Preserving Chinese immigrant memories with art

Most Canadians are somewhat familiar with the history and the plight of the Indigenous people, however, few knew of the struggles of other ethnic groups who had to overcome significant obstacles in a hostile environment in order to make this land their home.

An upcoming exhibition Cheap! Diligent! Faithful! at grunt gallery from Sept. 25–Dec. 12 hopes to shed light on the history and experience of Chinese labour immigrants in Canada since the 1800s through a series of artworks by local artist Marlene Yuen.

Yuen creates comics, prints and book works to convey stories, usually based on well-researched historical facts and biographies. This exhibition will include Yuen’s previous artworks from a solo exhibition in Ontario as well as the launch of Yuen’s new artistic book on the cultural history of Ho Sun Hing Printers in Chinatown, which closed a few years ago after being in business for 106 years.

Art inspired by real history

Marlene Yuen, artist. | Photo by Katy Whitt

Yuen says her interest in Chinese labour history was inspired by her own family history and the difficulties they faced when they first moved to Canada.

“When I first submitted this proposal to a labour museum in Ontario, I was really thinking about my own family, about my dad, who had to work as a teenager and did whatever job he could. I just heard how hard it was,” says Yuen. This sparked her research into Chinese labour history. She found that a big wave of Chinese workers came to British Columbia in the 1800s to build the railroads and endured dangerous work conditions. Many perished during the process. After the railroads, many could not afford the journey back to China though the government promised that it would pay to send them home. They ended up settling in Canada despite facing ongoing discrimination.

“For those who couldn’t afford to go back to China, they just had to find work anywhere in anything,” Yuen adds. “Many stories don’t have happy endings. I did a lot of research and I would sketch out storyboards, for people to realize these are real people that existed.”

As a female artist, Yuen says she also tries to find strong Chinese female personalities in history to tell their inspirational stories.

One such historical figure honoured by Yuen’s work is Mary Ko Bong, an independent and spirited woman ahead of her time. She had to attend a segregated school in her youth but enlisted in the Canadian army during World War II to serve the country. After her military service, she decided to be trained in horology (watchmaking) and became the first Chinese woman to graduate from such a program in Canada.

Yuen’s latest art book on the history of Ho Sun Hing Printers in Chinatown is also based on her personal experience after she visited the print shop and acquired some letterpress equipment. “I want to retell their story, so last year I made contacts with the family and they said yes, so I made a book about a printshop using their own equipment,” says Yuen.

The artist and her own story

Growing up as a second-generation Chinese immigrant, Yuen says she experienced bullying and discrimination herself.

Her family also did not approve of her choice of an artistic career. “It is a journey that I basically have to push myself, I cannot worry about what my parents think. I can tell when I went to study fine arts at UBC, they were not happy about it,” Yuen recollects. But she persisted.

She has made a number of artistic storybooks over the years using various techniques from screen printing, risograph (a stencil duplicator) to letterpress based on her own comics and illustrations. She also displayed in a public art project in 2018 as part of Chinatown’s revitalization program.

She is also considering making an artistic book of a Chinatown guide, to showcase what used to be in this historical neighbourhood.

“There is a lot of history disappearing. We are lucky to have rights and freedom now, but it wasn’t always the case. My artwork is to preserve history and to honour the resilience of Chinese Canadians,” says Yuen.

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