Life is not still and wanting it to be so is such a contradiction towards what I do.

Nana Chen

Nana Chen is a freelance photographer whose work has appeared in magazines including Travel+Leisure, Elle Decor, AsiaSpa, Real Travel UK, and Business Traveller. She has made several guest appearances with her photography featured on the Travel Channel and has published three books on Bangkok and Vietnam. In addition to her book and magazine work she shoots for fashion and other commercial clients. Nana splits her time between Bangkok and Saigon.

Wayne: You were born in Taiwan, but your family moved around a lot when you were growing up. How does this figure into your urge to express yourself through writing and visual arts? In what ways does it affect how you see things? Can you remember one event from your childhood that speaks to why you moved towards creative expression?

Nana: Moving as much as I did was devastating. I left Taiwan when I was six. From then on, there were very few constants in my life. As children we had no TV for many years, and we rarely saw our parents. Having so much time to ourselves, it was natural to be creative. I rebelled against school, so that gave me even more time to get bored. As a result, I started knitting when I was 7, cooking at 8, gave my brother a horrendous afro perm at 11, got my first camera from a garage sale at 13—just some of the things I remember doing.

On weekends, I’d take pictures of my cousins and my brother while they posed in fashion disasters that I created each week. That was so exciting for me. The same year I started taking pictures, some girls at school were exchanging notebooks they’d decorate the covers of, so I decorated one and suddenly became very popular. But when many girls in school asked to “exchange” notebooks with me. The “exchange” really meant my handing over the notebook and that’d be the end of it.

Luckily, one girl as unpopular as I was, continued to write, filling up several notebooks with me that year. We corresponded until our late 20s, and I also started keeping a journal. So, the notebook, or writing, came to be the one constant friend in my life that I could call upon whenever I liked or wherever I moved. There was no need to be scared of being judged, of not fitting in, saying what’s right, having the right accent or looks. I could sit in a crowd of strangers, look down at my notebook and write just how uncomfortable I felt. I suppose writing was a sane and acceptable way to talk to myself. I wrote until my fingers became misshapen. With visual arts, I felt even freer since English is my third language and has the tendency to make me feel quite like a foreigner at times. However, none of these creative outbursts were taken very seriously since the main focus was the violin—“my pain in the neck”—for 13 years, giving me chronic heartburn for 14.

I don’t know how to pinpoint what I see or do as an effect of my growth or experience. I get stuck on this question every time. I know that I am different from a lot of people around me. This depresses and paralyzes me at times when I think about it too much. I don’t know if I perceive something a certain way because of my background. It’s tempting to say that when people don’t understand me it’s got to be because of my background, but that’s probably not the case.

Wayne: Despite all the moving your family did, you were drawn back to Taiwan. Why? How did you come back to settle there? How do you see the country differently than those who grew up there? Which subjects in Taiwan seem to speak to you most?

Nana: I returned to Taiwan in 1992. My parents had gone bankrupt and Taipei was where they had family. For me, the choices were quite clear: I could either stay in Atlanta working as a waitress and freelance violinist putting myself through school or dare myself to move to a place I had very little memory of. I knew that it’d be easier with my parents near so we booked three tickets. I hated Taiwan the moment I breathed the air. It was heavy, damp, and smelt strange. Taipei was so noisy, so gray, and people didn’t smile and always bumped into me. I felt like a mute as well because I could only speak English and basic Taiwanese.

After six months of watching the BBC and writing in my notebooks, I got out and started taking Chinese classes. I realized just how very sheltered and unexposed to cultures I had become living in Atlanta for nine years. How completely narrow my views were. Traveling to very poor countries has also helped me appreciate what I’ve got. Slowly, and I mean very slowly, I’ve grown to shrug off the old lady who spits next to me and see how much things have improved in Taipei. It is amazing how perceptions can change when one is doing exactly what they want with their life. When there is focus, the very same things that used to drive me crazy become quite trivial.

Maybe I differ from those who grew up here in that I still don’t see Taiwan as my home. I know that if things don’t work out, I’ve got the U.S. passport to settle elsewhere. A lot of my friends do not have the option and I see their struggle. And perhaps in seeing their struggle I’ve joined them subconsciously in trying to make things work here. I have packed and unpacked too many times to say where I will go next or if I will stay for good.

When I pick up my camera, I tend to focus on subjects related to people and food. I’m currently shooting for a book project on Chinese food culture; it’s bringing me closer to the street vendors or restaurateurs whom I’ve built a relationship with over the years. It will also take me to Hong Kong to shoot the markets and other food scenes. I’m quite looking forward to that. Only thing about shooting food is: it’s torture to know that with every shot I take, the food cools down a degree more.

Wayne: Why do you say you focus so much on food as a photographer? Where does that originate for you? How does that differ in terms of what you cover in your painting and writing?

Nana: I came to photograph food only after starting this book project a year ago. It’s been great because the author and coordinator, Betty Chung and I, shared the same vision from the start, that the photography would largely be travel and documentary with minimal close-up shots on food. Not having shot for a book or worked on a long-term project before, it has forced me to plan in a very different way. I have had to imagine myself new to this country, mapping out the areas to cover, [in other words], what are the specialty dishes in the [Taiwanese] southern city of Tainan? What food is manufactured there? Can I visit the factory and shoot? And so on.

The love for food originates from my parents, of course, who owned and ran six restaurants in different cities throughout our childhood: Buenos Aires, Atlanta and Los Angeles. Before that, my father was in the food flavoring business. As children, our first books were cookbooks. That was a mistake on my mother’s part, for we’d rip out pages that did not look appetizing.

The photography stands alone. I see it as the older relative of my fiction and painting.

Wayne: How and when did your writing in notebooks evolve to become an aspiration for writing? How and why did you get into journalism?

Nana: After the notebooks, I started writing letters to my brother and friends when I moved to Taipei. It was like engaging in a long conversation. I was writing at least four letters a week, sometimes up to 20 pages each—this was before email—I also wrote in my journal every day until I was 28 or so.

The first writing job came quite by necessity. I had by that time worked as editor of ACNielsen Taiwan for seven years, editing sometimes several hundred pages of consumer reports by day and running a very successful children’s English school in the evenings for six years. I also taught English corporate classes during lunchtime. It was an intense period where I slept little. But with the art and photography gaining some recognition, I shed the corporate courses first then quit the corporate job, even though they let me work entirely from home. A while later, I announced that I was going to close my school and move into a much smaller apartment. I then spent my savings on more lenses to practice with, shooting a lot more, buying magazines and books to study writing and photography, promoting my work, traveling to my first gallery opening.

For months after I closed my school, I couldn’t find the morning teaching job I wanted. I applied to over 14 schools in Taipei. They either told me I didn’t have the looks for an English teacher or I was overqualified, which made them highly suspicious. Finally, I answered an ad reluctantly. It was for a monthly English educational magazine in Taipei. They were seeking an editor who would also be a writer. I called and knew even during the first interview that I’d get the job. They were more excited than I was, however. I wasn’t sure I could satisfy the writing part. I had never written an article. I asked to study their magazines and studied them thoroughly. I learned quickly that my corporate background made me work much faster than my new colleagues. I’d finish my work usually three weeks early and use that time to research new topics for the following month. It did not feel like work. I enjoyed every part of it and gladly took work home.

Not finishing university and also being so rebellious in secondary school, I always feel I’ve got to make up for the lost education. I’m also quite curious by nature, so non-fiction satisfies both cravings. The “free time” at the magazine allowed me to search for other opportunities. I can’t be confined and thought of ways to go freelance after I felt confident about writing articles. The search eventually led me to travel ezine e-Marginalia.com where my first travel piece was published. I was very impressed by the website and felt it had a lot of potential. It was simply elegant and I hadn’t seen a travel website quite like it. Out of appreciation for the website, I edited a few pages and sent it to the publisher during lunchtime one day. After a few exchanges, he asked if I’d like to be the travel editor on a voluntary basis. That was about two years ago.

I recently resigned to focus more on non-travel related writing and to concentrate on shooting, but will stay on as a contributor. I now work freelance for the magazine as well, which publishes textbooks for the local market and was assigned a ten-book biography series last year. I’ve got two more to finish plus another two for a grammar series. I would like to eventually move away from education-based writing, and it’s looking quite hopeful. I also just found out two days ago that I am now the Taipei contributor to the South China Morning Post column WorldBeat. I will be writing about weird or strange art in Taipei and photographing it, too. Features Editor, Winnie Chung was very encouraging from the start and may have sought ways to put most of my skills to use.

Wayne: How did your nomadic upbringing evolve into your interest in travel writing and photography? Who are your influences?

Nana: In moving so much, I’ve come to long for things that hold still, that give me a sense of stability. I know this is unrealistic, however. Life is not still and wanting it to be so is such a contradiction towards what I do: living in foreign cultures, traveling and living the adventure of not knowing where my work will take me. I suppose work is my stability for now—when I finish something, be it a photograph, painting or story, it is there to return to.

I borrowed my parents’ Minolta X-700 around 1998. I’ve still got it. I studied the images of Cartier-Bresson most. I stood in awe of his precision, the composition, and in many instances, the humor and / or the strong emotions he captured. Later, I came across the work of Steve McCurry, and was very much drawn to his dark rich portraits. A photographer I like studying now is Shiho Fukada. Her work is so clean, her angles so interesting and mesmerizing. There really is so much to draw inspiration from. I only need to look and learn, even from images I don’t like, by asking why and how I’d do it differently.

Wayne: Who are your biggest travel writing influences?

Nana: Pico Iyer with his elegant speech comes to mind, as does Jan Morris. But for the most part, my writing influences come from reading Gustav Flaubert, Vikram Seth, Anton Chekhov, Raymond Carver, Muriel Spark, Jean Rhys, Soseki Natsume, Rohinton Mistry… It’s important for me to be exposed to different voices. I also listen to audio books occasionally, just to give my eyes a rest. At any time, I’ve got a stack of books that I’m reading—this includes books to enhance my skills, books of poems, art history textbooks and several novels. Occasionally, I’ve had bouts of digression in my reading path, taking me towards topics I don’t normally read about, [in other words], pandemics and epidemics, sociology, women’s issues, social linguistics, horticulture… I just know that everything I read is an influence on the mind, the writing. I’m merely a gatherer of words, sentences and expressions that, on good days, can be retrieved when I need them, and the broader the base of knowledge the better.