BIPOC Culture Opinion Out of Office

5 Artists Reflect on the Asian-Canadian Experience During the Pandemic

In this op-ed, Kathleen Lew, Programming and Research Coordinator, Myseum of Toronto, reflects on past Lunar New Years and how her perspective has evolved through learning about the experiences of others. 

For as long as I can remember, my Lunar New Year has been quite simple—lunch with my extended family at a Chinese restaurant. A meeting place, somewhere between our multiple homes, to catch up on news and exchange red envelopes. Lately, this has been a Dim Sum restaurant in Hamilton, Ontario. 

As I reflect more deeply on celebrating the Lunar New Year, a simple lunch has culinary threads that trace back to my ancestors. Despite the new year signaling the transition into Spring, my paternal grandparents experienced it in the dead of Manitoba winter. They ran the Rex Cafe in Glenboro, a restaurant that served Chinese food in the middle of farm country. My great-grandfather bought the building in the early 1920s after immigrating to British Columbia from China, and eventually settling in Manitoba.

According to my Dad, my grandparents used the Lunar New Year as an opportunity to have a large family meal (usually a chicken), or drive into Winnipeg to wish their friends good fortune. When my Dad and his oldest brother moved to Ontario and had children of their own, they began the current lunch tradition. As a young child, this occasionally included driving to Chinese strip malls in Markham to see the dragon dance. 

To remember past Lunar New Years, I have a box of red envelopes. Once full of lucky money, I have kept every envelope I received from my Dad and Uncle for the Lunar New Year. Some feature animals of the Chinese zodiac, while others have intricate designs or messages of well wishes. 

After having the privilege of working with the Quarantine Qapsule team on a project to create a community archive of Asian Canadian stories during COVID-19, I have realized the potential of my humble collection of envelopes. It is my own exercise of self-narrated documentation, a glimpse into my daily life in the form of a personal archive. 

With that being said, my new year traditions are singular among many. As the Quarantine Qapsule so beautifully highlights, preserving and sharing our stories is as important as ever. While Lunar New Year celebrations will look different this year, I hope we all find comfort in the value of our own histories. 

I invite you to take a moment to read and enjoy the reflections by Quarantine Qapsule artists below. Whether you celebrate the Lunar New Year or not, this is a perfect time to learn more about the experiences of Asian Canadians through artistic expression.

Meegan Lim (Red Pocket Recipes)

Meegan Lim (Red Pocket Recipes)

At their core, family recipes are stories; with every bite and sip, memories are unlocked. A special kind of love is found in my mom’s recipes, an indescribable kind that can only be shown through the act of preparing food for someone. Red Pocket Recipes strives to archive these stories, with hopes I can share this love with others and ultimately, say thank you to my amazing mom.

Phuong Nguyen (Phuong)

Phuong Nguyen (Phuong)

With so much uncertainty surrounding COVID-19 and the rise of violence towards people of Asian descent, I wanted to make work that expressed feelings of isolation and alienation in everyday life.  Archivists have the responsibility to decide what stories are worth being passed on and told.  I believe it is important to not only have Asian stories but also Asian voices; no one should tell our stories for us.

Jamie Ly (King Noodle BBQ Meats)

Jamie Ly (King Noodle BBQ Meats)

My parents are both refugees who came to Toronto in the late 1970s. As a child, I often would request to hear stories about my family’s journey and experiences. These stories would be lost if they remain unrecorded, documented and shared. The pandemic has allowed me to spend time thinking and reflecting on these ideas. Working these contemplations along with an emphasis on memory and nostalgia in an interwoven way is of great importance to me a way to continue sharing and archiving Asian Canadian stories. With the threat of Chinatowns across this country losing its legacy to gentrification and increased racial tensions with the onset of COVID, this interest beats even stronger for me as an artist. It is a way to speak up against oppression, to make our stories known and have others understand their importance in the fabric of this country we all call home.

Don Kwan (Don Kwan)

Don Kwan (Don Kwan)

My artwork is autobiographical in nature. One of my interests is to make the unseen, seen, to generate discussion. This series helped me reconcile certain anti Asian narratives during the pandemic. Documenting this period is important because it helps us reflect on the past, to help us envision a better future.

Nightingale Nguyen (Mentor for Covid Rhythms by Jason Wong)

Nightingale Nguyen (Mentor for Covid Rhythms by Jason Wong)

Working with Jason in the QQ Mentorship Program showed me despite living in the digital age where we are all curators of our own living histories such as social media, there is still work to be done.  Especially with reclaiming our narratives and accessibility to that feeling of authorship.  Holding space to explore and experiment is crucial. I hope the QQ inspires you to start sharing your own history today.

Karen Law (Cooking With Ahma(ster) Chef)

Karen Law (Cooking With Ahma(ster) Chef)

Telling and archiving Asian stories nourishes our communities and creates a focus for us to think about who we are, where we have been, and what our futures may hold. Karen Law’s “Cooking With Ahma(ster) Chef” starts out as a cooking lesson from her grandmother, but takes an unexpected turn at 1:45 with Grandma’s words “There’s one more thing…”. I am happy to have mentored this love-filled and hilarious video by Karen Law.

Josh Aries (Mentor to Ira Famarin)

Josh Aries (Mentor to Ira Famarin)

I really enjoyed my time as a mentor in the QQ! It was an honor being amongst driven artists who were willing to try new things. Ira was so great to work with because despite having no experience in filmmaking, all she needed was a little push from the right voices to make her unique story heard. As a fellow Filipino myself, I want to keep pushing our voices out there!

Kathleen Lew is an arts and museum professional based in Toronto. She has a Master of Museum Studies degree from the University of Toronto and a Bachelor of Arts with Honours (History; Art History) from Queen’s University. Kathleen has worked on a variety of curatorial and visitor research projects including collaborations with Our Stories Our Truths and the Museum of Contemporary Art, Toronto (MOCA). She also has extensive experience engaging youth through the arts at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and Centauri Arts. In addition to working at Myseum, Kathleen leads public tours at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO) and is a member of Toronto’s Feminist Art Collective (FAC).

Feature image credit: Wong Toy Jin (Jean Lumb) was born in Nanaimo, BC, in 1919. Her grandfather, a farmer from China, came to Canada in the 1880s during the construction of the Canadian Pacific Railway. (From Jean Lumb Collection).