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Tseng Kwong Chi had nothing to wear. Windows on the World, the swanky restaurant atop New York City’s World Trade Center, had a coat and tie dress code. Tseng didn’t own either. 

His parents were visiting him and his sister Muna in their new home. The only outfit that would fit the bill was a Zhongshan suit he had thrifted in Montreal. It would have to do.

What Tseng and his parents did not expect were the reactions to the Zhongshan suit, a style commonly associated with Mao Zedong. Restaurant staff greeted Tseng as if he were a visiting dignitary. They seated the family at the best table.

So was born Tseng’s visionary series East Meets West. For around a decade beginning in 1979, Tseng traveled across the United States (and eventually beyond) and took more than 100 self-portraits wearing the suit in front of national landmarks. His stops ranged from the California’s Hollywood sign and Disneyland to DC’s Lincoln Memorial and the US Capitol. It was part performance and part photography project—the moment he dressed up, Westerners perceived him differently, often stereotyping, questioning, and racially profiling him.

The Ambiguous Ambassador

Tseng’s parents were shocked to see their son in a Zhongshan suit. Mao was the leader of China’s Communist Party, which Tseng’s father had fought against in the Chinese National Army. After the party took control of mainland China in 1949, Tseng’s family fled Shanghai for Hong Kong. They moved again to Vancouver, Canada, when Tseng was 16.

But seeing how Americans responded to his suit sparked Tseng’s idea. He had been thinking about the connection between the United States and the People’s Republic of China since 1972, when Richard Nixon became the first sitting US president to visit the country. Nixon’s trip was part of an American effort to establish a relationship with China, but Tseng felt that it had never been realized. “A real exchange was supposed to take place between the East and the West, however, the relations remained official and superficial.”

Now living in the United States, Tseng decided that he could act as an “ambiguous” cultural ambassador and find out “what Americans worship in their country.”

Tseng Kwong Chi, New York, New York, 1979, printed 2008, gelatin silver print, Alfred H. Moses and Fern M. Schad Fund and Gift of Funds from Renee Harbers Liddell, 2023.12.3

Tseng started on the East Coast. His first photo for East Meets West is set in Provincetown, Massachusetts. He stands in front of a beach house wearing the suit along with reflective sunglasses. This accessory, which became a signature for the series, allowed him to be anonymous while also lending the photographs what he described as a “surrealistic quality.”

Returning to New York City, Tseng began to visit monuments that he felt Americans were drawn to “because they represent past or present glories, and power.” In New York, that included the Brooklyn Bridge. A 1979 photograph captures him midair, jumping with his mouth open and arms extended. His right hand holds the cable shutter release that he squeezed to take the picture. His joyful expression is unexpected for a person otherwise meant to look like a government official.

In other images from New York, Tseng is more serious. He looks reserved standing in front of the Statue of Liberty, World Trade Center, and Empire State Building. A new accessory appears—a visitor badge. The card reminds us that he’s an outsider, a visitor. We imagine that someone required this touring Chinese official to wear a badge for the duration of their time in the country.

That same year, the ambiguous ambassador traveled across the country to California. There, he took pictures in front of San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge; outside the gates of Los Angeles’s Paramount Pictures; and next to Mickey, Goofy, and Donald Duck at Anaheim’s Disneyland.

On his way, Tseng made stops at the Old Statehouse in Little Rock, Arkansas, and Elvis’s home, Graceland, in Memphis, Tennessee.

In one photograph from the time, the ambassador stands in a field filled with cotton in Tennessee. Given that cotton farming famously drove the demand for slave labor in the 18th and 19th centuries, Tseng’s choice of location may be a commentary on how tourists, or Americans, romanticize and whitewash history.

A Chance Meeting with Keith Haring

At some point in 1979, Tseng was walking down the street in New York when he caught the eye of artist Keith Haring. Haring had also moved to New York City in 1978. The two became friends and joined a community of artists active in the city, including the likes of Jean-Michel Basquiat. Tseng photographed Haring’s early subway drawings, making rare records of those short-lived artworks. Eventually Tseng became Haring’s official photographer, traveling around the world with him as his fame grew.

Tseng Kwong Chi, Washington, DC (E25v1.36), 1981, gelatin silver print, Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund and Gift of Funds from Gregory and Aline Gooding, 2023.12.1

While photographing Haring and working on other projects, Tseng continued his East Meets West series. In 1981, he visited a city that would be an expected stop for any foreign dignitary—Washington, DC.

In one photo he poses at night in front of the illuminated Capitol. His head is aligned with the building’s central dome. His eyes (he’s not wearing sunglasses) seem to look toward the Freedom sculpture on top of the dome. Without more context, we’re left to fill in the blanks, imagining that this fictional Chinese dignitary only had time for an evening monument tour after his official duties.

At the time, congressional members associated with a growing anti-gay movement were using homophobic messages to advocate against gay rights. Tseng and many of his friends were openly gay and the photographer was very aware of politicians anti-gay sentiments—he even invited some of the Christian Moral Majority movement to pose for portraits in another series. Is he still playing the role of the ambiguous ambassador here, or does this photograph come from a more personal place?

In another image, we see Tseng from behind with his hands clasped against his back as he looks up at the statue of Abraham Lincoln in the Lincoln Memorial. It is one of only a handful of photographs in which Tseng is not facing the camera.

Tseng Kwong Chi, Niagara Falls, New York, 1984, printed 2022, gelatin silver print, Gift of Funds from the Kend Family Fund and Pepita Milmore Memorial Fund, 2023.12.2

The Trip Comes to an End

Tseng expanded his visits to include America’s natural landmarks. A 1984 photograph shows a frothing Niagara Falls behind him. Considered the country’s greatest natural wonder, the waterfalls have captivated artists for centuries and are very popular with tourists. Tseng placed himself at the center of the image, captured in focus, while the falls are blurry in the distance. The ambiguous ambassador is more concerned in documenting proof that he visited the falls rather than directly experience its majesty.

In other images he is sitting on the edge of the Grand Canyon or on a horse in Monument Valley. He visits Mount Rushmore, of course.

Eventually the ambiguous ambassador’s business took him to Florida’s Cape Canaveral. There he shakes hands with an astronaut in front of a spacecraft marked “United States.” Now working with an assistant, Tseng didn’t need the cable release cord anymore. The ambiguous ambassador was no longer taking selfies for a personal scrapbook—the photographs now looked more official.

Tseng Kwong Chi, Cape Canaveral, Florida, 1985, printed 1996, gelatin silver print, Gift of Funds from Renee Harbers Liddell, 2023.12.4

Tseng continued the series for several more years. Traveling with Haring allowed him to expand the ambiguous ambassador’s destinations to Europe and South America. Who knows where he would have traveled next? But in March 1990, Tseng Kwong Chi died of complications related to AIDS. Haring had died from the same illness just a few weeks before.

Tseng’s 20,000-plus photographs of Haring overshadowed his own project. Only decades later would East Meets West be widely recognized for exploring enduring questions about identity. Dressed as a distant outsider, Tseng visited and subtly questioned the physical landmarks and cultural touchpoints we choose to define our country. The creative achievements, scientific advancements, natural wonders.

Look back at the photographs and you’ll notice that Tseng Kwong Chi’s character is not dwarfed by the grand or impressive places he visits. The ambiguous ambassador may be the outsider, but Tseng positions the camera to emphasize his presence.

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May 22, 2023