I Am Who I Am
artist Gu Xiong
It was very early morning, and B Avenue, the main artery of Panama City’s Chinatown, seemed almost deserted. Diligent collaborators of ciudadMULTIPLEcity were moving about among sleeping buildings containing fraternal and religious societies, commercial establishments selling goods wholesale or retail, tea houses, hardware stores, restaurants, temples and apartments. They were taking advantage of the calm of those hours to hang enlarged photos of Chinese people, old and young, some pictures almost blurred, and others glossy and smiling. Each photo, with a simple inscription in three languages, traced a shadow of the fervid trajectory of the Chinese community in its battle to settle in Panamanian land and be integrated in its social fabric.
The first Chinese came in 1854. On March 30 of that year, some seven hundred Chinese workers arrived on the Isthmus of Panama on board the brigantine Sea Witch. They came to help in the construction of the railroad across the isthmus and according to the story in the Panama Herald (Saturday, April 1, 1854), they had been fortunate, since the ship had lost "only" eleven men during the voyage. Shortly after their arrival, they were sent to a camp in the middle of the humid tropical jungle, infested by wild animals, vermin, and mosquitoes. Soon Panamanians called the camp Matachín, ("Killchin") because of the great number of Chinese workers who perished there. That was the beginning of a long and painful process of integration and assimilation that Gu Xiong, a Chinese artist living in Canada, knew how to document with utmost simplicity and efficacy in his work I Am Who I Am.
By taking or borrowing photographs of different generations of Chinese, resident or born in Panama, Gu Xiong interpreted the deeply torn historical evolution of the Chinese community in Panama. He enlarged the photos and hung them in rows across the emblematic B Avenue in Chinatown, situated within the boundaries of the Historical Monumental Complex of the Ancient Quarter of Panama City. Each image carried a simple inscription written in first person that sought to point to an aspect of the sitter’s identity, linking each one with some phase of the difficult—but in the long run successful—assimilation of the Chinese in this country. From the terrible impositions (I had to change my name) to the levels of integration enjoyed at present (I am Panamanian), Gu Xiong's portraits trace the community’ stirring history; a history both collective and personal.
During the month that ciudadMULTIPLEcity lasted, Gu Xiong was able to create a wonderful daily rapport between B Avenue and the tenuous beauty of the images and their inscriptions. As if lively ghosts of the Chinese-Panamanian memory were fluttering over a faltering, stammering, present that advances by pushing and shoving, while the current of memory that made every step possible, every movement in transit to the present floats delicately above. Each phrase spoke to the passersby with extreme simplicity, poignant honesty and depth:
I built the railroad and the Canal
I had to change my name
I fought for the right to live
This is my home
I am who I am