Hong Kong artist Samson Young utilizes Centre A’s new location to examine Won Alexander Cumyow, utopia as a political force and the very context of the gallery space itself. The exhibition was curated by Tyler Russell and Godfre Leung.
“The show is a part of a trilogy of exhibition projects that look at utopia as a political force, both positive and negative,” says Young, a sound artist who also works with a variety of artistic media. “Each of the three exhibitions have a different context and therefore different focuses. There will be photographs, some new drawings, and an animated music video.”
Young’s exploration of sound art began as part of a collective, but after graduate school he began creating work individually.
“Tyler Russell, the former director of Centre A, saw my work at Art Basel Hong Kong in 2016. We started talking about doing something at Centre A pretty much right after that” he says.
As the former executive director of Centre A, Russell initiated a series of exhibitions that sought to listen to those facing cultural displacement and urban change in Chinatown.
“At the time, I was thinking more and more about the Hong Kong/Canada relationship and what it meant to be in Vancouver and Canada [as a whole],” says Russell. “I was concerned with both the Cantonese language and culture space as it related not only to the settler colonial space of Vancouver but also Hong Kong and Canton.”
After two years of planning and preparation, It’s a heaven over there has come to fruition. One of the key components of the exhibition is Won Alexander Cumyow, an important civic leader in the Vancouver Chinese community at the turn of the century. He was also supposedly the first person of Chinese origin to be born in Canada.
“It was strange to me that anybody could actually make such a claim, so I started digging into the Won Cumyowfonds at the University of British Columbia Library,” says Young. “I found all these really fascinating materials, including the menu that was served at the banquet for the Chinese Reformist leader Kang Youwei’s visit to Vancouver.”
Young’s fictionalized portrayal of Won Alexander Cumyow places him at the heart of the exhibition and utilizes his place in history to examine important themes including diaspora and identity.
“The question Samson started with was, ‘What does China mean to this person who has never been to China? What does the Qing Dynasty mean to him?’” says Godfre Leung, one of the show’s curators.
The gallery space itself also plays an important role in the exhibition. The Sun Wah Centre is a former retail mall built in Chinatown in the late 1980s and is similar to the mall that Young grew up near in Hong Kong.
“Sun Wah is kind of a relic of Vancouver in transition between 1986 and 1997, when the heart of Chinese-language retail migrated to Richmond,” says Leung. “Of course, it also speaks to new waves of Chinese immigration to the Lower Mainland during that time and larger shifting patterns in the city’s demographics and urban planning. It maybe also shines a light on current debates about Chinatown revitalization and initiatives of the Chinatown Transformation Project.”
By weaving three separate lines of inquiry together, Young hopes to present the viewer with a ‘mind-map’ of connections between topics and tries to make sense of their juxtaposition.
“The exhibition is complex, layering the shopping mall context of the Sun Wah with shopping mall accoutrements, trans-pacific histories and notions of Utopia and the nostalgia for far away places and previous eras,” says Russell.
The curators hope that visitors to the show may be prompted to consider the true complexity of the human condition. Turn-of-the-century Vancouver Chinatown, Asian exclusion laws, and the Vancouver-Chinese experience are also referenced in the work.
“But this [exhibition] isn’t Chinese-specific,” says Leung. “Think of how complex diasporic identity was for members of the Vancouver Sikh community around 1984, for example. To me, more than anything else, It’s a heaven over there is about those complexities.”
It’s a heaven over there runs until June 1. For more information, visit www.centrea.org.