Kurt Tong: Combing for Ice and Jade

Kurt Tong, a photographic artist from Hong Kong, has been working on personal projects exploring his own Chinese roots for more than ten years.

Mak Ngan Yuk lived and worked as a nanny in the childhood family of Kurt Tong (born 1977) for decades, but in the old family photographs, we see Mak only as a minor figure in the events shown. Tong’s series of works, Combing for Ice and Jade (2011–2017), highlights the life of his nanny, while at the same time bringing to the fore the countless other “self-combed” women in Chinese history. 

According to a Chinese tradition, when a woman gets married, she goes through a ritual in which her mother combs her hair into a long plait. The position of women in Chinese society has historically been poor, and in the past, marriage for a woman meant spending the rest of her life under the control of her husband and his family. From the late 19th century onwards, women who wanted to maintain their independence could choose not to marry, making a vow of chastity, and plaiting their own hair. For a long time, the silk industry offered jobs to independent women, but in the early 20th century, many were forced to seek employment with families.

Previously, “self-combed women” were not allowed to return to their homes after they retired. Instead, a number of sisterhoods of independent women bought and built retirement homes where the women took care of each other. One of these homes was the Hall of Ice and Jade.

Mak lived as an independent woman until the end of her life. Like many other independent women, she led a frugal life and used the money she earned to support her family and the children of her siblings.

︎ Website Kurt Tong 


PVF 2019
The Finnish Museum of Photography