CANNING - Think chicken balls and fortune cookies are true examples of authentic Chinese food?
Toronto-based artist JJ Lee delves into the evolution of Chinese Canadian restaurants through visuals etched and painted on a 60-foot scroll of rice paper for ReOriented, an exhibit on display at the Ross Creek Centre for the Arts in Canning.
“The Chinese people had to make food that was adapted for Western palate, so the food that was served in restaurants was not the same as what we would get at home. Sweet and sour chicken balls doesn’t exist in China, fortune cookies are not Chinese,” said Lee, speaking during the Chinese New Year Extravaganza hosted at Ross Creek Feb. 18.
“I wanted to talk about how Chinese people have adapted and assimilated to become part of Canadian culture.”
Horizontal hand scrolls are typically viewed like a film or book, but Lee focused more on connectivity than forming a linear timeline of events. She alludes to the Chinese workers that built Canada’s railways, and persevered in the face of adversity to eventually open restaurants here.
The goal was to hook viewers with a sense of familiarity that fueled a desire to learn more.
“I wanted them to connect with some of the imagery,” said Lee.
As a busy university arts professor and mother back in Toronto, Lee was thrilled to have an opportunity to temporarily return to her home province of Nova Scotia for an artist in residence opportunity at Ross Creek.
“I jumped at the chance because I’ve always wanted to do a show about Chinese Canadian restaurants… everyone connects to food,” she said, stressing that she thoroughly appreciated having a week to solely focus on mingling with fellow artists and honing her creative skills.
“I just need to focus on my artwork. It’s amazing. I’m so lucky.”
Chris O’Neill, executive director of Ross Creek Centre for the Arts, said the Chinese New Year Extravaganza is part of a larger series of events wherein the food and activities are inspired by a gallery show.
“JJ’s exhibit is a really interesting fusion of a Chinese scroll painting medium where she is quite cheeky in how she’s looking at how Chinese food has adapted as the Chinese Canadians have also adapted to this new reality,” said O’Neill, describing Lee as an esteemed visual artist.
“It’s a very fun piece, it’s a very interesting piece but it’s also quite a profound piece, too.”
The Chinese New Year event also featured family-friendly art activities, authentic Dim Sum and a variety of tasty traditional treats prepared by Ross Creek’s chef and volunteers from Acadia University’s nutrition program.
The community events hosted at Ross Creek wouldn’t be possible without dedicated volunteers, O’Neill said.
“We are very well supported by volunteers, and we’re always looking for more.”