Uncovering other Canadian histories and perspectives

There’s more to Canada than Canadians know. Two new works examine lesser-known aspects of Canadian history and art.

Writer and curator Amy Fung shares her debut collection of nonfiction essays exploring the intersections of Canadian history, art, and culture, Before I Was a Critic, I Was a Human Being, on May 18 at the Richmond Art Gallery as part of the explorASIAN 2019 Heritage Month, presented by the Vancouver Asian Heritage Month Society. As part of the same festival, Ningping Yu and John Price will launch their historical biography of the first Asian-Canadian to earn a medical degree, A Woman in Between: Searching for Dr. Victoria Chung.

Before I Was a Critic I Was a Human Being

Fung’s book recounts a series of reflections and experiences with diverse perspectives on race, multiculturalism and art.

This writer has long been interested in unpacking the relationship of art and culture. With a formal background in literature and film studies, Fung’s focus began to narrow into contemporary art when discussions surrounding Indigenous art began were becoming more common. As a result of increased discussions around indigenous art, Fung began to note, in the early 2000s, that this art shouldn’t be understood as merely cultural artifacts or relics of the past. Fung says that this increased discourse and understanding of Indigenous art in the 2000s challenged cultural understandings of indigeneity as a whole.

“It was the first time in my lifetime that I actually heard about contemporary Indigenous culture,” says Fung. “The school system doesn’t really teach you much, [and] I wasn’t born here. That whole idea, it’s kind of like an absent history. So it was through visual arts that I started learning and unlearning a lot of this history that we now know as Canadian history.”

Since then, Fung has examined in depth the complex relationship between art, culture and society throughout her writings. With her latest being her most extensive piece on these issues, Before I Was A Critic I Was a Human Being represents a culmination of deeper explorations of the regional Canadian contexts that inform the relevant artistic context.

“I want to get to the humanity of what we’re talking about, because art isn’t just like something sequestered away into a white cube,” she says. “Art is relationship and communication between people, our ability to empathize and see things from another person’s perspective. This title alludes to that.”

A major idea explored throughout the book is how these relationships and discourses vary depending on the cultural and regional context. For Fung, perspectives on race and multiculturalism in Canada are far from unified. So as a means of discussing this regional diversity of perspective, as well as how these attitudes manifest through the state of art, Fung draws on her own experience living and travelling throughout Canada.

“I definitely try to portray each region to the best of my ability and how I understood it. I’m giving a third perspective, and that perspective is being a guest on the land, as someone who is being told ‘I belong but I don’t belong,’ ‘I’m Canadian but I’m not Canadian,’” says Fung. “It’s that kind of slip-sliding perspective of what it means to belong to a place that, on a policy level, says it’s welcome to everyone, but structurally has excluded a lot of people over and over again.”

Searching for  Dr. Victoria Chung

In another book, Price and Yu, both professors, discuss one such example of exclusion: the story of Dr. Victoria Chung.

Price first learned about Chung in 2008 when he was given archival clipping of a lecture she gave about China in Peterborough, Ontario in the mid-20th century. Price, whose academic background is in Japanese and Chinese history with a more recent focus on international relations and trans-Pacific experiences, found the clipping immediately interesting. He decided to investigate.

“We found out that the hospital of which Chung was director in the 1950s and 1960s had a renewed interest in her story themselves,” says Price. “They invited us to visit the hospital, and that was the beginning of this decade-long sojourn.”

Having already met Yu, a professor of gender studies whose work centres on Chinese-American views of women, Price decided to share what he had found thus far. The two grew more and more interested in the doctor’s transcontinental story.

Chung’s medical degree, in tandem with her faith, led her to become a medical missionary for Jiangmen hospital, which she would eventually come to direct. As this transpired in the early 1900s, the level of trailblazing achieved by Dr. Chung is indeed remarkable. But as Yu notes, very little information about Dr. Chung’s story was widely known before the duo’s research.

“Her stories are part of the larger picture of the story of Canada that was not told before and people should know,” says Yu. “[But] there was very little written information about her. She is hardly known outside of Jiangmen. That’s part of our motivation to make her story known. I learned so much from being part of this project and feel there is so much more to learn.”

Having practised medicine both throughout the Japanese invasion in the late 1930s as well as during the Chinese Revolution in 1949, Chung’s boundary-pushing nature extends beyond well beyond her status as the first Asian Canadian doctor of medicine. As such, the pair hope that this book can shed some more light on this exceptional story.

“I hope that people will come to understand that she was a remarkable woman, and that her story deserves at least some place in the history of both Canada and China,” says Price. “We hope that this will be establishing some sort of place for her.”

For more information, please visit www.explorasian.org.