To Sanyu

Dear Sanyu, 

Your old friend Robert Frank never wears socks because when he was a young, poor artist, he realized he could afford to buy more books if he didn’t buy socks. I learned this about Frank a few years ago on a sleepless night when I reached for my phone and read a long Times profile about him, which is also how I first learned about you and how the two of you became fast friends after a studio swap went awry, and you ended up living and working together for two years in his studio in New York City. 

Finding about you in this way—a footnote in someone else’s story—felt familiar. (Monique Truong wrote an entire novel about Gertrude Stein and Alice B. Toklas’s Vietnamese cook based on a literary footnote. One day someone will write a novelization of the Donner Party as told by sixteen-year-old Jean Baptiste Trudeau, a half-Mexican, half-French orphan who joined the party as a hired hand. He will recount how the wel mel ti people of the Sierra Nevada tried leaving a deer carcass for the starving pioneers but were shot at.) 

After that first encounter, I went digging for more information about you. I learned you were a rich kid from a family of silk manufacturers in Sichuan. At 19, you moved to Paris to become an artist, spending your days writing, sketching and drinking in the city’s bohemian cafes and bistros. You had your portrait drawn by Picasso. You liked the poetry of Jean Racine. 

Of course I’ve looked at your work, too—the female nudes with their colossal thighs, pale potted flowers drooping lavishly on their stalks. The animals you drew—horses and the occasional elephant—tend to float in a near-depthless field, as though shot into outer space. Not so with your cats. You painted many cats, the lightness of your brushstroke matching their quicksilver temperament. Your cats are little proud and put upon as they drowse, peer up at birds just out of reach, or crouch over a saucer of milk in the full languor of life, as you were in your early years as a dandy in Paris.

 By the time you arrived at Frank’s studio in 1948, those years had ended. Things were not going well for you. The family money had dried up. To pay the bills, you did carpentry and painted screens and lacquer-ware for an imitation antiques factory. But still you had hopes for striking it rich. You had invented a new sport you called ping-tennis, part ping pong, part tennis, which you had dreams of turning it into an Olympic sport. In New York you insisted that Frank remove all his furniture from one room so you could paint the floor with the specifications of the ping-tennis court.

 Ping-tennis went nowhere of course. I fell hard for this hustle, even more so than for your art. But then I have always been attracted to failure, to artists and schemers who can’t quite seem to get lucky, get it right or get it together, the dreamers and idealists, the self-saboteurs, the shy ones who can’t be bothered or who insist on their freedom, who do not seek obscurity but find it anyway.

 The night you died, you had friends over for a late dinner at your flat in the Montparnasse and fell asleep with a book over your chest. The stove hadn’t been turned off properly. Probably you didn’t feel anything slipping from one state of unconsciousness into the next. I wonder what book you were reading. It’s taken decades, but your paintings are selling in the millions now. The Taiwanese are mad for you. In your later years you’d learned to live carefully within limits, budgeting your money, managing your hopes and expectations. Fate had conspired against your ever returning to China. I think some part of you must have wanted to go back, even as you must have known the world you knew no longer existed. Maybe that’s why in your last letter to your family you included a rather wistful request that they send along a jar of chòudòufu—stinky tofu—if it wouldn’t be too much trouble.

October 15, 2018

Lisa Chen was born in Taipei and lives in Brooklyn. She is the author of a book of poems, Mouth (Kaya Press) and is writing a book about the Downtown performance artist Tehching Hsieh, work, and the life of projects.

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