This 60-foot installation turns Chinese-Canadian cuisine into a monumental metaphor

JJ Lee's extraordinary rice paper scroll explores the hybrid cultural identity of Chinese-Canadians — including her own family.

JJ Lee's extraordinary rice paper scroll explores the hybrid cultural identity of Chinese-Canadian families

JJ Lee's ReOriented. (Ross Creek Centre for the Arts )

For many Canadians not of Chinese heritage, especially those living in small communities, their first introduction to Chinese culture is food — Chinese-Canadian hybrid delights such as sweet and sour chicken balls and won ton soup. Growing up in Saint John, NB  in the 1970s, I loved visiting the House of Chan restaurant with my parents, who always asked for forks, not chopsticks, while I stared in amazement at the bright red lanterns and paintings of five legged dragons. It was an innocent time.

Toronto-based, Nova Scotia-raised artist JJ Lee's enormous new installation ReOriented places the viewer in the same state of cross-cultural wonder and then asks them to look deeper — far deeper. Based on several years of research, including an archive of North American Chinese restaurant menus as well as academic studies of the role of Chinese restaurants in western urban development (and, in no small part, her memories of time spent in her parents' Chinese restaurant), ReOriented is, well, a feast.

JJ Lee's ReOriented. (Ross Creek Centre for the Arts )

A 60-foot-long scroll of rice paper occupies all of the Ross Creek Gallery wall space. The scroll is packed with painted and mixed-media images of Chinese-Canadian staple dishes, bright red "chopstick" menu fonts, Orientalist-style renderings of pagodas and instantly familiar Chinoiserie, Blue Willow plate patterns, jumping koi and lots of barbecued animals hung on metal hooks. Lee's signature near-realist style — lyrical and a little melancholy — is beautifully in sync with the exhibition's dual focus on the tentative, first iterations of Chinese-ness depicted and her commemoration of that improvised, very playful dining culture: one that is now rapidly disappearing in favour of "authenticity."

"As the daughter of a Chinese restaurant owner, I'm interested the food such as chop suey (created as an adaptation to Western palates). We never had that food at home. Sweet and sour chicken balls were a little exotic to me," Lee tells me, explaining the origins of the project.

I make work about being Chinese and being raised in Canada. I think this hyphenated identity is something many Canadians can relate to.- JJ Lee, artist

"In Chinese culture, like many, food is central to family, community and society. And everyone loves food. [On the scroll] an illustration of one long, continuous golden noodle loops and threads across the whole 60 feet — a metaphor for connecting communities together through the history of Chinese-Canadian culture."

On her 25-plus years of making and exhibiting art, Lee is direct: "I make work about being Chinese and being raised in Canada. I think this hyphenated identity is something many Canadians can relate to."

Sure, very relatable. But a 60-foot-long mixed media work? That is a monumental undertaking.

"It was a real challenge! Because the piece is so large, I could only work on three-foot sections at a time. My husband constructed a device that attached to my drafting table that allowed me to scroll the work back and forth. Then he came up with a system where I could see about eight feet at a time on the studio wall, but it had to wrap around corners."

"I did not see the scroll in its entirety until I went to the opening. It was wonderful to be able to stand in the middle of the gallery and to see it all. I've never worked like that before. Usually I have a canvas and can see the whole thing at once."

JJ Lee's ReOriented. (Ross Creek Centre for the Arts )

Finding enough room to work on ReOriented was not the only challenge.

"The paper is rice paper. It's delicate and traditionally used for calligraphy and watercolour, definitely not for collage and gel transfers! It ripped easily. The horizontal scroll format refers to a 1000-year-old Chinese tradition of hand scrolls meant to be 'read' from right to left as an intimate, single-person experience at one's own pace. I used ink, collage, watercolour, gouache, acrylic, graphite, conte [a kind of crayon made of charcoal and wax], charcoal, pencil crayon, china marker, markers, stencils, gel transfers...Using a range of different media from different sources is similar, in my mind, to how each of our identities are made."

There is a range of definitions of 'Chinese-Canadian.' I wanted to honour the hard-working restaurant workers and their families — my family.- JJ Lee, artist

What does Lee want people to take away (I could not resist the pun) from her exhibition?

"Everyone eats food. Through that basic connection, I hope people will first see things on the scroll that they recognize and believe to be Chinese — like fortune cookies and the waving cat figurine — and then intersperse those recognizable symbols with the less familiar representations of Chinese culture I created, like the plate of home-cooked, whole steamed carp."

"There is a range of definitions of 'Chinese-Canadian.' I wanted to honour the hard-working restaurant workers and their families — my family."

ReOriented. Featuring work by JJ Lee. Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, Canning, Nova Scotia. Until March 29th. www.artscentre.ca

About the Author

RM Vaughan

RM Vaughan is a Canadian writer and video artist. Vaughan is the author of many books and contributes articles on culture to a wide variety of publications.

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