Chien-Chi Chang has the distinction of being not only a member of Magnum Photos, widely considered the most prestigious photo agency in the world, but also of being the only the only full member of Chinese ancestry (Chang is from Taiwan, a citizen of the US).
Chang hit it big with a book called The Chain, which was comprised of black and white photographs of patients in a mental asylum in Taiwan that were physically chained together. Since then, he’s published two other books, one called I do I do I do, a book of pictures relating to marriages of which the publisher states, “These Taiwanese wedding pictures are not the celebratory nuptial norm that are the bread and butter of photographers everywhere, but rather a jaundiced look at the institution and the industry of marriage.”
Chang’s fascination with marriage continues with a book released earlier this year by Aperture titled Double Happiness, which, other than being Shanghaiist’s cancer sticks of choice, is how Chinese people wish a newlywed couple happiness and good fortune. Except this time, Chang delves into the stranger than fiction world of brokered marriages between Taiwanese men and Vietnamese women. According to the book, which contains an essay plunked randomly in its middle by Claudia Glenn-Dowling, 80,000 Taiwanese men have gotten hitched with Vietnamese women over the last decade and fully one-eighth of Taiwanese children are now born to foreign brides. The explanation of this given by a Taiwanese official in Vietnam is that Taiwanese women are too picky and too busy being career women to stay home, cook, clean and obey the whims of that most demonized member of the Chinese family, the mother-in-law. (Judging from the pictures Shanghaiist might add the less sociological and more superficial argument that some of these guys look like complete losers). The women have faced discrimination because many of them are northerners that come from regions heavily bombed with Agent Orange during the Vietnam War, which leads to birth defects. Oh yeah, and their families back home are poor and they hope through remittances to improve their lot.
These men will fork over $8,000 for the whole package — roundtrip airfare, the meetings where they select their brides, the photo shoots, the paperwork, including visas, and a money-back guarantee that if “a bride’s learning ability and personality don’t meet the standard, the groom can come back for another selection!”
Chang starts his black and white documentation of this process with the women being rounded up and sat down on the couch for the initial “winnowing” process. Some might find these pictures monotonous, because they are all essentially similar, taken from the same angle, in the same setting, but with different people. Of course, The Chain followed that format as well, so one could conclude that Chang does this on purpose — the repetition of these faces makes this almost like a movie, creating a flow of time so that you feel as if you were with the future husbands, seeing hundreds of sullen women paraded before you in the span of several hours.
The next few sections use this format as well, going through the process of securing papers for these women, cross-cultural counseling sessions with their future husbands, and finally, the “weddings”, where the couples kiss and pose in wedding attire in front of faux wedding set-ups, replete with fake champagne and a photo assistant holding up flowers underneath them.
What strikes one about these photographs is people’s expressions — there is no joy at all; the rare smiles that creep into these pages are ones of relief or embarrassment. The women are always looking down, embarrassed, perhaps, or unwilling to be there — and yet, this might be their only hope for a better life. When they get their papers, most of the pictures show the woman in the forefront while the man is slightly out of focus in the back. Alienation between people is one of the leitmotifs of Chang’s work and is never more apparent than in these images of blurry, ghostlike men hovering behind their nervous and pensive future wives.
However, the pictures that really made Shanghaiist squirm were those with the couples dressed in wedding outfits, in front of the wedding props, kissing for the camera. These are some of the most awkward kisses and moments we’ve ever seen captured on camera. Some of them superfically remind us of weird teenage puppy love kisses, craned necks and stiff, unnatural angles. In many you can feel the woman’s body recoiling as her face is forever locked in an expression of … of what, indeed? Words fail here. Think “yuck” uttered with the existential angst of a woman that will wear a price tag around her neck for the rest of her life.
Double Happiness, photographs by Chien-Chi Chang, essay by Claudia Glenn-Dowling. Aperture, April 2005.
Price: $35 USD (list price)
From Barnes & Nobles
Chang’s portfolio on the Magnum Photos site
Chang’s photographic return to his childhood home
Interview with Chien-Chi Chang