VAN May/June 2010: Are You a Spy?

Jay Koh Discusses His Dialogical Projects Ni Hao –Dia Duit And Reading The Self, Reading The Other, Which Explore Cross-Cultural Exchange Between The Local And Chinese Communities In Dublin.

Image: Jay Koh – article in the Sun Emerald, relating to ‘Ni Hao –Dia Duit’.

This article discusses some aspects of the dialogical components of my practice that are focused on the creation of trust between potential collaborators via dialogue and exchange (1). My specific focus is Ni Hao – Dia Duit (hello in Chinese and Irish) and Reading the Self, Reading the Other, cross-cultural projects concerned with identifying and building sustainable interactive channels between the local and Chinese communities around Dublin’s Parnell Street).


Ni Hao –Dia Duit (hello in Chinese and Irish) was initiated in 2007 via CityArts, Dublin with support from the Irish Youth Foundation and Dublin City Inner Partnership. The project aimed to research, identify and nurture some key sustainable ways of establishing interactive channels between the migrant and local communities around Parnell Street (2).

From my research, I found that the general behaviour of Chinese migrants is that they prefer to remain invisible and not to attract attention – basically so that they can go about doing their studies or business without hindrance. This trait can be seen as being inherited from a conditioned strategic response to living in a densely populated and competitive society and under an authoritative, scrutinizing system such as China. At the same time, as a group they desire to congregate within the comfort of the familiar (food, aesthetic, language and proximity) – resulting in the creation of ‘Chinatowns’ in whichever part of the world they migrate to.

Such inclinations and actions can create certain ‘fronts’ (3) that communicate non-verbally a message of isolation and ghettorisation. In Ireland, such behaviour may be seen by some Irish people as signs of unfriendliness, especially when augmented by the fact that many Chinese people lack the knowledge to communicate in local slang; refer to local events (sports, politics etc) or participate in Irish drinking culture.

Encounter 1

“Oh! Are you a spy?” I was confronted with this question when trying to initiate a conversation with a young Chinese man living in Dublin. The incident took place in the initial stage of the dialogical framework of practice – using everyday situations and encounters to identify potential participants for Ni Hao – Dia Duit.  Their questions probably emanated from reasoning, based on their cultural knowledge, that artists usually paint or write calligraphy; and that commercial goals are probably an important criteria of art activities. They may well also have thought that in China any artist, who acts and operates freely in public spaces, is probably assigned to do so by the state authorities. As an artist working without a commercial goal and funded by NGOs, I came to understand that what I was doing would likely appear to be a strange phenomenon, from the pragmatic cultural perspective and knowledge of this particular Chinese migrant.

Reducing uncertainty between strangers

The encounter above highlighted for me the need to establish some basic forms of acceptance between strangers, before further engagements could take place. In the methodology of my dialogical practice I utilise listening, conversing and investing time in order to reduce the uncertainty (4) between strangers during initial encounters – so that they can move forward to form relationships. In order to create social situations to facilitate this, for example in Ni Hao – Dia Duit I organized get-togethers with potential Chinese participants and Irish artists who had an interest in participating – usually in a private room of a Chinese restaurant fitted with a state-of-the-art karaoke machine, a common retreat space for the Chinese to socialise and relax among friends.

Encounter 2

Informal workshop / talk on dating. Part of Jay Koh's 'Ni Hao –Dia Duit' project

It was at one of such arranged interactions that a case of cultural misunderstanding occurred – leading to the withdrawal of one young Chinese person for the project. He felt that he was being put under scrutiny, like a specimen on display, by the barrage of questions put to him by an Irish artist participating in the project. The artist had a background in youth work, and seemed to see the dialogical process as a question and answer game – as the answers keep coming, it seemed to them that the interaction was moving along positively.

Listening & Non-verbal dialogue

Gemma Corradi Fiumara, in The Other Side of Language, criticises western philosophy for prioritising the articulation of ideas (in writing and speech) and suppressing the role of listening. If listening isn’t regarded as integral component of a dialogical exchange, the conversation is literally one-sided and authoritarian. (5)

By ‘listening’ I would also include attentiveness to non-verbal body language – the posture of the body and micro-expressions that can denote discomfort, irritation and suppression of certain feelings. Pioneering researchers, Haggard and Isaacs discovered ‘micromommentary’ expressions when researching into films recorded during psychotherapy sessions (6). I don’t mean to suggest that artists need training in psychotherapy, but they should have an awareness of the role of the non-verbal communicative within dialogical / communication based art projects.

Other forms of non-verbal dialogue that I investigate as part of my practice include the generation of meanings through interpretations and public and communal perceptions, as created by sources such as rumours and third party accounts, that would bear consequence on evolving relationships in, and the continuation of, a participative project.

Reading the Self, Reading the Others (7)

Ni Hao – Dia Duit has continued to take shape, one outcome being the formation of the Irish Chinese Cultural and Sport Association.  I continued working with collaborators from the Chinese community while also carrying out activities such as mentoring, evaluation and the mediation of art and development projects in Ireland. Ni Hao – Dia Duit, which is still ongoing, has become my longest-running project in Ireland to date.

Reading the Self, Reading the Others (RSRO) was the most recent event associated with Ni Hao – Dia Duit. I collaborated with Thomas O’Connor, whose participation in the project dates back to 2007. For this project, we encouraged the Chinese community in Ireland to submit images of themselves to be viewed and interpreted by others.

A series of articles [R1] published (November – December 2009) in the Sun Emerald, the largest Irish Chinese weekly newspaper (8) functioned as informal workshops ‘on the page’ and covered various topics such as the construction and reading of meanings through and in photographs and interactions in karaoke rooms in Chinese restaurant. These newspaper pieces served to motivate members of the Chinese community to participate in the project. Submitted images were exhibited in a photographic exhibition that became part of Dublin City Council’s 2010 Chinese New Year Festival (12 – 21 Feb. 2010, in different locations of the city). The photographs in the show portrayed the various ways in which the Chinese viewed themselves and the Irish.

Encounter 3

During its one-week exhibition run, (14 – 20 Feb. 2010, 15 West Essex St.) RSRO featured daily talks organized around various themes. In one of the talks on dating practices, a young Chinese participant responded to a question by an Irish teenager on how one would ask a Chinese girl out, by going into a long lecture on the responsibility associated with dating a Chinese girl, including a list of duties to be observed / performed (such as protecting the girl, anticipating her anxieties, fears etc), and expectations to be met before courting should begin. These sentiments were, however, not totally shared by the other Chinese present. To someone brought up in a ‘western’ cultural background, these sentiments would appear as conservative, patriarchal (a view affirmed by at least one Irish member of the audience), perhaps even overbearing and oppressive. However, for the Chinese, a foremost consideration in life – a message drummed in from a young age –  is a sense of responsibility, to one’s parents and family; one’s self or one’s country. Thus someone from a similar cultural background would likely interpret the sentiments expressed by the young Chinese man as showing responsibility; consideration and care for others – something akin to chivalry.

Intersubjective meanings as the building blocks of relationships

From this encounter we see that meanings are made based on ‘subjectivities’ in play – along with judgments based on a person’s received values, experiences and background.

In my practice, I place a great importance on giving enough time and space for positive inter-subjective meanings to form between participants. Rash judgment would foreclose the development of further engagement. For example, individuals viewpoints are not only closely linked to one’s cultural context, but also to the economic and social conditions that creates certain expediencies – such as when a Chinese female participant expressed that she is less likely to date for fun, due to the fact that she feels she has the responsibility to care and provide for her parents and siblings.


To some extent my approach can be related to the type of ‘dialogical aesthetics’ Grant Kester has set out in texts such as Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art (9), which stress a sensitivity to the role of inter-subjective meanings in creating collaborative relationships.

However when working across cultural differences – both in terms within and between cultures – there are some difficulties in relation to the application of this theory. This is due to the extent of the differences of knowledge and viewpoints internalized by an individual’s subjectivity. These differences –such as in ascribing meaning to a particular term or type of behaviour – can be revealed during the process of communicating across social and cultural groups.

In my case, I found that in order to communicate with the Chinese community in Dublin – a group who I found had no previous knowledge or experience of participation in cross-cultural art activities, that it was not sufficient for me to merely initiate conversations with them. I also had to supplement these with supportive visual and textual materials and contextual experiences. To be effective, these activities needed to build upon continuity – therefore acting as a capacity building process, producing inter-subjective meanings that would in themselves allow further inter-subjective understandings and relationships to evolve.

Overall, my art-led creative process aims to encourage participants to question their own viewpoints and subjectivities; and encourage the envisioning of alternatives and new possibilities. This experience-based process is informed by interdisciplinary (communicative and anthropological) methods and a cross-sectoral approach and not by a ‘modernist’ approach that often employs avant-garde acts of intervention and top-down communication. The interventions in my process are negotiated after an introduction to and explanation of my intentions during the initial phase of encounters.

Jay Koh


1. A longer version of this text can be read under this link

2. Parnell Street, Dublin used to be a neglected area connected to drug trade in the 90s. Migrants begin to move in attracted to the low cost infrastructure and since the mid 2005 evolved into a vibrant and unofficial Chinatown of Dublin.

3. ’Fronts’, is a sociological term coined by Goffman, Erving reprint 1990. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. Penguin Books (Chapter 1: Performances) to denote the everyday performance put forth by individual and group to create meanings for the others

4. Uncertainty Reduction Theory is put forth by Berger, C.R. And Calabrese, R.J. to deconstruct the communication stage of the initial socialization process between strangers.

5. Gemma Corradi Fiumara, The Other Side of Language: A Philosophy of Language, translated by Charles Lambert (London: Routledge, 1990), p.9, 23, 26.

6. Haggard, E. A., & Isaacs, K. S. (1966). Micro-momentary facial expressions as indicators of ego mechanisms in psychotherapy. In L. A. Gottschalk & A. H. Auerbach (Eds.), Methods of Research in Psychotherapy (pp. 154-165). New York: Appleton-Century-Crofts

7. This project is a collaboration with ICCSA with support from the Artist in Community scheme from the Arts Council managed by CREATE – Ireland

8. Sun Emerald, the largest Irish Chinese weekly newspaper, articles can be viewed under this link,%20Reading%20Others.htm

9. Kester, Grant 2004. Conversation Pieces: Community and Communication in Modern Art. University of California Press.

[R1]The photographs submitted by participants did not appear in this series of articles, which pre-dated the submission, and made use of other photographs to educate the readers on photography

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