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Edmonton’s Chinatown explored through art, film at new exhibit

History of Edmonton’s Chinatown explored in artwork and new film
WATCH ABOVE: The history of Edmonton's Chinatown is at the heart of a new exhibit. Julia Wong reports.

As Lunar New Year approaches, a new Chinatown history project incorporating art, living history and filmmaking made its premiere in Edmonton.

Dozens of people gathered Saturday for the opening of the exhibition, titled Figure 1, 2, 3, 6, 8 at the ASSIST Community Services Centre in Chinatown.

The art and documentary exhibit started through radio stories of the early days of Chinatown to present.

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“We looked for really juicy stories of people’s personal experiences,” said Chris Chang-Yen Phillips, the exhibit’s heritage practitioner.

“One of them, this wonderful lady, talked about being in the Klondike Days parade and trying to represent Chinese culture on this float. We talked about people’s experiences with the Harbin Gate, what it meant to them to have the gate as an icon in the city that they could come to.”

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Phillips said other stories involved the city’s Cantonese opera community and teaching Chinese characters through the use of digital tools.

“These stories fill our image of Chinatown life. I think it’s easy to see Chinatown as a place you come to shop, just have a bite or see Chinatown as a place that has been kicked around by the city. But I hope these stories help fill people’s imaginations about how many lives have been lived in Chinatown,” he said.

The stories were then used to inspire the creation of four ink paintings, which depict different eras of the city’s Chinatown, and one documentary film, created by project director Shawn Tse.

A painting by artist Cui Jinzhe as seen in the exhibit.
A painting by artist Cui Jinzhe as seen in the exhibit. J

“Every Chinatown has their unique and different, special qualities,” said Tse, who has lived in Edmonton for approximately three years.

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“We’re used to just going for dim sum… or getting groceries with parents. Pretty surface, pretty passive types of activities, and not like running initiatives or doing history projects. I feel like the community is full of life and very active.”

The documentary outlines Tse’s process of putting the exhibit together, an experience he said he learned from.

Figure 一二三六八 Trailer from Shawn Tse on Vimeo.

“A deeper connection to my own heritage, a better understanding of how I got here. I think sometimes we might take that for granted because we’re born here, that we just are. I definitely never had the, I guess, intention to research about my Chinese heritage,” Tse said.

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Kathryn Gwun-Yeen Lennon moderated a panel discussion about the exhibit with the project creators.

Dr. Steven Aung uses Chinese calligraphy to write the character for “good fortune.”
Dr. Steven Aung uses Chinese calligraphy to write the character for “good fortune.” Julia Wong/Global News

“I think the artwork is incredible and seeing the multi-disciplinary aspects of this project, just the ways of story-telling and different media I think that’s really important,” she said.

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“In my lifetime, I haven’t come across anything like this. There has been other historical work done, there’s been conferences but in terms of artistic expression telling that connection between art and history, I haven’t seen it.”

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Lennon said Chinese-Edmontonians will be able to take something away from the exhibit.

“Seeing their own experience located within a bigger collective history – past, present and future.”

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The exhibit, which was funded through an Edmonton Heritage Council grant, runs until Feb. 9.