British Columbia

Victoria painter depicts immigrant life for Vietnamese Canadian families in solo exhibit

Artist Chrystal Phan depicts slices of life for immigrant Vietnamese Canadians in her new show, Once For A While, on display at the Chapel Gallery in St. Matthias Anglican Church in Victoria, B.C.

The show is open to public viewing on weekends until Feb. 6

Artist Chrystal Phan is pictured with one of her paintings — titled Pool Party — at the Chapel Gallery in Victoria, B.C. (Submitted by Chrystal Phan)

When artist Chrystal Phan worked at the Royal B.C. Museum in Victoria, she says she was disappointed her fellow Vietnamese Canadians weren't represented in the museum's 2017 exhibit on families.

Five years later, she's doing a solo exhibit of her own, with the hope of helping the public better understand her community.

Phan, who also runs an interior design firm, received a Canada Council for the Arts grant in 2020 to create six large-scale oil paintings, now displayed at the Chapel Gallery in St. Matthias Anglican Church.

The show, titled Once For A While, depicts the immigrant experiences of Vietnamese Canadian families and runs from Jan. 21 to Feb. 6.

Born in Victoria to refugee parents, who came to Canada in 1980 after fleeing their hometown of Sóc Trăng in southern Vietnam, Phan says she wasn't conscious of issues around identity and belonging as a child.

But the 40-year-old says that in hindsight, she experienced challenges integrating in Victoria's predominantly white population.

"I remember in elementary school a teacher paired me up with a Chinese girl a few grades below, so I could speak Cantonese with her ... I'm not Chinese. The rest of that afternoon was awkward silence," she said on CBC's All Points West.

"Today, a teacher would be blasted into oblivion if they had done something like that, but back then stuff like that happened all the time," she continued. 

"It was inconvenient, but just a normal part of being a minority."

In one of her paintings, titled My Still Life, Phan says she's the little girl sitting at the far back, upset over not being able to eat the food on the ancestral altar. (Submitted by Chrystal Phan)

Phan says the challenges Vietnamese newcomers face around integrating in Canada became clear when she visited the Family: Bonds and Belonging exhibit at the Royal B.C. Museum, where she worked as a major gifts manager.

"I was walking through this exhibit and I realized that my family wasn't there," she said. "I talked to the head curator of that exhibit at the time, who told me that a lot of their artifacts were donated and they simply didn't have connections to [Vietnamese] communities.

"It wasn't just about a lack of representation for me — it was more about this lack of connection and integration into the community."

In one of her pieces, My Still Life, a Vietnamese Canadian family is seen eating hot pot, spring rolls, chicken wings and watermelon slices over a dinner table.

"At the very back [of the painting], there's a little girl who's upset and that represents me as a kid, and I'm upset because I couldn't eat the food on the ancestral altar … this was food that was meant for the spirits.

"I was too afraid to ask as a kid, and questioning anything like that was discouraged in my household," she said. "I'm trying to display this universal experience … that how traumatic every little disappointment is to a child."

Curator Nicky Rendell says she likes Phan's painting Camping, which shows a Vietnamese Canadian family using chopsticks to barbecue around a pit.

"It's absolutely delightful. It's an incredibly intimate, engaging work," Rendell said. "People will find themselves immersed in this immigrant experience in a way that they've never been immersed before."

Curator Nicky Rendell says she likes Phan's painting Camping, which features a Vietnamese Canadian family doing barbecue with chopsticks. (Submitted by Chrystal Phan)

Phan says she's also visiting local schools to show children of newcomers how to explore their cultural identities through art.

"After these kids get to see how I went through this [artistic creation] process, they can do a similar process for themselves and create artwork around their own family history of immigration," she said.

The exhibit is open to public viewing on Fridays and Saturdays from 12 p.m. to 4 p.m., and Sundays from 12 p.m. to 3 p.m.

With files from All Points West