Halifax exhibit tells story of 4 generations of Chinese-Canadian family
Artist JJ Lee's work builds upon newly uncovered family artifacts
A new exhibition at the Canadian Museum of Immigration in Halifax would have never come to fruition had JJ Lee not stumbled upon a century-old immigration certificate while clearing out her parents' attic in the early days of the pandemic.
The chance discovery of the document, issued to her paternal grandfather upon his arrival from China to Victoria in 1916, upended almost everything Lee, who was raised in Halifax but now lives in Toronto, thought she knew about her family's immigration history.
As it turned out, Lee wasn't a second-generation immigrant as she had once thought.
She soon discovered her great-grandfather had also lived in Canada, where he had worked on the railway before returning to China.
"I had no idea," said Lee in an interview with Information Morning Nova Scotia. "It made me realize my family has been in Canada back and forth for four generations."
As she found more artifacts documenting her family's history at her parents' home, which she was clearing out as they moved into a retirement home in 2020, Lee decided to begin work on a project that would incorporate them alongside her own original art.
The result includes receipts from the laundromat her grandfather operated in Halifax, engineering diagrams from her father, a Chinese-Canadian dictionary from 1921, and charcoal drawings, animated videos, and digital collages made by Lee.
In My Yesterday is now on display at the Canadian Museum of Immigration at Pier 21 until July 23.
"The weird thing about this show is that I feel like my grandfather, who I never met, or my great-grandfather, is kind of propelling me to tell this story," she said.
Lee recognizes the story of her family's immigration will be relevant to that of so many other Chinese immigrants to Canada.
Though her grandfather arrived in Canada in 1916, having raised the money to pay for the Chinese Head Tax — a law that is now recognized as being discriminatory and racist — it wasn't until the end of the 1940s that her father and grandmother were able to join him.
The Chinese Exclusion Act that banned virtually all Chinese immigrants was passed in 1923. It lasted until after the Second World War.
The work has become even more vital as she contends with the loss of her mother, who died in 2022, and the declining health of her father, who is 92 and has Alzheimer's.
Recognizing their mortality has Lee contemplating all it took for her parents, and those who came before them, to emigrate to Canada and make a life here.
Her grandfather was the proprietor of Charlie Wah Laundry, a Halifax landmark, and her father was an engineer and one of the original owners of the Chinatown restaurant on the Bedford Highway.
"He's 92, at the end of his life, and I just think [about] what an incredible journey it must have been to be an 18-year-old boy from a tiny village in China, to make it all over here, go to school, raise a family, set up businesses.
"It's incredible. I really admire him."
With files from Information Morning and Jerry West