High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese

High Muck a Muck artists (left to right): Jin Zhang, Nicola Harwood, Bessie Wapp, Fred Wah, Thomas Loh and Phillip Djwa.| Photo courtesy of Surrey Art Gallery.

High Muck a Muck is Chinook jargon and a trading term developed in the early days of contact between Indigenous, Chinese and English speakers in British Columbia as a way to communicate, says Nicola Harwood, curator of the exhibition High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese which will be on display at the Surrey Art Gallery (Apr. 8– Aug. 26).

“It’s a little bit of a lost language. Don’t be a high muck a muck means don’t think you’re a big shot and it was often used to talk about politicians,” explains Harwood, who heard the term in her household while growing up in Nelson, B.C.

The interactive media installation is connected to the main body: an interactive website of the same name.

A Chinese lottery game

Conceived around 2011, Harwood brought together artists who worked in different disciplines. There are video performances in the exhibition: eight videos (3–5 minutes) playing continually and a visual map of five points of interest: Victoria (being the oldest Chinatown/Chinese history); Vancouver (where the artists of the exhibition live); Richmond (the old and new communities); Nelson (as an interior B.C. interpretation of the Chinese community); and B.C./Canada.

“We’ve created an interactive, hands-on process where you stamp a lottery card and the cards are a copy of an old Chinese lottery Pakahpu (a Chinese lottery game popular around the 19th century). You stamp the card, and you slide it into this little cabinet and it gets read by the computer,” says Harwood. “What that does is it reaches into the database, all the files that have been created for the interactive website, and it gives you your own unique kind of info. depending on how you stamped your card…kind of like a fortune.”

One of the main themes is ‘What does it mean to be Chinese? What does it mean for the different generations of Chinese immigrants [to British Columbia]? ’

“The other major theme is global. We see a shift and a role reversal: the idea of China being an economic master of the West as it grows in economic power in the world. Kind of a turning of the tables of the original generation of the Chinese immigrants who came to Canada, serving the white master,” says Harwood.

An observer of cultures and ideas

Installation of High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese at Oxygen Art Centre in Nelson, BC, 2014.| Photo courtesy of Surrey Art Gallery.

Jin Zhang, composer for High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese, is used to working with others and collaborating with different people from all areas including actors and writers.

“I’m not just writing music but listening and learning from other people and their ideas. It’s a kind of self-development,” says Zhang.

When he first came to Vancouver from Beijing, China, people wanted to bring him to Chinatown.

“I was so disappointed and very surprised, it looked so old and so behind,” says Zhang, who acknowledges that after working with people from Chinatown they are not all old fashioned.

He was also encouraged by some first-generation Chinese immigrants to learn Cantonese, the popular language in Vancouver.

“If I come to Canada, I should feel like I’m in Canada…I shouldn’t feel like I’m still in China otherwise I should just stay in China,” says Zhang, who had never thought about learning this ‘local language in China’ and believes Cantonese is not representative of what Canada is to him.

“I want to work with local musicians. I want to be treated like a local, even though when I first arrived in Canada my English was very poor,” says Zhang.

He shares a story about being interviewed for a position in an orchestra and being asked if his English was good enough.

“I don’t use my mouth to conduct, I use my hands,” says Zhang.

They thought it was a really good answer.

For Zhang, the importance of High Muck a Muck is it covers the stories of both old and new Chinese immigration.

“I don’t think new immigrants go to Chinatown, but they’re building a new Chinatown – their own community. You don’t like the old one so you build [a] new one. After maybe another 100 years, a new generation will view the new as old,” says Zhang.


For more information, visit surrey.ca/artgallery and www.highmuckamuck.ca.