In this issue of CS Grid, Topdog/Underdog Dramaturge Jordan Laffrenier touches on the relationship between brothers Booth and Lincoln and how their stories echo the realities of many. Jordan also offers insight on acclaimed playwright Suzan-Lori Parks and what she has said about plays’ ability to rewrite history while navigating between theatre and real life.
We asked community-engaged artists to respond to New Monuments in three commissioned interviews where they shared their research, work, and lived experience of the subject matter of the film. This is the last of three interviews in the series, conducted by Fiona Raye Clarke. New Monuments can be viewed for free on CBC Gem until Spring 2022.
Fiona Raye Clarke: To start, what is your relationship to arrival? How did your family arrive here on this land?
Annie Wong: My parents arrived in the early 80s as refugees during the Vietnam War. The story of their departure, which was a rupture of the later years of their youth, continues to live with them and has affected their entire time being here. So, it's almost as if they're always still arriving.
I was born here. I had a good conversation last night with a friend about how diverse the Chinese diaspora is. It's often misunderstood as one monolithic community, but it’s made up of different influxes of Chinese immigrants of different socio-economic backgrounds. In New Monuments, the community being represented are the first Chinese settlers. I sometimes see the danger in framing that history, or rather framing the erasure of that history as an injustice of omitting the Chinese in the narrative of nation building. For some reason, some Chinese people are upset that the railway workers are not equally commemorated as pioneers the way white settlers are. I feel that really misses the point of the real injustice of racist exploitation as part of the colonial project. If we understand the story of the railway worker as entwined with the process of colonization, then we can see our desire for justice is also entwined with decolonial justice.
FRC: Do you feel that history of colonialism, of being thought of as a source of labor, being exploited, even until now—do you feel that impact?
AW: Yeah, definitely. I feel there's always this sort of import of non-white bodies to fill a specific type of cheap labor, and the history of exploitation from the railway workers continues today. My parents, even though they arrived under the Humanitarian Act and were sponsored by a church group, their labor was exploited as refugees. My mother worked in a sweatshop garment factory most of her working years and my father was a maintenance worker his entire life. They were underpaid and overworked.
Yet despite their turmoil, their story as Chinese immigrants gets lost in the model minority myth, which claims that hard work alone will uplift you to white status. The exploitation of their labor encompassed their entire life. I remember my mother bringing home piecemeal work from the factory to meet the quota, or else we would not have enough money for the week. My siblings and I would help my mom finish the work after school instead of doing our homework. That was my childhood all the way up to late adolescence until the garment industry evaporated in Toronto and went overseas.
When they arrived, my parents were still youth. My mother was a kindergarten teacher and my father wanted to be a watchmaker. They had hopes and the potential, but their entire lives were spent withdrawing those dreams for the better lives of their children. I am grateful for the sacrifices they made but also burdened by the guilt of that cost.
FRC: How did it feel to do that work as a child in your body? How did your parents’ work affect their bodies? Particularly since this is a dance piece, and there was a very specific intention of embodying this ancestral work, rather than narrating it.
AW: When I was a child, the sensation I remember is the sound of the industrial sewing machine that we had to have in the house, and its vibration that I could feel through the floor and hear late into the night. I remember my fingers callousing and the cramps from sitting on the floor for hours a day. There was hardship to the body. I have the image of my mother's bent back burned in my memory. I can still see it when I look at her.
FRC: Could you talk a little bit more about the effect of the evaporation of the garment industry?
AW: When the garment industry dried up, my mom’s labor could no longer be capitalized on. At the time she was raising four children and there was this sort of crisis of identity as much as financial. There was a period of her trying to become a hairdresser until she suffered an injury and could no longer work.
But because the work was done in private spaces as much as in the factories, you really don't get to see how big the network was because the labor infiltrated homes. Unlike the railway, where you can point to that history of labor, the spatial memory of the garment industry in Toronto is so hard to pin down and hold as evidence of exploitation so recent in our history. That memory lives in our bodies. The insidious thing is that when the garment industry evaporated, it just sorta flowed into another invisible space. I was talking to a few friends who I organize with, and there is a huge population of migrant workers on Ontario farms being paid peanuts. With the changes in immigration policy, we attract a very particular economic class from East Asian countries and that becomes the face of the Asian immigrant and Canadian multiculturalism. But what doesn't get told are the migrant workers from rural regions of China and other countries who are here working on the very farms that grow our food.
So, while the story of the railway worker is one that continues to be remembered, the exploitation of migrant workers for the sake of reaping capital on colonized land continues till this day. It's been re-lived in my own personal history, and it's still being lived today on the farm. So, is the point of retelling the railway worker’s story about the politics of remembering the Chinese as nation builders? Or is it about calling out the current exploitation of migrant workers used to build empires on colonized land?
FRC: Yes! I'd like to talk now about your work around ghosts and ancestors. One scene in New Monuments references the escape through the Underground Railroad. For me, it was an interesting moment of - other than them dancing beautifully— storytelling that could be similar to what actually happened. It's kind of like watching ancestors, ghosts. What would you say is your interest in that kind of work?
AW: Working with ghost through my artistic work started by questioning my own estrangement to my ancestors. In Chinese culture, there is a practice of remembering ancestors. It’s pretty important. The Chinese build shrines, do rituals, and celebrate holidays around remembering ancestors since forever. Yet this entire repertoire of remembrance was lost on me. So it began with confronting why I don't have a deeper meaning of what it means to burn incense and to give an offering. And the answer was simply that I didn't know who my ancestors were. There is really a big difference between ancestors and ghosts. For me, my relationship with my ancestors is mostly in shadows. I can't pretend to reclaim and know who they are. Reclaiming ancestors doesn't necessarily heal because the traumas still happened. The gap is still there. Years of silence is still there. I like to be honest about that lack and be honest to that ghost.
FRC: So, you're saying what’s been done can't be undone and that the healing a lot of folks talk about, that the work of this piece, the accountability and healing sought here, you feel like, perhaps, it's not the right word because healing implies some sort of repair?
AW: Yeah, I feel like we're in this tricky space in time and history. We don't really know what it is we need to heal or the justice we need.
FRC: Yeah, there's no simple answer. Could you talk about the motivation and inspiration behind How to Be A Chinese Ally?
AW: That was developed during a residency at Varley Art Gallery in Markham. There's a big Chinese community in Markham. It’s a relatively new Chinese suburb unlike the ethnic ghetto that is Toronto’s first Chinatown. The work was in response to the death of George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement happening here in Toronto. The plan was to postpone my residency but instead, I thought about what that community needed to understand these times. Right now, there’s a big community of Mandarin-speaking international students. They’ve been fed this false multicultural view of Canada as some unified harmonious space. I came to learn was that there was very little Chinese language anti-racism education resources available to them in Canada. So, I decided to change my residency project and created this book with Chen Chen, a Chinese academic based in Edmonton. The book includes four interviews with artists and researchers and includes seth cardinaldodginghorse, Melissa Chung-Mowat, Jae Sterling, and yourself. Each of them speaks about their lived experience with systemic racism either as a Black, Indigenous, or mixed-race person. It was important for me to provide an intimate perspective to begin a conversation about anti-racism within the Chinese community, because if you're going to be here as a racialized person in a white supremacist society, you have to understand how to take on an anti-racist position. Click the image on the right to read How to be a Chinese Ally.
FRC: What monuments do you think we should be creating? What is your view of what's happening with the movement for tearing things down, renaming, reclaiming, denouncing?
AW: I have never been fond of national monuments. When I think of monuments, I go back to that poem Ozymandias by Percy Bysshe Shelley, where a man is walking in the desert and sees the tip of a statue that used to belong to the greatest empire in the world, that's now buried in the sand. I feel like So, I think there should really be no monuments. If we want to remember something about history, we also must think about how it affects our contemporary lives. We should be taking care of our current relationships and the ways in which we move and make meaning with each other. I think that's how memory lives beyond history—through the ways we move with each other.
ANNIE WONG is a writer, community organiser, and multidisciplinary artist working in performance and installation. Conceptually diverse and centred on collaboration, her current work explores diasporic hauntologies through Chinese ancestral workship practices. Wong has presented across North America including at the Toronto Biennale of Art, Open Source Gallery (NY, New York), and The New Gallery (AL, Calgary), and has been awarded residencies with the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Power Plant (Toronto, ON), and the Banff Centre for Creativity and Art (Banff, AL). Her literary works can be found in Koffler.Digital, The Shanghai Literary Review, C Magazine, Canadian Art, and MICE Magazine. She is currently the Curator of Programming and Public Engagement at Gallery .
FIONA RAYE CLARKE is an award-winning Trinidadian-Canadian screenwriter and community-engaged artist. Her co-created short film, Intersecting screened at the CaribbeanTales International Film Festival and the Queer National Arts Festival. She was the winner of the CineFAM Short Film Challenge and a top ten finalist for the Magee TV Diverse Screenwriters Award. Her co-created kids animated series, MIXED UP, was a recipient of the CBC/Radio-Canada and Canada Council for the Arts Creation Accelerator and is currently in development.