Working with Words: Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung

We spoke with art critic Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung about tween blogs, subjective criticism and the lessons he learned working front-of-house at his parents' restaurant.

What was the first piece of writing that made you laugh or cry? 

Photograph of writer Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung

I can’t remember the first piece of writing that made me do either. But, I recently finished Mother’s Milk by Edward St Aubyn, and the dry, caustic wit of Patrick Melrose’s monologues always make me smile.

I recently moved overseas too, and in the lead up I re-read all about love by bell hooks. A particular passage hit home because I had to leave someone very special behind: A generous heart is always open, always ready to receive our going and coming. In the midst of such love we need never fear abandonment. This is the most precious gift true love offers – the experience of knowing we always belong.’ Gut-wrenching.

Did you write during your childhood and during your teenage years? What did you write about?

Like many others who went through adolescence in the age of Bebo and Nelly Furtado, I kept a very public blog. It was awful. I catalogued (and soliloquised) banality from 13 to 17: pictures of school life, new clothes which cost a month’s pocket money, people who I had crushes on, fights, dramas ... all very self-indulgent and saccharine. I’ve since obliterated most of these posts from the internet.

What day jobs have you held throughout your life, and how have those experiences influenced your writing?

I was taught early on that it’s stronger to write with a clear, subjective voice: to spend time reasoning why certain art works are compelling or not, and to make sure your reader can hear you as if you were speaking to not at them.

I grew up in my parents’ Chinese restaurant in country New South Wales. When I was a teenager, I would work front of house on the weekends to help Mum out. It wasn’t strictly a ‘day job’, but it’s a time in my life that I always find myself thinking about, mainly because it gave me an opportunity to observe how my predominantly white town interacted with the bastardised Chinese food my family offered them, and how this warped kind of Chineseness curated their understanding of a culture outside Australia.

Over the years, working at the restaurant, I realised there’s a primal urge in this country to consume other cultures (be it via food, drink, art, performance or whatever) but a very real aversion towards learning more about them. Meaningful engagement with the culture commodified before you is generally fleeting, if not wholly absent. 

In my experience, people were hesitant to extend beyond and question why it was the taste profile of honey chicken and not Szechuan peppercorn that was offered on the menu. There were no reflexive questions asked of how my family arrived in this provincial setting, and why they felt a need to sanitise their culture in this new place. Of course, this opens up a whole dialogue about Australia’s settler colonial history, of which I and many others are beneficiaries. Decolonisation and cultural critique underpins my writing practice, so working for my parents and observing the way a homogenous community interacted with non-Western culture was a powerful catalyst for this way of thinking.

If you weren’t writing, what do you think you’d be doing instead?

Probably working in corporate law or pursuing further education in art history.

What’s the best (or worst) advice you’ve received about writing?

To preserve subjectivity in criticism. The role of an art critic shouldn’t be to provide an objective value judgment on things. Who is one person to prescribe something as inherently good or bad? I was taught early on that it’s stronger to write with a clear, subjective voice: to spend time reasoning why certain artworks are compelling or not, and to make sure your reader can hear you as if you were speaking to not at them.

Besides the horrible writing on my tween blog, I’ve written lots of bad press releases.

Have you ever kept a diary? Do you keep one now? 

Old habits die hard so I still have a blog, but this time it’s deeply private. I write prose and poetry on there and I suppose it doubles as a diary. It’s cathartic.

Here’s a vignette:

It’s always after a few beers that sentimentality rears its ugly head, like greedy worms from softened fruit. It bathes bald skin in orange sun, hairs pushing upwards onto a thickened callus.

If time is a constant then I should know that there will come a moment to return home – but by then the little worms would’ve eaten all the sweet flesh that life here has to offer, and perhaps things will be different, and nothing will be left to feel too sad about.

Which classic book do you consider overrated? Or which obscure, unsung gem do you think is underrated?

Most classics are overrated.

Maxine Hong Kingston’s Tripmaster Monkey is wonderful.

Do you have any strange writing habits, customs or superstitions?

I have a bad habit of labouring over sentences. I write and rewrite incessantly if I don’t think something sounds poetic or incisive enough … it must be both! The anxiety of achieving this makes me drink a lot of coffee. So, if I have less than five coffees before 4pm, it’s been a good day.

Have you written or published anything in the past that you now wish you could go back and change?

Besides the horrible writing on my tween blog, I’ve written lots of bad press releases. Usually it’s indecipherable drivel on artists or people I’m not terribly passionate about, so I’m quite glad my name isn’t on them.

Which artist, author or fictional character would you most like to have dinner with? 

There’s a French-Algerian artist named Kader Attia I’d love to meet. He runs a space in Paris called La Coloniewhich is a dedicated forum for discussing colonial histories and the potentials of decolonising cultural space. I’d probably strong-arm him into talking about that for a bit … and then just work out what his natal chart looks like.

Portrait of Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung

Eugene Yiu Nam Cheung is an art critic, whose work has appeared in the Saturday Paper, Art+Australia, Art Collector Magazine and Running Dog.  His writing imagines non-Western and decolonial frameworks for contemporary art and culture. In the past, he has worked as a gallery manager and legal researcher. Eugene holds degrees in art history, gender studies and law from the University of Sydney.

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