BOOK REVIEW Not so special The Eurasian Face by Kirsteen Zimmern
Reviewed by Kent Ewing
HONG KONG - If you believe that Eurasians are a special breed of beautifully
exotic people to be gawked at on your coffee table, then Kirsteen Zimmern's The
Eurasian Face is the book for you. For just US$25, you can enjoy, and
share with your friends the 70 black-and-white portraits that Zimmern, a
photographer of Chinese and Scottish ancestry, has taken in Hong Kong and
Singapore, along with her accompanying interviews of these people.
The subjects are old and young, teachers and students, bankers and barristers,
musicians and athletes, children and their parents; the only thing this swath
of humanity has in common is their
Eurasian heritage, and the premise for Zimmern's 140-page portrait gallery
seems to be: Isn't that wonderful!
And maybe it is. Too bad this largely empty photographic exercise, published by
Hong Kong's Blacksmith Books and launched last month at a restaurant in the
city's trendy Soho district, presents no real evidence of Eurasian mystique
besides its publisher's enthusiastic affirmation of its pervasive influence.
Indeed, the Eurasian story, once a narrative of stigma and discrimination -
much like other mixed-race histories - is a gripping and complex one, but you
won't learn much about that from Zimmern's snapshot approach, which only grazes
the surface of the lives of those she has photographed and interviewed and
presumes that readers will simply be enthralled by the inherent exoticism of
the 70 faces she has captured, most of them in full-page, 8-by-12-inch
It doesn't help that many of these faces, like the stories that go with them,
are strikingly ordinary. In the end, Zimmern's book may actually work against
her presumptuous premise. Looking at her photographs and reading the interviews
that have been transcribed in both English and Chinese, readers could easily
conclude that Eurasians aren't so special after all. Maybe they are just like
you and me.
In her own story, however, which is one of those featured in the book, Zimmern
tells us that not a day passes in her native Hong Kong without her fielding
multiple queries about her looks, her accent and her ethnic background.
"This tango occurs several times a day," writes the barrister, whose maiden
name is Lau, "and mostly I just accept it as part of my day-to-day existence
... There are times when I feel bored and weary of it and other times where I
feel downright indignant about having to justify my belonging to Hong Kong and,
further yet, my ethnicity."
But those moments of pique are rare and, like everyone else in this book,
Zimmern is a happily adjusted mix of Asian and European ancestry: "For me,
being Eurasian is incredibly positive. It is empowering, liberating and lends a
rich dimension to my everyday existence.
I honestly would not choose to be any other way." While Zimmern's personal
history - which runs over two pages and 2,000 words - is the longest and most
detailed in the book, it nevertheless provides only a sketchy outline of her
life: her childhood romps through rural Hong Kong with her Chinese cousins, her
love of things Western (especially British) once her English-language education
kicked in, the challenges her dual heritage has presented in her adult life
and, finally, her ability to manage these challenges and at the same time feel
very special about who she is and where she is.
Zimmern's tale - and her book as a whole - makes the Eurasian experience sound
far too easy. Readers are supposed to believe that her 70 shallow portraits
happily reconcile races and cultures that have a tormented history of conflict
and hatred. While that may feel good, it doesn't feel right.
By far, the most interesting portrait in the book is that of Liam Fitzpatrick,
a senior writer for Time magazine who works in Hong Kong. The Fitzpatrick
interview begins: "I was born at a time when the mere sight of Eurasians could
still provoke violence." He then goes on to describe the riots of 1967 in
colonial Hong Kong, inspired by Mao Zedong's Cultural Revolution across the
border, and the jeering mob of leftists who called his Cantonese mother "a
foreigner's whore" as she drove with him through the city's Central district.
Fitzpatrick also evokes the squalid poverty of Hong Kong during his youth -
"the seething ghetto" that he could observe from the officers' quarters for the
Royal Hong Kong Police, who employed his Irish father, and the "homeless
families ... sleeping on the discarded boxes that our groceries had been
Like Zimmern, although he was fluent in Cantonese, Fitzpatrick turned into an
Anglophile during his secondary school years in the British system. But, even
while immersed in a British education, he kept his Asian pride, organizing
dance parties for his schoolmates whose drawing-card theme was "Eurasian
Nation". Meanwhile, his Eurasian friends agonized over which half of their
identity they were supposed to embrace.
Somewhat puzzlingly, however, the Fitzpatrick interview concludes with him
dismissing the identity crisis that Eurasians of his generation experienced as
an amusing reminiscence for him today.
"I'm having," he says, "what the cliche calls a 'wry smile' as I remember this,
because what I truly love about being Eurasian now is how unimportant it is in
an era when every other person being born is of mixed race . . . I rejoice that
what was once so life defining has become so irrelevant."
That seems a strange thing to say in today's Hong Kong, whose population of
more than seven million is 95% Chinese and whose ethnic minorities continue to
be discriminated against - in education, in employment and in government policy
in general. What is irrelevant at Time magazine's Hong Kong office may still be
quite important in the teeming city beyond those friendly confines.
But at least Fitzpatrick's interview is honest and provocative, even if it
leaves the reader with questions that neither he nor any of the other subjects
of Zimmern's book are prompted to answer. And there are other engaging
portraits here that also cry out for greater attention and detail - for
example, the story of Burton Westerhout, a retired procurement specialist in
Singapore whose ancestry is rich mix of Dutch, Portuguese, Goan, English and
He recalls how the colonial government in Singapore depended on the Eurasian
community for their English-language skills while at the same time snubbing
Eurasians socially and barring them from their recreation clubs. But it seems
Westerhout is just getting started with his story when it's time to turn the
page and move on to the next portrait.
The same can be said for another Singaporean, retired school teacher Catherine
Zuzarte, who has compiled a dictionary for the endangered language of Kristang,
a Creole-Portuguese patois that once flourished among Eurasians in Malacca. Her
story also shuts down long before it's over.
There are many interviews in this book that are so brief and substanceless that
they never really seem to begin. Jessica Ho, the Hong Kong student whose
youthful face graces the book's cover, offers 300 words of generalizations
about the "exact" balance she has achieved in her life between her Chinese and
British heritage, concluding: "I see the world as a human nation, not
Another Hong Kong student, Mei Ming Leung, has even less to say. "I'm laid back
and adaptable," she assures us. "I have never had a problem with my identity;
this is just me."
The cliches abound and, again, it all seems too simple and too easy - both the
lives that are glossed over and the book that glosses over them. Zimmern's
portraits, unfortunately, are only skin-deep.
The Eurasian Face by Kirsteen Zimmern, Blacksmith Books (January 16,
2011). ISBN-10: 9889979993. Price US$24.95, 160 pages.
Kent Ewing is a Hong Kong-based teacher and writer. He can be reached at