Paper Suns / The New Gallery

Paper Suns is a painting series by Livien Yin which features fictionalized portraits of early Chinese Americans. The series is named after the history of Chinese-born “paper sons and daughters” who became American citizens by obtaining forged documents that stated they were children of already citizenized Chinese Americans. During the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1882-1943), tens of thousands of prospective migrants adopted these false identities to enter the United States as exceptions to what were the first laws that restricted immigrants on the basis of race and class. In Paper Suns, Yin expands on her historical research to imagine what “paper” identities could have looked like in spite of the pervasive limitations and resulting shame experienced by many immigrants of the time.  Sensual Chinese men and andogynous figures take center stage through Paper Suns’ vignettes of leisure. The intimately-sized guoache paintings in Paper Suns reference iconic American Realist paintings that depict contributions made by Chinese immigrants. Yin renders scenes of paper lanterns, a chop suey restaurant, and the transcontinental railroad with added details that trace the presence of ethnic minorities which converged in these contexts. Paper Suns’ larger canvas paintings utilize imagery found in photographic archives of Angel Island, American Chinatowns, and cities alonf the U.S.-Mexico border where Chinese bachelor societies formed. By repurposing imagery from Exclusion-era photographs and paintings, Yin visualizes settings for Chinese immigrants where desire, pleasure and new camaraderies set the tone.

Painting of a person wearing suspenders laying down in long grass and flowers. They are holding a box of matches in one hand and a lit match in the other hand. Hanging above them are several paper lanterns.

Paper Sun, 2021, Gouache on paper, 11.5 x 14 inches. "Paper Sun" joins the likeness of Tyrus Wong's self-portrait with the Chinese lanterns that led John Singer Sargent to paint "Carnation, Lily, Lily, Rose" in 1885.


 A painting of 2 muscular people with long braided pony tails are sitting at a restaurant table. One person is yellow and the other is purple. The yellow person is sitting on top of the table smoking a cigarette and wearing green boxer briefs. The purple figure is holding a coffee and staring at the yellow figure. The sign above the two figures says "suey", we can assume this is a chop suey restaurant.

 Suey, 2020, Gouache on peper, 13x9 inches. "Suey" stages a vignette of diners á la Tom of Finland at Chop Suey, the restaurant featured in Edward Hopper's painting of the same name.


A painting of a person who is seemingly naked with red and white body paint decorating their body. This person is holding a glass of what looks like champagne and has a long white braided ponytail. They are staring out the window looking at a landscape. They are standing in a house which features furniture such as, a suitcase with a harp standing inside it, a couch and a dresser. On the wall above the couch is a framed picture of a bison. 

The Reuinion, 2020, Gouache on paper, 14 x 8 inches. "The Reunion" sets an occasion for the Chinese, Irish, African American, and Latter-day Saints raiload workers who laid the tracks connecting the Atlantic and Pacific coasts. The vignette is portrayed through the visual language of Edward Hopper, Palmer Hayden's John Henry Series, John Egan's harp, and Woody Crumbo's bison, among other references.


 A painting of two cantonese workers, themselves and their gazes are facing the viewer. The person on the right is wearing only green boxer briefs and has a long braided ponytail. The person on the right is wearing a black had with gold trim, and is also wearing blue shorts. Behind the two, there is a building in the distance with different flags flying.


 Threshold, 2021, Oil on cotton canvas, 36 x 48 inches. "Threshold" combines imagery from John Thomson's 19th century photographs of unnamed Cantonese labourers in China and of Angel Island Immigration Station in San Francisco Bay. The painting portrays a visit to Angel Island in the words of a 1907 edition of the San Francisco Chronicle, as a summer resort where newcomers "...will probably think they have struck paradise..."


A painting of a person walking down a short set of steps, they are wearing traditional Chinese streetwear. Their gaze is facing the viewer. They seem to be walking down a city street, they are walking passed part of a store sign and behind them there is a fire hydrant. The colours in this painting are washed with a bright yellow. 

Kin Gee Zapatería, 2021, Acrylic on linen canvas, 42 x 54 inches. "Kin Gee Zapatería" reimagines Arnold Genthe's early 20th century photograph of a young man who historian John Kuo Wei Tchen speculates as " of those storied rebellious women who would dress up as men to walk the streets without drawing unwanted attention." Yin visualized this likely desire by Chinese women who at the time were dew in numbers and outlawed as "lewd and immoral" by the 1875 Page Act. The basement zapatería touches on the subsequent history of Chinese communities migrating to Mexico during U.S. Exclusion Era restrictions.


A painting of 2 people sitting on the steps of stairs that lead up to what seems like a store. One figure is higher on the stairs and the other is lower on the stairs in front of the other.  Along the railing of the stairs are the large leaves of plants. Both figures are wearing white aprons. The figure higher up on the stairs is holding a cup of coffee. 

Early, 2021, Acrylic on linen canvas, 42 x 54 inches. "Early" speculates on the possibility of intimate moments that took place in cities along the U.S.-Mexico border where Chinese migrants settled due to U.S. immigration restrictions. It is shaped by the absence of stories about the Chinese men and Mexican women who married despite the era's proliferation of miscegenation laws. The scene renders what beginnings could've looked like between these Mexican women, who were called traitors to their race and nation, and the new arrivals who would not be foreign in their eyes.


Connie Zheng, For Paper Suns

Livien Yin’s Paper Suns are like joyful ghosts animated by pleasure: their own pleasure, a viewer’s pleasure, the pleasure of the brilliant artist who has rendered them into muscular, charismatic life. Like the protagonists conjured into being by Tom of Finland — a direct visual referent for Suey, the first painting in the series — Yin’s characters are extra-vital, irrepressible with desire and agency. They flirt in bars, they lounge, they sip champagne. They linger in my mind long after I have looked away; I confess that I’m tempted to write erotic stories about them.

They haunt, delightfully so. The immolations triggered by the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco turned nearly an entire city’s immigration records into ash, simultaneously erasing its Chinese residents from the official government archive and creating a space for imagined belonging in these lacunae. Absence, then, as the very ground on which a bluff of citizenship could be ratified into some fragment of reality. In some history books, “paper sons and daughters” is the name given to those Chinese men and women, boys and girls, who immigrated to the United States through non-legal filial claims. Numerous first-person and scholarly accounts of their lives (for example, in Tung Pok Chin’s memoir Paper Son) seem to emphasize the fear that animated them and kept them silent for decades, silence that would seep from one generation to the next. As if they were crafty in a melancholic and stifled sort of way, with joy or pride secondary to fear. Without diminishing the material hardships they faced, as well as the constant threat of organized violence or deportation, I wonder what these very real sons and daughters — who existed beyond the space of the page — would tell us about their lives if we were able to ask. To which aspects of their quotidian routines would they wish to give voice? Which doors would they crack open, which would they keep closed?

Yin has presented her paper suns/sons without names, but I don’t get the sense they would readily share them with us anyway. As if they might give you one name on a Saturday night and another on a Sunday morning. These sons refuse racialized emasculation and subservience; they are the stars of

their American films and fill the frames of their portraits with assurance. They don’t ask to belong, they know they do. Suey, after all, is a restaging of Edward Hopper’s “American classic” Chop Suey (1929), which I was surprised to learn from Yin was actually set in a Chinese restaurant, though we are given few clues to discern this setting. How easily American popular memory flattens and elides details that inconvenience the narrative centrality of whiteness, but herein lies also the genius of Yin’s work, which reminds us — reminds me — that history can be resuscitated, too, and seduced back into memory.

In speaking with Yin about Paper Suns, I continually found myself circling back to Saidiya Hartman’s essay “Venus in Two Acts,” wherein she enacts a close reading of the limitations of the archives of slavery as well as a speculation of the stories whose impossibility is made immanent by the very space of the archive. Hartman writes, “[by] advancing a series of speculative arguments and exploiting the capacities of the subjunctive (a grammatical mood that expresses doubts, wishes, and possibilities), in fashioning a narrative, which is based upon archival research, and by that I mean a critical reading of the archive that mimes the figurative dimensions of history, I intended both to tell an impossible story and to amplify the impossibility of its telling.” (Hartman: 11) Hartman’s method is, of course, inextricably tied to her subject matter, making it difficult to trace a direct line between

her practice of “critical fabulation” with similar practices of archive-based speculation deployed in other contexts. Yet I could not help but think of Hartman’s methodology of “critical fabulation” when encountering Yin’s work, as she potently infuses the archive with not just visual exuberance and critical imagination, but also a tender sort of attention that I would venture to call love. Yin’s paintings, with their sensuous blooms of color, announce their fabrication; they present themselves as fantasy, contemporary reincarnations of sons who have chosen anonymity, rather than being forced into it. These paper suns are born from the seams of history, the dusty silence within the gaps of the archive. And perhaps that is where they will return. But in their own time, and on their own terms. - Connie Zheng

 Livie Yin is a visual artist working in painting and sculpture. Her projects examine the imperial legacies of botanical expeditions, guano mining and the migration of Chinese laborers. Yin's sculptures serve as placeholders for the lost narratives of peoples within these histories. Her carvings reflect folk instruments whose origins remain unknown and combine motifs from little-understoof archaeological artifacts. Yin's paintings portray early Chinese immigrants at the center of sensual vignettes. She repurposes imagery from iconic American paintings and photographs-created during the Chinese Exclusion era-to imagine scenes foregrounded by leisure and pleasure. Yin recieved her BA from Reed College in 20212 and MFA from Stanford University in 2019. She is based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.

Connie Zheng is Chinese-born visual artist, writer and filmmaker based out if Oakland, California. Her multidisciplinary work primarily examines diasporic memory, ecological elegy, and divergent articulations of hope from an environmental justice perspective, with particular attention to speculative archives, moving image practices and nonlinear temporalities. She recently published a chapter in the Routledge Companion to Contemporary Art, Visual Culture, and Climate Change and is currently a PhD student in Visual Studies at the University of California - Santa Cruz.

 The New Gallery gratefully acknowledges its home on the traditional territories of the people of Treaty 7 region, including the Blackfoot Confederacy (Kainai, Piikani and Siksika, Métis Nation of Alberta Region III, Stoney Nakoda First Nation (Chiniki, Bearspaw, Wesley), and Tsuu T'ina First Nation. TNG would also like to acknowledge the many other First Nations, Métis and Inuit who have crossed this land for generations.