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.
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
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.
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.
Chinese Canadian History and Life Stories Beyond Dragons
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
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,
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.
More Artwork on Chinese-Canadian History
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.
Post completion Dec. 29/14.