Ghosts from Underground Love

Laura Nys writes about young women exchanging love letters in a juvenile reformatory, and how the dilemma between privacy protection and rendering visibility is addressed by the art of Lam Wong.


Lam Wong’s exhibition Ghosts from Underground Love honours incarcerated young women from the present and the past. Among the art works are a series of portraits, each linked to a letter excerpt written by the young women while in detention. “I hate all my torturers,” one of them writes in 1939.

They have deprived me of everything: Freedom, family, joy. But what they cannot take from me is my heart, my imagination. . . No, they will never prevent me to Love.1

Beside the letter, we see Wong’s painting Jeanne (2020/22), of a woman’s pale face, eyes looking aslant, her fine lips perched, as if swallowing her words. She looks somewhat startled—“schuchter,” as I would say in Dutch, a combination of shy and careful; ready to flee. There is enough reason to imagine her as such—both as an artist creating the portrait and as a viewer contemplating it. Between 1937 and 1940, Jeanne was held in the State Reformatory of Bruges (Belgium), a juvenile reformatory aimed at disciplining young women who were considered “troublesome.”


Images: Lam Wong, Jeanne, 2019/2022, diptych (Chinese ink, graphite, acrylic, and oil on canvas mounted on cradled wood panel), 30.5 x 22.9 cm (each). Courtesy of the artist. 


Over the course of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, countless young people in many parts of the world were sent to juvenile reformatories, aimed at “disciplining” them.2 While reformatories varied in practices and organisation, there were some common traits. Most of the institutions provided little schooling. Days were often filled with vocational training, i.e., manual labour. Strict obedience to the norms was required and detained minors who broke the rules could be punished severely. Investigations have revealed abominable circumstances and practices of violence in many institutions. Notwithstanding changes throughout time, institutions of this type remained in existence in many parts of the world until far into the twentieth century. Our current day societies are still coming to terms with these practices of incarceration.3

Founded in 1927, the State Reformatory of Bruges focused on girls and young women who were expelled from other institutions.4 They were perceived as the most recalcitrant: the “incorrigibles,” as these minors began to be called in the nineteenth century. As a consequence, the rules in the Reformatory of Bruges were harsher than in other institutions. Correspondence with family members was restricted to a bare minimum, being a privilege only earned through impeccable behaviour. Yelling or singing was prohibited. During large parts of the day, talking was not allowed without permission. Serious violations of regulations could result in solitary confinement. Although physical punishments were officially forbidden, the regulations offered the possibility of a “therapeutic” treatment, i.e., cold showers or applying a straightjacket consisting of wet cloths.

And yet, parallel to this world of harsh regulations, orders, and punishments, something else circulated within the walls of the reformatory. A myriad of letters, secretly exchanged, of which only snippets remain in the archives. The detained girls wrote on everything they could get their hands on: scraps of paper, the backs of old playing cards, between the lines of a book page. When the letters were discovered by staff members, they were confiscated and added to the girls’ case file as proof of their wickedness.


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Images: Lam Wong, Billets Clandestins (details), 2022, mixed-media installation. Courtesy of the artist.


The existence of this subculture within the prison walls has been beautifully captured by Lam Wong’s wall-sized, mixed-media installation Billets Clandestins (2022). This installation features a multitude of artefacts attached to a grey wall, evoking objects that were exchanged among the incarcerated women so many decades ago—small artefacts, little knitted sachets, a hairlock, snippets of wrinkled paper—echoing the girls’ careful whispers. The crochet artefacts are crafted by Wong’s partner; the hair strands include his daughter’s hair. Among the artefacts is a playing card of a queen that Wong found in a park. An objet trouvé, then, just as the incarcerated women would use for their own letters. Within the harsh environment of the institution, the detained girls carved out their own emotional spaces, represented here by the bright colours standing out against the grey wall, or the light box No, They Will Never Prevent Me To Love. . . (Solitary Confinement), which includes cold blue colours mixed with warmer ones as well. Similarly, with the coloured dot grids in Study for Underground Love, Wong conveys a message of hope.


The History of Emotions

To this day, the clandestine letters are still preserved in the archives of the institution preserved by the State Archives of Belgium. In these “billets clandestins,” one can read about past lives, present burdens and future dreams of the detained women. One is surprised by an audacious escape plan, instructions on how to hide the letters, and an intense female friendship so passionate and sensual that one could read it as romantic love.

One girl writes in 1927:

My sweet queen this is the first time that I am writing to you, it is to tell you that I am glad and happy to show you how much I love you. I have loved you since the first days when you were here, but I was obliged to hide my love, you know why, and my heart has suffered so much. . . I always wanted to love you freely, but I was never strong enough to break away with everything. . .5

The precise nature of the relations between these young women is hard to define. Is it same-sex romantic love? Was it a discourse not uncommon for teenage girls, as is found in boarding schools? Is it perhaps a language of expressing friendship that was normal for the interwar period? It is hard to label–if one must label it at all. When reading these letters, it is tempting to read them from a twenty-first century perspective. However, these words were uttered decades ago, and they should be read with caution. Just as the material world these women lived in has changed, so has their emotional world.

Emotions, after all, have a history. Emotions—the way they are expressed, experienced, the social norms surrounding them, even ideas about what constitutes an emotion—are not universal, but are culturally variable throughout time and space. Just as it is hard to translate culturally bound emotions like the Portuguese Brazilian “saudade” or the Korean 한 (“han”), it is hard to translate the European medieval emotion of “acedia.” Emotional cultures change6—something explored in the field of the history of emotions, which, for instance, traces changes in one emotional concept over time, documents the birth of new emotions, or analyses the interlockings of emotions with power. The field addresses emotional practices hard to imagine in our current-day society.

The relations between the girls mentioned above, and my inability to capture their friendship with a Western twenty-first century label, is an excellent example. Their intense, sensual friendship could be considered a kind of romantic love; but it is also reminiscent of a type of friendship that existed between educated women in the nineteenth century. This type of friendship was often a lifelong intimate friendship that did not replace a heterosexual marriage, but was complementary to it. That this relational dynamic was accepted is often explained by the gender roles of that period. In a society where men and women spent much time with persons of the same gender due to societal roles, it was not abnormal for women to live together for long periods when their husband was absent.7 Moreover, since women were perceived as sexually passive, intimate bonds between women aroused less suspicion. This type of intense, romantic friendship, existing parallel to a heterosexual partnership, may be hard to imagine by our current day standards. Looking at the history of emotions, then, can liberate us from the suffocating labels of our time.

In giving a platform to the emotional worlds of these young women, Wong’s art is tremendously important. While historians have well documented the emotional cultures of elites in history, less is known about social groups living in the margins of society, such as the detainees in juvenile reformatories who were young and came from uneducated classes. Wong’s art is thus important to remind us that these women too had a rich and profound emotional culture, a culture that transcends our imagination.


Image: Lam Wong, The Lacemaker III (1977), 2022, 91.4 x 152.4 cm. Chinese ink, acrylic, and oil on cradled wood panel. Courtesy of the artist.


In this regard, it is worth mentioning Wong’s The Lacemaker III (1977) (2022). The painting evokes the ending scene of Claude Goretta’s 1977 movie La Dentellière, a movie about the love between Pomme, a young, introverted hairdresser, and François, a literature student. An important theme in the movie, apart from class differences, is the concealment of emotions, or the inability to express and unravel them. Wong’s painting depicts the ending scene, when Pomme, the main character, retreats into her own virtual refuge, consisting of daydreams of the white houses of Mykonos in Greece. The title La Dentellière (The Lacemaker) also has a second meaning. It refers to Vermeer’s De Kantwerkster (1669). The Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer was a master in so-called “genre paintings”; paintings that portray ordinary people engaged in common activities such as pouring milk, writing, or lacemaking. What distinguishes genre paintings from portraits is that the identity of the depicted person is irrelevant. The focus is on portraying scenes from everyday life. For portraits, on the other hand, the identity of the individual is crucial. The idea of individuals who are visible in the background, engaging in their everyday lives, but who are not identifiable, is touched upon in La Dentellière. Right before the end credits, a quote appears:

Il sera passé à côté d’elle, juste à côté d’elle sans la voir. Parce qu’elle était de ces âmes qui ne font aucun signe, mais qu’il faut patiemment interroger, sur lesquelles il faut savoir poser le regard. Un peintre en aurait fait autrefois le sujet d’un tableau de genre. Elle aurait été lingère, porteuse d’eau, ou dentellière.8

Pomme, then, is one of those souls one would pass by without noticing, unless one knows how to look at them. Many of the young incarcerated women remain unnoticed too, deprived of an identity. The significance, therefore, of Wong’s portrait series becomes apparent, dedicating an individual portrait to each of them. These are not genre paintings, but portraits, solely focusing on an individual. In dedicating portraits to these young women, the long class divide between portraits of the rich individuals and the anonymous poor is tackled.


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Images: Lam Wong: Ghosts from Underground Love (installation views), 2022. Canton-sardine, Vancouver. Courtesy of the artist.



Veiled Names, Imagined Faces

One reason many of the detained women appear anonymously in history—if they appear at all—is explained by privacy protection. Privacy laws protect living individuals, and in this case also apply to the descendants of the institutionalised minors. These laws are important, for the young women were held in the reformatories against their will. All documents produced by the institutions have been written and preserved without the permission of the detainees. When scholars get permission to access the files of detainees for their research, they have to anonymise information that can lead to identification, such as names and birth dates.

While this rightfully ensures the privacy of the former detainees and that of their family members, some scholars have pointed to the paradoxical consequences of privacy protection: “Our legal obligations as researchers to protect the privacy of individuals in the past can lead us to write the marginal into history by writing their names and faces out of it,” Iacovetta and Mitchinson write in a pathbreaking book on the use of social case files.9 Even though researchers can give visibility to the lives of institutionalised persons and their resilience against oppressive institutional frameworks, in using fake names, the incarcerated women are once again reduced to “faceless data points,” to borrow Susan Lawrence’s words.10


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Images: Lam Wong, Simone and Désiré, 2019/2022, diptychs (Chinese ink, graphite, acrylic, and oil on canvas mounted on cradled wood panel), 30.5 x 22.9 cm (each). Courtesy of the artist.


Thus, when Wong asked me whether there were any pictures left that he could use to draw the girls, unfortunately, my answer was negative.11 There were hardly any photos, and even then, I was in no position to share them. The dilemma between privacy protection and rendering visibility to all groups in society is addressed in a beautiful way by the art of Lam Wong. His portraits give the young women a face without breaching any privacy laws. These portraits are not photographical renderings of the individual women—which could enable identification with a real person—yet they are inspired by the individuals who left their traces in the archives.


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Images: Lam Wong, Huguette and Germaine, 2019/2022, diptychs (Chinese ink, graphite, acrylic, and oil on canvas mounted on cradled wood panel), 30.5 x 22.9 cm (each). Courtesy of the artist.


And there is more to these portraits. Even though photographs of detained individuals give us an idea of the physical appearance of a person, those photos are, like many institutional documents, framed with strict rules. Wong’s portraits, on the other hand, have added layers of individuality absent from these carceral, institutional framings. Take Jeanne, for example. Long eye lashes, almond eyes, small lips in a heart-shaped face. She looks up to something, a bit startled. Huguette’s and Germaine’s faces are covered in shadows, while a bright glow on their neck suggests the presence of a light source outside the picture frame. The portrait differs from carceral portraits, where in most cases a uniform lighting would be used, and detainees would be required to hold their head in a certain position before the lens. But here, too, Wong does something different. While most of the girls are visible from a frontal viewpoint, Simone and Désiré look at us sideways. Moreover, there is a suggestion of a life before incarceration, for example in Marie’s portrait. Slightly visible beneath her dark clothes, which are hardly distinguishable from the dark background, is a hint of dried daisy. A last connection with her life before institutionalisation? Whatever it is, it makes her stand out from many others, for whom only the black uniform can be discerned. Wong’s portraits lift the girls out of the crowd, imbuing them with individuality—individuals not reducible to detainees, but young women with a past life and future dreams.



Laura Nys obtained her PhD from Ghent University and Vrije Universiteit Brussels, Belgium. Her dissertation “Gabriel’s Heart” analysed the role of emotions in former Belgian state reformatories between 1890 and 1965. In 2020, she was awarded the Herman Diederiks Prize. Nys is currently a research fellow of the Independent Social Research Foundation (ISRF) and a visiting scholar at the Centre for the History of the Emotions at Queen Mary University of London.




1 .State Archives Bruges (Belgium), M24, 841, file 111.

2. For a recent overview, see Jean Trépanier and Xavier Rousseaux, eds., Youth and Justice in Western States, 1815-1950 (NY: Springer, 2017).

3. Johanna Sköld and Shurlee Swain, eds., Apologies and the Legacy of Abuse of Children in “Care”: International Perspectives (New York, Palgrave Macmillan, 2015). For Canada, see John S. Milloy and Paul Edwards, ‘“A National Crime”’: The Canadian Government and the Residential School System, 1879 to 1986 (Winnipeg: University of Manitoba Press, 2014).

4. Veerle Massin, “Protéger ou exclure? L’enfermement des ‘filles perdues’ de la protection de l’enfance à Bruges (1922–1965).” Unpublished PhD Dissertation, Université Catholique de Louvain, 2011.

5. SAB, M24, 830, file 4, billet from 1927.

6. For a general overview, see e.g., Barbara H. Rosenwein and Riccardo Cristiani, What Is the History of Emotions? (Cambridge, 2018).

7. Sharon Marcus, Between Women: Friendship, Desire, and Marriage in Victorian England (Princeton University Press, 2007), 5–14; Lillian Faderman, Surpassing the Love of Men: Romantic Friendship and Love Between Women from the Renaissance to the Present (HarperCollins, 1998), 411; Leila J. Rupp, Sapphistries: A Global History of Love Between Women (NYU Press 2011), 127; Carroll Smith-Rosenberg, “The Female World of Love and Ritual: Relations between Women in Nineteenth-Century America,” Signs 1 (1975) 1–29.

8. Claude Goretta, La Dentellière, 1977, quote at 1:40:28.

9. Franca Iacovetta and Wendy Mitchinson, On the Case: Explorations in Social History (University of Toronto Press, 1998), 6.

10. Susan C. Lawrence, Privacy and the Past: Research, Law, Archives, Ethics (New Jersey: Rutgers University Press, 2016), 15.

11. Email between Lam Wong and the author, 2 & 3 January 2018.



Laura NYS

Thu, 20 Jun 2024

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