Generation One: First and second generation artists pave the way for future generations

Artist Hai-Ping Lee doing an art demo at “So This is Canada!” | Photo by Peggy Lam

Artist Hai-Ping Lee doing an art demo at “So This is Canada!” | Photo by Peggy Lam

Art is given a supportive hand as new immigrants find ways to express cultural identity. On May 3rd, the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society (VAHMS) launched the Explore ASIAN festival.

The festival started with an opening ceremony introducing the “So This Is Canada!” art exhibit. With approximately 200 people in attendance at the International Art Gallery, the event consisted of a reception with participating artists, as well as a public art demonstration by artists Danvic Briones and Hai-Ping Lee.

As part of the festival, VAHMS is organizing the Generation One art exhibit: an intergenerational and intercultural show of artwork from first and second generation Canadian pan-Asian artists. Titled “So this is Canada!” the exhibit is in its fifth year, and features 39 artists from the Lower Mainland and showcases 61 pieces of their work.

VAHMS and Generation One

Prior to 2010, VAHMS concentrated on promoting Canadian-born artists of Asian heritage. However, given the huge wave of migration in the 1990s and early millennium, the organization saw the need to support new immigrant artists.

Generation One fosters a link between Canadians who have been here for a long time and those who have just arrived.

The barriers for new immigrant artists still remain difficult to overcome.

Esmie Gayo McLaren, artist and organizer of Generation One, says, “The journey to being a professional artist is tough enough under normal circumstances, and being an immigrant artist makes it even more challenging.”

The Struggling Artist Adapting to a New Way of Life

Artist Hai-Ping Lee testifies to this experience. Lee graduated with a fine arts degree in Taiwan and immigrated to Canada thirty years ago. After attending Emily Carr and starting her own gallery for two years, she moved away from the arts in search of better ways to support family.

“I never wanted to get away from the arts,” Lee states. “At that time it was just really tough. I had my first child so I went the other route. I started to study accounting and got a job in the bank as an account manager. Once my kids [were] older, I knew this [would be] my opportunity. So I came back, trying to be a full-time artist.”

Danvic Briones, artist, began his art at age six in the Philippines, when he was challenged by his uncle to draw a simple elephant. He continues to practice his art since.

“It was just serendipitous from there,” he recalls. Since coming to Canada in December 2011, Briones struggled with finding the right opportunity and moments to showcase his artwork. He believes Generation One is the first step to introducing Vancouver to his art and the way he creates his work.

“My art would always be adapting to the new environment. Now my art is about what I see in Canada – now it’s about Canadian integration. This event is inspiring, in this sense, because it gives a chance for first generation immigrants and artists to show their crafts and culture to Canada.”

Finding an Artistic Identity

Generation One’s diverse exhibit consists both of traditional and modern styles; and it represents both Asian culture to the larger masses, and conveys Canadian culture to immigrants. “One of the ways people know about other people’s culture is through the visual arts – it’s a holistic way of sharing. Your art emanates where you are, who you are, and what you are,” says Briones.

Through the “So This is Canada!” exhibit, VAHMS also aims to provide the younger generation with the means to find their identities in Canada’s multicultural fabric. “It’s important,” Lee explains. “We want to pass down our traditions to the next generation right? If we don’t give it to them, they would have no background anymore. We need to keep our cultures and our traditions. I learned that as a parent. I want to pass that on to them.”

As visual arts play an important role in the recording of history for different cultures, the artwork at Generation One develops the potential for the younger Asian generation to deepen the understanding of their cultural history.

“Through [the exhibit], they can see their way of life and what their ethnicity is. It gives them a brief history, [an]education, and [a]rich variety of information of how people lived and do things – not only of themselves, but of other people’s cultures as well,” says Briones.

The “So This is Canada!” exhibition runs May 3 to May 14 at the International Art Gallery. For more information, visit