New exhibit provides thought-provoking take on the Cantonese language

In 越界/粵界 (transgression/cantosphere), Hong Kong Exile (HKX), an interdisciplinary art company comprised of Natalie Tin Yin Gan, Milton Lim and Remy Siu, collaborates with linguist Zoe Lam and artist Howie Tsui to examine local and international pressures on their culture. The exhibit engages with the Cantonese language and reflects on the relationship between urban planning and the multiculturalization of “Historic Chinatown.”

A hopeful assertion of the value of diversity, 越界/粵界 (transgression/cantosphere) challenges
forces of homogenization and invites the public to consider what actions and invocations are called for in the quest for diverse cultural vitality in Vancouver’s urban core and around the world.

A collaborative effort

Opening night at Centre A gallery | Photo by Alisha Weng

Opening night at Centre A gallery | Photo by Alisha Weng

Working with Centre A’s Tyler Russell and Natalie Tan, Gan found that they were excited to collaborate on the project, especially when it came to organizing the physical space.

After many long conversations, the project unfolded organically with a huge collective effort.

越界/粵界 (transgression/cantosphere) not only invites a visually- and sonically-charged experience, it is also meant to provoke contemplation, questions and discourse.

“The space speaks to the many forces being enacted upon Chinatown while giving the Cantonese language a space to play, to be present and to be honoured,” says Gan, whose speciality is dance.

Since its inception in 2011, Vancouver-based art company HKX has created more than 12 original productions and is now presenting individual and company pieces across North America.

Their work is often performance-oriented, so creating an exhibit for a gallery was new and foreign territory for HKX.

“Faced with a much longer duration of presentation than live stage performance, we prioritized the content/ideas and allowed our conceptual process to dictate what the exhibit would look like,” says Milton Lim, who specializes in theatre.

University of British Columbia linguist Zoe Lam was essential in helping the arts company and gallery investigate and navigate the Cantonese language.

“While [Gan and I] grew up speaking Cantonese, Zoe’s in-depth knowledge about tones, puns and modulations were invaluable towards constructing the wordplay,” says Siu, whose specialty is new music.

Visual artist Howie Tsui brought a lot of energy, spirit and experience to the project that gave them clarity and courage, adds Siu.

Language exhibited

With the use of projections and sounds, the team hopes it will convey how dynamic, ever-changing and political the Cantonese language is, which is somewhat of an inversion of the “dying” Chinatown perception. Other components of the exhibit are static, like the “Welcome to Historic Chinatown” sign, objects from Anglo-centric stores around Chinatown (which represent new business and gentrification) and the English development-driven rhetoric of the Chinatown Revitalization Plan.

The artists hope people who visit the exhibit will get a glimpse at the different forces acting upon and against the Cantonese language (both local and global) and the properties of the language and culture that make it unique.

A threatened language and culture

Diversity or homogenization? | Photo by Alisha Weng

Diversity or homogenization? | Photo by Alisha Weng

Urban planning, tourism and other commercial interests directly affect safe spaces for Cantonese language and culture to thrive, explains Gan. Chinatown signage and the Revitalization Plan are contemporary manifestations of overt discrimination. There is a need to look at the greater forces of oppression that plague Cantonese language and culture, she adds.

“Without a doubt, if we lose a place to practice the language we lose appreciation for it, and we expedite the extinction of an incredibly rich way of expression and of life,” says Gan.

According to Centre A’s website, Beijing authorities are still trying to standardize the language throughout their country. The Guangdong local government passed the Guangdong National Language Regulations to remove Cantonese language from the public sector, including government offices and schools. Hong Kong also faces the same pressures.

“People are eager to learn more about what’s happening in Chinatown and how it relates to a bigger global movement,” says Gan.

Lim hopes people will talk about the forces oppressing Cantonese culture and language on a global level.

“We want to urge our communities to take a critical look at whether we are directly or indirectly doing the same in Vancouver (specifically in Chinatown). How can we work to preserve Cantonese language spaces such as Chinatown as it continues to change?” says Lim.

The exhibit runs until March 28.

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