1 of 4
"Website Interface: Richmond"
Tomoyo Ihaya, "Website Interface: Richmond," digitized watercolour and guache, size variable.
2 of 4
"Website Interface: Nelson"
Tomoyo Ihaya, "Website Interface: Nelson," digitized watercolour and guache, size variable.
3 of 4
"Website Interface: British Columbia"
Tomoyo Ihaya, "Website Interface: British Columbia," digitized watercolour and guache, size variable.
4 of 4
"Website Interface: Vancouver"
Tomoyo Ihaya, "Website Interface: Vancouver," 2014, digitized watercolour and guache, size variable.
High Muck a Muck: Playing Chinese
Oxygen Art Centre, Nelson, B.C
July 5 to July 19, 2014
By Maggie Shirley
You may know Nelson as The Best Art or Ski or Heritage Town. It varies. But before it became The Best, it was a mill town – a mill town that, like many Canadian communities, had a sizeable Chinese-Canadian population, including former parliamentary poet laureate Fred Wah. His semi-fictional biography, Diamond Grill, offers glimpses into his childhood as the son of a Chinese/Irish/Scottish father and Swedish mother, and how he “passed” as white in a less glamorous Nelson.
Nicola Harwood, a Vancouver-based theatre artist who organized this interactive exhibition and website to explore the experiences of Chinese-Canadian immigrants, studied under Wah at the former David Thompson University Centre in Nelson. She invited Wah to work on a series of poetic narratives along with Chinese-Canadian residents and artists and performers from Nelson and Vancouver. The exhibition includes paintings by Tomoyo Ihaya and music composed by Jin Zhang, which are also featured on the website highmuckamuck.ca, along with a compilation of video clips by various artists.
The main attraction of the exhibition is the pak-ah-pu lottery. The lottery is based on a traditional game popular with miners in the gold fields. Visitors select a few Chinese characters from a series printed on paper and then place their selection in a “lottery box” that uses interactive technology to read them, rewarding all players with a few lines of Wah’s poetry. The website continues the lottery theme. When viewers click on icons, they are offered a bit of poetry, an audio clip, or even a short video.
Overall, the project is rich and creative. Ihaya’s maps invoke the memory of ancestors sacrificed to the railway, nudging us forward to today’s immigrant workers. Zhang’s soundtrack combines traditional Chinese music with contemporary electronic sound. It’s haunting, but somewhat repetitive when navigating the website. Wah’s poetry, spare yet filling, is the key element, along with audio clips of interviews with Chinese-Canadians.
In Nelson, the Chinese restaurants on Baker Street are slowly closing. These businesses are visual evidence of the longstanding Chinese-Canadian community, and reminders of Nelson’s working-class past, before it became The Best. Yet the project’s focus seems tilted toward B.C.’s Lower Mainland, perhaps because many of the artists, including Wah, live there. While much of the Chinese immigrant experience is rooted on the West Coast, and tensions between past and present help drive this dynamic project, I hope the website evolves to include more about the Chinese-Canadian experience in rural communities.