On Display: A Meditation on Space, Memory & the Free-Standing Home
In the year of 1996, I was an inquisitive, tomboy-looking child who loved watching Cantopop music videos on repeat and eating too many pork buns at yum-cha. I was mostly known as “Chun Yin” and my other (Westernised) name “Rainbow” laid dormant. Although it was printed on my passport, I didn't yet know or wear it. I couldn't even spell it.
I remember the day when my mum showed me a home video of my cousins in Australia. She said that we would be going there for a while. The amount of space in their home was, in my 6-year-old mind, enormous. Australia meant being able to roll around on huge carpeted floors covered in copious amounts of Lego. It meant playing in backyards bigger than my entire flat in Hong Kong. I said goodbye to my Chinese relatives on July 19, 1996, and remember getting travel sickness on the plane.
Australian houses looked different to what I had imagined. The videos I saw were mainly concerned with interior spaces. I wasn't quite prepared for the impressiveness of tree-lined streets and red-brick houses with not one but two garages. Santa had actual chimneys to climb down here. I could smell the firewood. I could see sprinklers on impeccable front lawns. But it didn't feel anything like home for me.
The house is a place of retreat and a fortress where the self and the family unit can be understood as private, protected and separate. Perhaps this explains why my parents were fixated on the idea of a free-standing home. Space was a luxury in the densely-populated Hong Kong. What was once unattainable for them there was normal here. They were not rich but if the house can be posited as a projection of the self, a free-standing home was a site of performance where my family's “new life” could be enacted.
Through this skewed aspirational lens, we would often visit display homes and take family photos in their show rooms. Sometimes we would go for drives around the suburbs and take portraits in people's front yards. For a family of six, this was no subtle manoeuvre. These photos were delicately collated and put into albums, and their duplicates were mailed to my relatives in Hong Kong who also ogled the double garages, chimneys and neat lawns.
Over the years as I imagined myself to be increasingly Australian–whatever that actually means–my parents were slowly saving up to buy their “dream house”. By the time my Cantonese accent had been subsumed by an Australian one (I had finally mastered the “th” phoneme) we moved into a modest three-bedroom dwelling. While it's easy to sometimes reinvent or erase your roots, I'm glad that my family house looks nothing like a model home inside and those old photo albums are still on display.