Storytelling school

Presentation: Christina Poon on Community Storytelling, Cultural Identity and the Chinese Diaspora

Christina Poon is a London-based designer interested in the links between environment and identity, and what this can mean for relationships within similar cultural backgrounds. She has just completed a BA (Hons) in Graphic Communication Design from Central Saint Martins and was shortlisted for a MullenLowe Award for her final year project, Wintermelon.

With disciplines such as film, photography and publication design, Christina is currently focusing on how Anglo-Chinese diasporic communities can be represented in design and how their stories are built on vernacular archives and filmed or photographed portraits.

We talk with Christina about the importance of authenticity, fairness and conceptual thinking when representing the stories of a community in your work.

Where did you grow up?

My parents raised me in North London, and my mum was the person who encouraged and taught my brother and I to draw from an early age. Although my parents wanted us to have academic careers, they felt it was essential to maintain a creative side.

We learned to draw apples and just about every animal or participated in the school coloring contest. Besides that, I remember being very quiet as a kid and spending most of my time in the living room, playing and studying with my childhood friend.



How did you come to graphic design?

I took a foundation course at Central Saint Martins, and it confirmed my decision to want to study design. Before that, I knew I wanted to do something artistic but I wasn’t sure in what field.

I remember being surprised by the importance of photography in communication since my knowledge was limited to illustration as a visual tool in graphic design. I quickly realized that there were no limits to the medium you could create with. The moving image has become an even more important part of my creative process, and being able to document stories in this way has shown me the impact design has on audiences.

Why did you choose Central Saint Martins?

They had a pretty rigorous approach to keeping their projects short, which allows for quick thinking and creation. But it’s also relaxed and you can take your ideas anywhere as long as they’re clearly communicated. There are also a ton of facilities we could use, like film studios and UV printing. The university also had live briefings throughout my degree.

Graduate Showcase © Christina Poon.  Photograph by Max Colson



Graduate Showcase © Christina Poon. Photograph by Max Colson

What was your experience like?

It was exciting as well as tiring. There is always pressure to want to do better, so being in an environment where everyone’s work was to exceptional standards was challenging but incredibly motivating.

During the pandemic, I felt like I had taken a step back in the first few months. But I was lucky to have the basic equipment to push my work forward, like my computer and my DSLR camera. However, I noticed a huge difference in my confidence in expanding my creative process when I had access to my university’s facilities. It meant that I could finally explore new techniques such as bookbinding. Most importantly, seeing my classmates and my tutor in person has helped me immensely to understand the feedback and enjoy my degree over the past two years.

Stress can be good because it means you’re doing your best, but it should never get to the point where you become unhealthy. Being a designer will never be a linear process, and sometimes taking breaks can give you the inspiration you need.

What can you tell us about your graduation project?

Wintermelon shows the different perspectives my brother and I have as Anglo-Chinese brothers while also focusing on those differences in an attempt to understand each other. Using old VHS-8 footage, archival footage, and filmed video portraits, my short film connects cultural identity within family relationships. The narrative focuses on my brother’s side, with my perspective as a tool of comparison. We navigate our conversation around our childhood and our current attitude towards our dual identities.

I was inspired by Image Matters by Tina Campt, which studies the black diaspora in Europe through archival footage and the importance of vernacular photography as a voice for these communities. Her writing encouraged me to think about the visual documentation I have at home and how we present ourselves in an environment where only we look different.

I was drawn to a photo of a winter melon my mother had grown in our garden. It was a vivid memory as other families grew flowers as we grew Asian vegetables in the British climate. I wanted to use the winter melon as a symbol of my brother and his view of cultural identity through its mild taste and the way it hides behind our house. However, it turned out not to be a winter melon but a fig leaf squash, a winter melon substitute for Chinese families in the UK due to its ability to grow in less humid climates. It was as if our family never had a piece of China in our house, but rather our version that we developed and adapted.

My second project is Falling Leaves. This book is bound with a hybrid of Coptic and Chinese four-hole stitching. It aims to show four perspectives on being a first generation Chinese immigrant to the UK. Each person recounts their first experiences living in the UK, explores their current feelings and reveals where they feel most at home.

By understanding and using archives as an underlying tool in community storytelling, I seek to understand how the identity of place can impact our cultural selves. My goal is to capture the in-between of these identities, whether harmonious or conflicting, and also to preserve the authenticity of these stories by accurately portraying their lives. The photos were taken with Kodak Portra 400 film on a Canon AV-1, my father’s old camera from the 1990s.

Falling leaves © Christina Poon



Falling leaves © Christina Poon

Can you describe your style?

I’m not quite sure I’ve established a style, as I change my creative direction depending on what I’m doing. But I leaned towards a soft and warm approach in my photography and a more documentary approach in my films.

Who or what inspires you?

Before I wanted to do graphic design, Wong Kar Wai’s vivid cinematic style led me to study the power of color in movies and how it is used to push the narrative. I’ve watched a lot of American/British films about the Chinese Diaspora recently and loved Lulu Wang’s The Farewell. She explains how her film was supported by consistent conversations with Wang’s family and crew members, so she could ensure an unbiased portrayal of Chinese-Americans like her and also families in China.

I resonated with Wang’s practice, as I also recognized my values ​​in maintaining honesty in my work, an imperative for portraying the stories of real people. Moreover, personal archives have always been dear to me; it’s used in my current design practice or when I was younger, rummaging through old photos and receipts kept by my mother. I’ve always been drawn to scanning old photos of my family and keeping them on my phone, maybe to use in a mood board or to show my friends about my family’s life before I was born. From the start of my final projects, I developed my visual and design thinking based on the stories I gathered from old photos and videos.

What do you hope to do with your career?

I hope that the work I create can have an impact regardless of the content. And I’d still love to continue working on UK Chinese communities, although it’s a side project to carry with me at all times. When people tell me they can relate to my film, it’s gratifying to know that I’m contributing to my community and I hope I encourage others to do the same.

Falling leaves © Christina Poon



Falling leaves © Christina Poon

Falling leaves © Christina Poon



Falling leaves © Christina Poon

How do you feel about graduating in 2022?

I can’t wait to start working with people in the industry. I loved working on team projects during my studies, especially when everyone had the same level of commitment. It’s something I can’t wait to find out when I start my career.

What are your fears?

It will probably be the same as for many graduates, but towards the end of my studies, I started to feel that I was not ready to finish my studies so soon. However, there is still a lot to learn when working with industry professionals, which helps quell the fear.

What advice would you give to others who would follow in your footsteps?

My tutor, Mike Calandra Achode, told our class that stress can be good because it means you are doing your best, but it should never get to the point where you become unhealthy. Being a designer will never be a linear process, and sometimes taking breaks can give you the inspiration you need. His guidance eased the transition from my final projects and into our showcase, which eased the impending pressure of deadlines and graduation.

Falling leaves © Christina Poon



Falling leaves © Christina Poon