More than Just Dragons- Art on Chinese-Canadian Experience

Dragon art on utility boxes on 16th Ave. & Centre. By W. Yee. Calgary AB. Photo by J. Chong 2014.
Dragon art on utility boxes on 16th Ave. & Centre. By W. Yee. Calgary AB. Photo by J. Chong 2014.

Don’t get me wrong: I love dragons. A dragon pops up often enough:  whenever there is a celebration or poster flogging a Canadian Chinatown event or something involving Chinese-Canadian history or culture. I love the dragon for its aesthetic drawing power –in parades, dance, paintings, textiles, rugs, sculpture and jewellery.

Dragons in Canada- Convenient Icon?
However, I don’t totally relate to a dragon. It’s not local.  Not a Canadian mythological creature that is indigenous to my imagination and to my birthplace in Canada where I’ve lived all along. It’s the moose, elk or bison roaming the Canadian wilderness that I’ve been wanting to see. On some vacation trips, we were alert during our hikes, on bike and occasional car rides, to spot these magnificent creatures.

Fusion phoenix bird art on utility box. Integrates abit of local Albertan imagery --snow, mountains and yellow autumn falls. By W. Yee. Calgary. Photo by J. Chong 2014
Fusion phoenix bird art on utility box. Integrates abit of local Albertan imagery –snow, mountains. By W. Yee. Calgary. Photo by J. Chong 2014.

However, the dragon has left two millenial-long tail in art, festivals, mythology, even in martial art poses –in China. It weasels its way into Canada.  It’s an imaginative Chinese talisman of luck and power. Who can resist the graceful inspiration of a dragon boat?

Choosing Between Moose and the Great Wall

An art moose transformed. Dundas St. W. Chinatown, Toronto 2014. Photo by J.Chong
An art moose transformed. Dundas St. W. Chinatown, Toronto 2014. Photo by J.Chong

So it’s refreshing to see in Toronto’s Chinatown, a former Confucius art cow coyily transformed into Confucius-Asian looking moose, with a bedraggled grey beard. A perfect fusion of Chinese-Canadian symbols. It graces a local Chinese grocery store, Lucky Moose Market. Just as arresting as a golden dragon.

Right near Lucky Moose Market, is a painted outdoor mural featuring …the Great Wall of China. An engineered bricked dragon that astronauts can see from outer space .  Why didn’t this mural include a Canadian dragon: a national engineering icon that Chinese-Canadians helped build- Canadian Pacific Railway?

But I’ll squelch my train rant. After all, Toronto has a great towering metal art piece near the lakefront railway shunting yards. I have photos in an earlier blog post with two railway worker sculptures each posed on top and under railway ties and wood pilings. Near the Great Wall Toronto mural, are humbler scenes in another mural painting of street and community life. Grocery shoppers, a slow cyclist with goods, and different generations of people depicted outside.

Chinatown street life mural. Dundas St.W. near Huron St. Toronto 2014. Photo by J. Chong
Chinatown street life mural. Dundas St.W. near Huron St. Toronto 2014. Photo by J. Chong
Great Wall , a dragon-like infrastructure in mural art. (Not sure about the Chong signature or tag!) Near Cecil Community Centre, Spadina Rd. Chinatown, Toronto 2014. Photo by J. Chong
Great Wall , a dragon-like infrastructure in mural art. (Not sure about the Chong signature or tag!) Near Cecil Community Centre, Spadina Rd. Chinatown, Toronto 2014. Photo by J. Chong

Dragons and Fantastic Birds in Calgary
Aside from the railway worker history carved into a Sien Lok Park sculpture by Chinatown, it is difficult to find other iconic art that depicts the Chinese-Canadian experience in Calgary. So we settle happily for W. Yee’s throbbing bright dragons, stylized phoenix birds on utility boxes and a lavendar crane bird on a bridge pylon. I’m sure the artist likes to break free from pure Asian symbols. His large hummingbird mural painting, a welcome sight and bright contrast to some nearby war art memorial sculptures at Poppy Plaza.

Mural features a crane. This painting faces towards Chinatown. By W. Yee. Memorial Drive, below McHugh Bluff, Calgary 2014 Photo by J. Chong.
Mural features a crane. This painting faces towards Chinatown. By W. Yee. Memorial Drive, below McHugh Bluff, Calgary 2014 Photo by J. Chong.

Chinese Canadian History and Life Stories Beyond Dragons

Dragon detail combined with aboriginal totem on a community centre mural near Vancouver's Chinatown. Larger painting portrays the successful stop of building a freeway through Chinatown. Vancouver BC 2011. Photo by J. Chong
Dragon detail combined with aboriginal totem on a community centre mural near Vancouver’s Chinatown. Larger painting portrays the successful stop of building a freeway through Chinatown. Vancouver BC 2011. Photo by J. Chong

In Vancouver’s oldest Chinatown, there’s artwork that does inform beyond dragons and Great Walls.

On Columbia Street, there are murals that moves the viewer from bachelor society where Canada’s immigration laws in 19th-early 20th century prevented entry of Chinese women, to the Depression and then 1950’s. The scene is not intended to be playful dragon dance or scene exhibiting magnificent power, but a reflection on difficulty and isolated lives in the past early century.

A kilometer away, a different outdoor art mural, does have a dragon swirl of inspiration that graces a wall of a community centre-school in Chinatown. It depicts the successful struggle of Chinatown and Strathcona

One of the first Vancouver Chinese-Canadian families depicted in this outdoor art mural in Chinatown. Pender St. E. and Columbia St. 2014. Photo by J. Chong. They are not relatives.
One of the first Vancouver Chinese-Canadian families depicted in this outdoor art mural in Chinatown. Pender St. E. and Columbia St. 2014. Photo by J. Chong. They are not relatives.

community to prevent a freeway to be built through the heart of this area.  Vibrancy and survival of the community is like the lovely water lily blooming in the painting’s corner. Within a 1 km. radius, there are images of Chinese-Canadian builders for the railway either tucked in or dominating several large scale outdoor paintings. If you stop,

Relaxing in their suits. Chinese women were barred from immigrating to Canada until the early 1950's. Hence they only appear occasionally in older photos and illustrations. Vancouver BC 2014. Photo by J.Chong.
Relaxing in their suits. Chinese women were barred by Canada’s immigration law from residing in the country until the early 1950’s. Hence they only appear occasionally in older photos and illustrations. Art by A. Cheng. Vancouver BC 2014. Photo by J.Chong.

you’ll see them among a bicyclist or rolling train. I haven’t fully explored the cities of Toronto, Calgary and Vancouver to unearth other public art that speaks to a more distinctly Canadian experience of Chinese who live and help shape these areas of Canada. I love dragons, just like an African-Canadian loves the gentle exotic giraffe.  Maybe one day we’ll see public art on the historic win of the Chinese-Canadians to vote as citizens in 1947.  Or artwork just as Canadian as  an Asian-Canadian kid playing outdoor ice hockey or figure skating in a swirl of snow and ice.

Right of cyclist is a Chinese-Canadian railroad labourer tucked behind the oncoming train. Along Adanac St. bke route, 1 km. away from Chinatown. Vancouver 2011. Photo by J. Chong
Right of cyclist is a Chinese-Canadian railroad labourer tucked behind the oncoming train. Along Adanac St. bke route, 1 km. away from Chinatown. Vancouver 2011. Photo by J. Chong
Eye-catching dragon art on utility box at the bottom of McHugh Bluff park on Centre St. Calgary 2014. Photo by J. Chong
Eye-catching dragon art on utility box at the bottom of McHugh Bluff park on Centre St. Calgary 2014. Photo by J. Chong

More Artwork on Chinese-Canadian History

Dragon parade sidewalk mosaic art. By Dunsmuir separated bike lane. Downtown Vancouver 2011. Photo by J. Chong
Dragon parade sidewalk mosaic art. By Dunsmuir separated bike lane. Downtown Vancouver 2011. Photo by J. Chong

Canadian Broadcasting Corp. Chinese-Canadians Get the Right to Vote in 1947. Short videoclip on societal attitudes up to  World War II, participation of Chinese-Canadians in WWII overseas which due to loss of some lives and lobbying Parliament, they won the right to vote.  The legal win meant also other Asian-Canadians could vote also.

Chong, J.  Outoor Art Work as a Thread of National History Across Canada: Monuments to Chinese-Canadian Railway Workers. In Cycle Write Blog, Nov. 8, 2010.

 

Outdoor art mural by East Hastings St. and Jackson overlooks a community garden. Vancouver BC 2014. Photo by J. Chong. Black ravens tends to be an aboriginal icon that alludes to a neighbourhood that includes also urban First Nations residents.
Outdoor art mural by East Hastings St. and Jackson overlooks a community garden. Vancouver BC 2014. Photo by J. Chong. Black ravens tends to be an aboriginal icon that alludes to a neighbourhood that includes also urban First Nations residents.

Post completion Dec. 29/14.

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39 Comments Add yours

  1. Gorgeous murals Jean – thank you for sharing them and a bit of history with us here! I especially like that last photo of the mural with the fence in front of it. Almost looks the woman is resting her hand on that fence! ❤
    Diana xo

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    1. Jean says:

      Didn’t notice that I took the photo to give that impression,until you pointed it out, Diana. Happy New Year!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Sue Slaght says:

    Jean these are fantastic photos and you have shown me art in Calgary that I was not aware of or perhaps not observant enough to see. I appreciate knowing more of the history as well. Thank you for another most informative and beautiful post.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Glad to have enlightened another local. 🙂 Some of this art is more noticeable as a pedestrian or cyclist. The phoenix is on 9th St. NE (I hope I have that right) near Edmonton Trail. Searching for outdoor public art has helped me know abit more about Calgary.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Those are some really great pictures! Wouldnt have imagine that street art can look so good 🙂

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    1. Jean says:

      Thx for dropping by, CCFamily. Probably in your area of Germany it’s a whole less modern mural art. Happy new year to whole family.

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      1. Indeed I know only some really bad graffiti work here but then again this place is anyways not the prettiest in the world 🙂

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  4. tuckamoredew says:

    Ah, so much art! Thanks for sharing. As far as heavily used cultural icons go, the dragon is pretty cool (say as compared to kilts and bagpipes) but I take your point.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      Ok, tuckamoredew, dragons may be more universally mesmerizing than the kilts and bagpipes for Robbie Burns Day, the Scottish national day around the same time as Chinese New Year. Gung Haggis Fat Choy is a Vancouver annual dinner and skit event that combines Chinese and Scottish food and cultural music at a restaurant. Here’s a dance from one of those years. (I’ve never gone yet..) The mayor has gone himself because after all, he has Scottish roots.

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      1. tuckamoredew says:

        That’s quite the example of cultural fusion – I like it. I happen to play that tune myself on one of my stringed instruments.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. BuntyMcC says:

    I really liked this post. You mentioned the Great Wall mural on Dundas. When I was there in December I saw an explanation of three Chinatown murals (on Dundas between the AGO and Spadina) which seemed to say that the community had chosen the subjects. The Great Wall mural was one of them, your fourth photo (large adult, small child, bicycles) was one but for the life of me I can’t remember the third. And it was so cold I didn’t take photos!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      So you too saw them in the same month as I in Toronto. We’re like ships passing at night. I wasn’t aware of these murals until I was wandering about in Chinatown. I didn’t take photo of the Great Wall mural (not the graffiti styled one in blog) since the imagery seemed too “standard” and to me, though fine in execution, somewhat lukewarm in artistic creativity.

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  6. Mabel Kwong says:

    These are lovely murals and works of art. They are massive and no doubt eye-catching, there’s nothing like this that depicts the Chinese community here in Melbourne. As Diana said, in the last photo it looks like the lady is resting her hand on the fence. So life-like. It is amazing how all of them look so fresh and vibrant – not vandalised or painted over. Maybe people there have much respect for public art.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Jean says:

      What is the population / % of Chinese-Australians in Melbourne? Maybe they came later in history? Or the arts just aren’t at that point of self-definition? Hopefully a lot of the art in this blog that you see, still stays unmarked.

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      1. Mabel Kwong says:

        It’s around 4% of Australia’s population who are Chinese by ancestry. About 6% of Melbourne’s population are Chinese, which is roughly quarter of a million people. They started coming during the Gold Rush era in the 1800s.

        I think the Chinese here are generally shy about showing their creative sides, having not seen many others doing that.

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        1. Jean says:

          Total 2011 Canadian population is 33.5 million over a huge land mass. Most of Canada’s population lives in the southern part. 600,000 Canadians of Chinese descent or .5%. However in big metro areas of Toronto, Vancouver it is over 25%. In suburb of Vancouver, Richmond it is 60% Asian descent. Calgary is under 20% of Chinese descent. Calgary is 1.3 million people, smaller than Metro Toronto or Vancouver.

          For early Chinese immigrants, it was the Gold Rush and building the Canadian national railway across the country which ended in western Canada while in central, eastern Canada it was working in restaurants and laundries in 1800’s onward.

          Over the past few decades the population has really diversified in terms of socio-economic classes where the Chinese come from, plus 2nd to 4th generation Canadians who are Chinese but have lost their mother tongue. My nieces and nephews don’t know how to speak Chinese.

          Liked by 1 person

  7. Lani says:

    What a great post. And it’s so nice to see Canadians embracing its Chinese immigrant history, too. Beautiful art work everywhere. The Lucky Moose is my favorite 🙂

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      Like you, I thought the Lucky Moose was clever. Since you are an ex-pat American, thought you might find this blog post by an American traveller, an inspiring read: http://minoritynomad.com/travel-can-save-lives-african-american-men/

      I know it has absolutely nothing to do with your situation, since you initially can blend in abit with the rest of the locals. He writes well which is something we can appreciate.

      Liked by 1 person

      1. Lani says:

        Thank you for the share. It brought tears to my eyes. Quite inspiring.

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  8. Girl Gone Expat says:

    Thanks for sharing great pictures! I enjoy cities that can show case great street art! Unfortunately in Europe the art is seldom left alone, someone always feels the need to ‘brush it up’… Doesn’t seem to be as big of a problem here. Some if the street art you have displayed that is from Calgary I haven’t see before! Think I have to do some exploring:)

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    1. Jean says:

      GGExpat: For instance, the utility box art below the McHugh bluff, is on Centre St. bridge by bus stop shelter right at end of the paved walking-bike trail from the top of the bluff. I know a lot of walkers, joggers and cyclists like cycling along the street along the top of the bluff overlooking Prince’s Island, downtown Calgary, etc.

      Liked by 1 person

  9. All those colors. Lifts my February spirits. Thanks also to whoever linked to the dancing Scot-Chin-adian.

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    1. Jean says:

      I gave that delightful videolink. It was filmed in Vancouver BC. As mentioned earlier in this post’s comment thread, Vancouver has a huge Asian-Canadian population (lunar New Years is celebrated by several Asian ethnic groups worldwide.). The annual Gung Haggis Fat Choy usually includes fusion music, dance, song and dramatic skits plus…haggis with a jumble of Chinese dishes. The jumble of cross-cultural fusion is fun but does reflect living reality of parties when one is invited to homes of Asian-North Americans, as you may know.

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  10. Rita H. Azar says:

    Wow Jean! Thanks for sharing! How amazing are these murals! And it’s good to read about the history behind them too.
    I’ve been totally out of the blogging world for a while and just trying slowly to get back into the swing of things now. So, even if it is a bit late, I want to wish you a very Happy New Year 2015! All the best!

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      Thx for visiting, Rita. I know you’ve been busy moving and spending time before baby comes and your world will change forever. 🙂 Thx for your generous good wishes from Aussieland!

      Like

  11. Ha ha, cool cow moose. What a wonderful tourguide you are, J. The murals are precious. A time capsule cracked open and placarded for us.

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    1. Jean says:

      You have a way of expressing yourself, holisitic wayfarer. These murals are artistic time capsules.

      Like

  12. Wow… those are really nice murals. I guessed it is an in thing all over the world now.

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    1. Jean says:

      The outdoor painted murals certainly are a trend in many big North American cities. But one does have to search for them or at least not drive by so fast. At least cyclists have a better chance of noticing this stuff and stopping to see. Got any murals in your area?

      Like

  13. setohj says:

    Thanks for a fine tour, with some nice detours down memory lane. I think there might be a kindred spirit between the Chinese old timers of yesteryears and Robbie Burns. Burns wrote much poetry in his native Scots language just as just English language hegemony was on the rise. I don’t know of anyone today speaking the Scots language. I suspect that something similar is happening to the Four Counties dialect (e.g., Toisan), as the Mandarin dialect hegemony is on its rise. Your tour helps us remember the true pioneers in the early years in Canada did not speak Mandarin or Standard Cantonese as their mother tongue, but most of them spoke the Four Counties dialect.

    Like

    1. Jean says:

      Obviously the research for your linguistic blog history is a long term personal passion. So please overlook some of my general comments on speaking Chinese in this blog, since I wasn’t going to bother clutter up readers’ understanding of dialect differences. True, I never thought of R.Burn’s commitment to Scots language, similar to issues of perhaps the Four Counties dialect that may peeter out?

      Have you visited or lived in one of the 3 Canadian cities to see the art featured in this art blog post?

      Like

      1. setohj says:

        Yes, I’ve lived in Toronto and Vancouver and visited Calgary many times. Most of the art work posted here seem to be fairly recent. I recognize only about a third of them. Nostalgia seem to have a quiet way of creeping up on me. The moose statue on Dundas Street, which I haven’t seen before, reminds me of another moose figure of a non-Chinese restaurant in downtown Toronto of which name I can’t recall right now.

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        1. Jean says:

          I was living in Toronto during the moose art installations all over the downtown area. Can’t recall of a 2nd moose sculpture in Chinatown areas. Hopefully you’ll see some of this blog post’s featured newer art within the next few years in these cities. Much of the stuff isn’t directly in Chinatown, some of it is near Chinatown. Meaning within a 1-3 km. radius.

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  14. Very interesting art. Thanks for compiling it and bringing it to us, half way across the world.

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    1. Jean says:

      Thx for dropping by anju. Have you seen any public outdoor artwork that reflects on the South Asian local experience/culture –outside of India?

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      1. India does not have murals and graffiti work like the west has and no I have actually never seen any work like these on the South Asian culture anywhere.

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        1. Jean says:

          Maybe in your travels, you’ll figure it out by asking local South Asian contemporary artists. You’re in the best position since you’ve travelled a lot and may encounter communities / those in diaspora. This is part of my theory:

        2. People too busy earning a living. But that can’t be possible since some communities have been there for several generations.
          Fear of (hate)graffiti. By the way, I don’t see much outdoor mural art featuring Afro-Canadians in Toronto.
          Getting such commissions may sometimes mean becoming well-connected to municipal decision-makers who evaluate/approve public art commissions.
        3. Liked by 1 person

  • meghan sarah says:

    This was exquisitely written and expertly illustrated. I’d go with the lucky moose over the dragon any day. Thank you for the nuanced observations on a topic that could have easily been cliché!

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    1. Jean says:

      The moose interpretation is eye-catching. Thx for visiting!

      Like

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