness" — an exploration of Chinese identity, one that for him has long been distant.

Wing Young Huie
In this photo, Huie dons the attire of the minister (left) at Minnesota Faith Chinese Lutheran Church in Roseville, Minn.
Courtesy of Wing Young Huie

Born in Duluth to Chinese immigrant parents, Huie grew up watching the Mary Tyler Moore Show. Years ago, he forgot the Chinese phrases he rattled off as a child.

Still, when people come to see his work, many expect the photographs to reflect his Chinese heritage. When one of his shows included everyday images of cheerleaders and Elvis enthusiasts, some gallery-goers left disappointed.

"Half of the photographs didn't have any Asian references," said Huie, 59. "It was simply an exploration of what I thought was interesting."

As a boy, Huie thought of himself as a stereotypical Minnesota kid. Like many in his predominantly white neighborhood, he viewed his Chinese parents as exotic.

"Even though I had known it all my life, I never really articulated it to myself," he said. "My true ethnocentric filter is white."

This realization was the seed for "Chinese-ness," a project that took him to his parents' homeland.

Wing Young Huie
For his "Chinese-ness" project, photographer Wing Young Huie (right) asks if he can try on others' clothing.
Courtesy of Wing Young Huie

He made his first trip to China four years ago, with support from Arts Midwest. The Minneapolis-based organization builds cultural connections through art.

Huie recently shared photos from April's China visit with the non-profit's David Fraher and Stephen Manuszak.

"It's amazing how the Chinese identity is so different in so many different places, which I think is what your exhibition is really getting at," Manuszak told him.

This project isn't about playing dress-up, Huie said. Instead, he said, it's a way to explore who he might have been had circumstances been slightly different, had his parents never left China and resettled in Duluth.

"I'm thinking about how much of anyone's identity is cultural, political, national, personal, imposed," he said.

For Huie, identity is all about perspective. In Minneapolis, the photographer is considered Chinese. In Shanghai, he's not.

"I'm from a place where inside I felt like everybody else, but from the outside I stuck out," Huie said. "Then I visit a place that is supposedly my homeland and I look like everyone, but I really feel like a foreigner."

Wing Young Huie
Wing Young Huie has spent years documenting Minnesotans from all walks of life. For his latest project, he'll be focusing on his own cultural background.
Nikki Tundel/MPR News

That dynamic, he said, is familiar to many.

People sporadically stop by Huie's Minneapolis gallery. On one wall, there's an image of the photographer donning the garments of a Chinese minister. On the other is a portrait of him as a farmer.

Visitor Lani Hanson relates to the concept of "Chinese-ness." The 30-year-old has a Caucasian European father and a Chinese mother.

"But I don't look Chinese," Hanson said. "No one can tell."

As a kid, she said, her Chinese cousins in Hawaii refused to accept her because she looked "so white."

"But when we got older they did," she said. "Their acceptance of me, from my people, did something and I feel a little bit more Chinese."

In the photo gallery, the conversation touched on the complexities of identity. What determines Chinese-ness? Is it the shape of facial features? The homeland of one's ancestors? The ability to eat sea eel with chopsticks?

"I'm collecting points of view," Huie explained. "All of the photographs, each has a different idea of 'Chinese-ness.'"