Text by Janelle Dubeau for Double Happiness publication

Lana Ing Gabor: Double Happiness

The Chinese character for “double happiness” was created more than a thousand years ago. Some believe that a renowned scholar invented this character to bring added happiness, prosperity, and luck to his sister’s wedding. Others believe that this character first appeared at the wedding of a gifted young scholar and the girl he loved, after she helped him complete the second part of a couplet created by the Emperor to test his mind. Composed of two identical “xi” characters joined side by side, this expression is still commonly seen today in Chinese weddings as red paper-cut decorations. For the artist Lana Ing Gabor, the symbolism behind “double happiness” is at once indicative of, and at odds with, the union of her parents in marriage, a union that fuels her artistic practice.

Furthermore, the title of the exhibition is a play on words which refers to Gabor’s dual identity. Born from the marriage of her Canadian-Chinese mother and her father of Hungarian heritage, the artist examines, notions of identity, racial imagery and cross-cultural issues via digital insertions of her image and those of her parents into Hollywood films. Carefully selected for their powerful and americanized depiction of Chinese culture as well as for their racial miscasting and portrayal of interracial relationships, these films mirrored the opinions and insecurities of the era in which they were produced.

The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1932) is the oldest of the four films featured that are digitally manipulated by Gabor. Set during China’s Civil War, this black and white film tells the story of a notorious Chinese warlord who falls in love with an American missionary. Allegedly, Capra, unable to find a Chinese actor gifted enough to play the lead role of General Yen, hired Swedish silent actor Nils Asther to do the part. This recurring Hollywood phenomenon of Yellowface, more specifically of Caucasian actors in Asian disguise, has prompted Gabor to create a series of stills where her parents play the main roles in this interracial love story. Although a Caucasian in Yellowface, Gabor’s father, still plays the role of General Yen, the American missionary is portrayed by Gabor’s mother, a Canadian-Chinese in Whiteface disguise.

Gabor also intervenes in the classic film Love is a Many-Splendored Thing (Henry King, 1955) through means of a looped video and with images of herself in several stills. The video depicts an American writer, actor William Holden, driving a car through Hong Kong with his love interest, a Eurasian doctor “passed” by Caucasian actress Jennifer Jones. Inspired by the fact that the Hong Kong streets in the scene’s background were actually added by means of green screen, Gabor replaces Jennifer’s caucasian face with archetypal Hong Kong postcard images. In the stills from the Love series, Gabor accentuates her Chinese identity with her choice of traditional dress and makeup and seductively lies in the grass next to the story’s biracial leading lady. In the Splendor series of stills from the same film, Gabor visually splits her two identities and replaces both original actors from their water scene with her Chinese and Blonde Hungarian personas. In both series the artist transforms the actual, sexually charged scenes between the interracial couple to one of ambiguity that suggests several possibilities.

Two other movies in which the artist has inserted herself to change the narrative of the film or to overlay them with her own experiences were The World of Suzie Wong (Richard Quine, 1960) and The Joy Luck Club (Wayne Wang, 1993). The former is the story of an American artist (played once again by William Holden) living in Hong Kong who falls in love with a Chinese model-prostitute. The latter is the story of four Chinese friends and their americanized daughters, who share their life stories filled with joy and great sorrow.

With the occurrence of globalization, differences between races are becoming less apparent and more individuals are involved in interracial relationships. However, Hollywood movies and even television shows today still seem to be one step back, as the main characters are usually Caucasian and there is still that feeling of token representation of a non-caucasian in a supporting role, if any. For Gabor, there is still much to explore artistically by way of inserting her own biracial self in Hollywood film to expose truths and to change the story.     

Janelle Dubeau

Currently residing in Calgary, Janelle Dubeau works full-time as the Glenbow Museum’s digitization, publishing and rights coordinator, and part-time as a freelance writer for the arts. She holds an M.A. in Museum Studies from the Université du Québec à Montréal, and a B.F.A from the University of Ottawa.