Life & Culture

A Tender Portrait of Masculinity Among Britain’s Chinese Students

Yan Wang Preston’s new series, He, is a collection of portraits of young international students in Liverpool. “That was really the question: finding out what Chinese men are like nowadays,” says the photographer

“He’s what we call in Chinese English ‘milky’. He’s still a mummy’s boy according to the sense of what a man should be,” photographer Yan Wang Preston says of a young man stood in sand dunes wearing a floral shirt. “When he was answering my questions he said, ‘yeah, I’m not very manly’, but when it came to the photographs he said, ‘actually I’ve changed my mind, I am manly, just in different ways’.”

Preston, born in China in 1976 and based in Yorkshire since 2005, has been commissioned by Open Eye Gallery and LOOK Photo Biennial 2019 to document the significant Chinese community in the city of Liverpool, focusing her large-format photography on the transient population of Chinese international students. Following her 2017 project China Dream, where she asked young girls about their daydreams and ambitions, her most recent series He started with the provocative question: ‘What makes you a man?’ Preston was aiming not only to capture a survey of responses, but to question her own values, and to describe in pictures a new form of masculinity.

“I never really was exposed to all this gender talk when living in China, and it took me many years to synchronise with what’s being talked about here; the feminist approach and the idea of negative masculinity. I started questioning myself, wondering what’s my take on it. So with all of these questions I thought perhaps it’s time to look at the other side? Notice I use the word ‘other’. I think that was really the question: finding out what Chinese men are like nowadays.

“All of them expressed a common idea of what a man should be: a man should be someone who can be responsible for their family and for their society. That is a very Confucian way of thinking. I think that on the larger scale it’s quite positive, but for example one person said to me: ‘when I say that a man should be responsible I am aware that there is a hierarchy and I think that women are less responsible.’

“I see myself as a landscape photographer. I wanted a setting that was open enough to have a range of potential meanings to enrich the picture. There are many different beaches but this one is next to Crosby Beach, with the famous Antony Gormley sculptures. If you venture slightly north, towards Blackpool, the beach changes – it’s no longer sandy, it’s covered by fragments of old buildings, and it’s full of polished brick. You can’t really tell if it’s decay or nature.

“There’s a picture of one guy sitting on some kind of old fishing net. I remember the moment: he was very nervous, very tense, it was very cold and wet, and he sat on that net – I see it as a woman’s hair – and it struck me. I was looking at him through my viewfinder and he looked almost like a statue, he was so tender, he looked at the camera very, very sincerely. It has a beautiful formal quality with the curve of his body and the curve of the net on the beach. That one is actually my favourite picture in the series – I will always remember that moment.

“I realised I was looking at them as the ‘other’. I have a husband, I’ve had boyfriends, I’ve lived in a world full of men but I never became aware that I always looked at men as the other. How do you portray the other? I traced all the way back, I thought my initial question was forced anyway; ‘what makes you a man?’ Why did I even ask that? Was I trying to give a definition of what man should be like? Clearly that was somewhere in my mind.”

He by Yan Wang Preston debuted as part of the LOOK Photo Biennial, Liverpool. The series is at Open Eye Gallery until December 21, 2019.