Arts & Expression, East Asian, Visual Art
My parents were teenagers when they left their small village in China in the late 1940s and settled in Hong Kong where I was born in 1955. My family of seven, including one grandmother, shared a little apartment with three other families. Each family had one private room for themselves. Everyone spoke the same dialect of Toisanese. Both of my parents worked six days a week to support us. Food and shelter consumed all of the money so we didn’t have extras like toys.
One day I came upon my teenage neighbour practicing her Chinese brush painting. From that day, I decided to draw and paint by myself using whatever material I could find. In elementary school, I was taught to use a Chinese brush and ink to create Chinese calligraphy. The brush and ink became the medium for my painting, which I usually did on discarded newspapers. The subjects that I painted at the time were chiefly Hong Kong landmarks or the skyline at night. I had never seen most of these in person because my parents were too busy working to take us around to the sights. My father always got angry when he saw me painting so I learned to hide my paintings before he came home from work. Now, looking back, I think my painting was a way to amuse myself and to escape from the hardship created by poverty.
The last home that we lived in before we moved to Canada was a cage-like structure atop a 10-storey building. One day, one of my mother’s co-workers gave her a cutting and told her that it was a night blooming cactus. She planted it in a broken pot. Out of nowhere a large bud appeared one day and it kept getting bigger and bigger. We could see that it was about to open. That night, my brother, sisters and I stayed up all night gathered around the table watching for the cactus to bloom. Finally, at midnight, the flower slowly unveiled itself and released an incredibly sweet scent. It was the most amazing thing I had ever witnessed! The next morning, the bloom was wilted and closed. Since that day, I have tried to capture that magical moment of nature in my painting.
After we moved to Toronto, my cousins noticed my passion for drawing and suggested that I enroll at the Central Technical School to study art. I then continued on to the Ontario College of Art. We settled in our own suburban house and I noticed that my mother was spending more and more time tending her garden in our backyard. It contained mainly Chinese vegetables and squashes and was very different from our neighbours’ gardens. I thought my mother was trying to save money by growing her own food, but then I noticed that in Chinatown, all of the women had similar gardens. When I started to photograph these Chinatown gardens, I got to know some of the gardeners and these women told me stories very similar to that of my mother: hardship in China, a journey to Canada, and more struggles and hardship. I began to understand that these Chinese gardens were a way for these women to connect with the places and people they left behind a long time ago. These humble gardens have become an inspiration for me.
Every Christmas I complete a painting to dedicate to a person or an event that is important to me. This year’s painting of a Chinese Garden is for my grandfather whom I knew very little. He was a well respected artist and scholar back in China, the first one from his village to graduate from a major university. He passed away before I was born.
Due to the war, none of his paintings and writings survived. However, I inherited his artistic genes because none of my siblings or cousins are artistic. On a trip to China a few years ago, while in this garden, I felt a strong connection to him.
Paintings reproduced with permission of the artist.