Historical events, usually geared towards adults, can gain new interest from a younger generation of readers by telling the stories as graphic novels. David H. T. Wong, born and raised in Vancouver, wrote and illustrated a 2012 best-seller about the Chinese journey to North America. It is the collective story of every immigrant and no one in particular. Wong will guide a graphic novel workshop on May 10 at the ExplorAsian 2014 festival and he challenges British Columbians to celebrate their own culture through storytelling and comic narratives.
“Every family has a story. It is an opportunity to encourage people to talk about where they come from,” says Wong. “At a time when digital technology is changing how people interact, the need for a better understanding about communities and cultures can be enhanced by storytelling.” Comics might be criticized as having too many pictures, too few words and lack intellectual or emotional core to be taken seriously. Escape to Gold Mountain is nothing like that.
“Most young people say they don’t like history because it’s very boring,” Wong says. “I wanted to present it in a way which was interesting, dynamic, and engaging.” The story is heavily researched, referencing historical documents and interviews with elders. It is a history narrated through the eyes of Wong’s own family, who came to North America from China 130 years ago. Only one year after its publication, it attracts both the reluctant reader and the bookworm by using pictures to lure kids and retain the expected qualities beloved by adults.
Aiming to create an environment of shared experiences
The history of Chinese immigration to Canada and the US is especially engaging through the Wong family’s story, as they navigate political injustice, racial violence, and social change over 100 years and three generations. “A comic book can help build on the gift of imagination,” says Wong. “Human progress is about ideas, and they might come from art and culture. Synergy of ideas is the engine of innovation.” Cultural heritage is unique and irreplaceable. The responsibility of preservation is placed on the current generation. A good story can become the foundation to learning. ExplorAsian, celebrating its 17th year of Canada’s Asian Heritage month, encourages people at the workshop and the festival to appreciate history and culture through story-telling. And everybody can get really valuable information at the best place: ask a grandparent.
Jim Wong Chu, a published author and local Chinese historian, is one of the founders of ExplorAsian and says there is so much value to be found in attending the festival and its workshops. “ExplorAsian aims to teach people how to tell stories, since history is a legacy,” explains Chu. “The festival is moving towards education with workshops that help informing the community about sharing their own history.”
“History so often repeats itself, and personal biases and prejudices influence how people relate to each other” says Wong. By sharing personal stories, the organizers think this can be changed by building knowledge and education within the community. The first published North American comic was in 1842 (although comic strips have been collected from as early as 1833). But “it is not strange for the Asian people to use visual arts, graphic arts and history all-together,” says Chu. In Asia, for millennia, illustrations have been used for story-telling and mirth-making. Illustrations have enlivened Asian walls, scrolls, books and public and private places.