Montreal artist Karen Tam has mounted an exhibition at the McCord Stewart Museum entitled Swallowing Mountains. Drawing on the McCord’s archives as well as donations from the community, it features photographs and documents from the city’s historic Chinatown as well as Tam’s own creations inspired by traditional Chinese art forms such as shadow puppets and western Chinoiserie. The Globe and Mail spoke with Tam about the exhibit.
Tell me how your family came to Canada.
The first person to come was my great-grandfather on my dad’s side in 1907. He came to find work: You could make more money in two months in Canada than you would in two to three years in China. He went back twice to China, first to get married, the second time for my grandfather’s birth, but after my grandfather was born, he never went back. He was based in Montreal and separated from the family from 1923 until my grandparents and my dad and his siblings came in 1967. The family was reunited then.
So, your great-grandmother, his wife, always remained in China. You describe the Chinese immigrant community in Montreal as a bachelor society. Why?
Because of the disproportionate number of men in the first waves of Chinese immigration; migrants came to work for the gold rush and then for the construction of the railway. Once the railway was completed in 1885, the government imposed a head tax.
It went up to $500 by the early 1900s. It was exorbitant, only the wealthy could afford to bring their wives or their children.
And those are your great-grandfather’s real head tax documents in the show?
I believe it was a replacement for the original that he lost. But yes, he had paid the head tax.
How did you find it?
When I was in high school, it was a history class assignment to find something related to Canadian history. I just started asking my family and asking my grandfather. He produced it and eventually he let me have the document because I was the only grandchild who was interested in these things.
Where did you find the other people’s documents?
The other ones were lent to me. The other gentleman is the father-in-law of a friend of my mom. And the third certificate I find absolutely fascinating: It’s very rare because it’s a head tax for a woman. She came in August, 1923. So, the Chinese Exclusion Act that banned virtually all forms of Chinese immigration was passed July 1, 1923. She was probably one of the last Chinese immigrants that were allowed into the country. It’s actually the certificate of the grandmother of a museum member who read about my project and got in touch.
And the portraits, those are your great-grandparents? That’s the man who came to Canada?
Yes. They are ancestral portraits that were hung in the family home in China, in a village now on the outskirts of the city of Taishan.
It hung there until 2004 when my dad finally sold the restaurant and had his first vacation. (It was called Restaurant aux septs bonheurs, it was a typical chop suey kind of restaurant in the east end just behind the botanical gardens. He ran it from 1976 to 2004.) So, we went back to China with my mom to the village and we saw it and we thought we should bring this back home.
First there was this head tax and then a period of complete exclusion that coincided with the revolution in China. The later documents you found are the citizenship papers for the generation in the 1960s. Did it isolate the community in Montreal, the lack of new members?
Well, it’s definitely small, but I think that the community here was very much in contact with Chinatown communities across the country and in the States too. When I talked to some of the lenders of the photographs and other materials, they all knew each other, they all grew up together.
Was it different from the Chinatown in Toronto or Vancouver?
There are very similar experiences, but the Chinatowns in Vancouver and Victoria are much older and more established. Everything that we’re experiencing now in Montreal, such as gentrification and real estate development, it’s a little behind what Toronto or Vancouver have experienced. Another thing that’s unique is that it’s a minority within a minority, factoring in the French language. In the photos that I borrowed, you’ll see the Saint-Jean-Baptiste celebrations in Chinatown. It’s one example of a kind of hybridization.
You straddle curation and making your own art. How did that come about?
It comes out of my own installation practice. The first exhibition I did, With wings like clouds hung from the sky, in 2017 at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, I didn’t really see as curating. I looked at the Chinese immigrant artist named Lee Nam who worked in the 1930s in Victoria’s Chinatown. We only know about him through the journals of Emily Carr.
I wanted to talk about what is Canadian art history and Chinese art history and who gets to be included. There are ink-brush art communities that are really vibrant, but they have their own networks different from the contemporary western-based art ecosystem. I wanted to parallel some of the experiences of those ink brush painters now with Lee Nam. I started inviting local community artists to show their works next to Emily Carr paintings and Chinese masters. Kind of putting everyone on this equal standing. That’s where the curatorial aspects started creeping in.
At the McCord, you’ve placed some of your own work in alcoves around the gallery, as though they were mini storefronts. Tell me about the installation.
I love playing with architectural features of a given space; that gallery space has these four alcoves or niches. I was thinking about Chinese diaspora spaces, and thinking about how in the ‘70s and ‘80s the government expropriated acres of land from Chinatown to build the Montreal Convention Centre and the Complexe Guy-Favreau. This is something that occurred in other Chinatowns too: The first Chinatown in Toronto was razed to construct Nathan Phillips Square. In Vancouver, parts of Chinatown were torn down for the Georgia Viaduct. So, I was thinking that this exhibition, even though it’s temporary, could be one way of reclaiming that diaspora space.
Swallowing Mountains continues at the McCord-Stewart Museum in Montreal to August 13.
This interview has been edited and condensed.