Making Then Is Now During a Pandemic with Our Chinese Canadian Feminist Elders
In February 2020, Keira Loughran and I began a personal community arts project rooted in our own family histories in Toronto’s Chinatown. We wanted to capture stories specifically of the teenagers in Chinatown in the 1940s through 1960s by interviewing the female elders in our families. We were interested in what it was like to come of age during this unique time between the end of the Chinese Exclusion Act (1947), when decades of exclusion meant that there were very few Chinese families able to live together, and Canada’s Centennial (1967), when the introduction of the immigration point system enabled mass Chinese immigration.
When we initially started planning, we wanted to hold an in-person gathering, a sort of reunion of Toronto’s Chinatown youth—now elders—who grew up in the tiny community together in the 1950s. We wanted to share space, chat in person, and begin an oral history project that explored their teenage stories. Of course, by spring 2020, this was not possible, and we had to dream up a digital shape for our project. We ended up having a number of Zoom conversations over several months with our “Aunties,” who come with both personal stories as well as deep professional knowledge of Chinese Canadian history: writer and historian Arlene Chan, artist and storyteller Bernice Hune, professor Shirley Hune, and musician and community activist Janet Lumb.
Using these interviews, family photos, original writing, performance, and new-to-us digital software, we created Then Is Now, a concept album/playlist of sixteen short videos. We presented these as part of the 2021 Chinatown Biennial. The videos move fluidly from archival material to cheeky contemporary interpretations, with the aim of sharing the stories of our feminist elders, reflecting and reimagining the troubles and triumphs from their youth. Recently, we sat down together to reflect on this experience.
Julia Hune-Brown: Originally, I think we wanted for them to be in conversation and us to be flies on the wall. We wanted to bring together this generation of Chinese Canadian women who had grown up together in Toronto’s Chinatown during the 1950s, the era of the Exclusion Act.
Keira: Yeah, we were zooming in on the kids who were impacted by the Exclusion Act—so kids who were school-aged when the Exclusion Act was lifted. We had a sense that the Chinese community was different in that time period. We didn’t know much, and we wanted to hear the story of that period from the perspective of the people who were kids at that time.
Keira: We honed in on our aunts and parents. Specifically, my two aunts, Arlene Chan and Janet Lumb, and Julia, your mom Bernice Hune, and your aunt Shirley Hune.
Julia: I was thinking about how small the community was in the 1940s and 1950s. But then how for you and I, how unique it was to meet each other; to meet another artist who is also a descendant of this very small generation of women. To make community arts with this very specific community meant that we were going to work with our own families because that’s who would have been a teenage girl in Chinatown in the forties and fifties. The excitement of having all of those women in one room, one digital space, felt really powerful. It was the first time that I’d been able to have these conversations with other people. We have a very specific diaspora. And actually, in terms of community arts, I think sometimes the smaller and more specific the communities are, the more interesting the conversations can be.
Keira: Throughout the process itself, we landed on an idea to create fictional imaginings of some of the stories we heard. We created characters that were fictional but very much rooted in the oral history interviews we did with the aunties around Chinatown teenhood. We made artistic renderings of our research process, which included family archival photos, photo montages with edited sound, and videos that captured some of the actual community engagement—our conversations. That all came together into a series of sixteen short videos that we organized as a playlist on YouTube. It was subsequently shown as part of the Chinatown Biennal in the fall of 2021, which also included an online talkback with the elders. Julia, what do you think we discovered in the process of working online?
Julia: It was very new for us. We were discovering how to support elders over digital spaces, which many people were doing during the early pandemic—teaching their elders how to use Zoom. But for me, what I discovered working online is that the intimate conversations you could have with folks who were not living in the same city, or who would have had difficulties accessing certain spaces, was quite a gift. It also served two purposes: we were uncovering stories and creating art, but we were also just creating connection in a way that I was craving very deeply at that point in the pandemic. So some of the stories were pretty intimate. We had very specific needs like, “Tell us what it was like dating in the fifties in Chinatown?” I found that the conversations, to my surprise, were really rich online. I guess we’ll never know what they would have been like in person, but I think all of the circumstances allowed us to go quite deep into topics with community members across several different cities.
Keira: There’s something about the restrictions of the period we were creating. I remember when we were editing the final stuff and it was so perfectly imperfect. We weren’t in enough control of everything—the sound on this piece is really crappy, there’s a Totoro puzzle in the background (anachronistic!). Or when you were nine months pregnant, and you were trying to shoot POV shots of your shoes and couldn’t see your feet! This as new filmmakers plus all the additional restrictions of lockdown. It was nice that they were just so real. It actually made them quite easy to navigate, right? In some ways, we could figure out what we could do more easily. There was something captured within those restrictions that made the piece itself cohesive on its own terms. After we rewatched it after not seeing it for a while, I remember thinking, Oh, right. If I’m looking for all the mistakes and that kind of stuff, I’d just start to mess with it too much. It causes the piece to lose the reality of the restrictions we’d been dealt in the beginning of its creation, and that actually takes away from the necessity of what was created. So, I feel like what we created was kind of distilled down to what we needed to create. It embraced all the restrictions and limitations of the technology and the realities that we were dealing with in a way that I thought was really interesting.
Julia: Right, like how the only actors we could have were people in our “bubble.” Your children are in it as is your partner, Varrick, and my mother and my nephew. We were really just using who we had available, our intimate family, to perform and tell these stories, which I really liked. That challenge, the imperfect nature of it—when I look back at it now, it was actually artistically fun to have. We had to make this work with, say, the four people we lived with. We couldn’t hire another actor. We had children playing their great-grandmothers and our mothers playing their mothers on camera.
To make community arts with this very specific community meant that we were going to work with our own families because that’s who would have been a teenage girl in Chinatown in the forties and fifties. The excitement of having all of those women in one room, one digital space, felt really powerful.
Keira: Maybe there’s something there. You have these technical restrictions that mean you really can only loop in the people you live with. And when you do include those people, they become part of that community too. I loved how much my kids learned about that part of Chinese Canadian history because they were helping me edit or acting stuff out. They’d want to know more. Now my daughter Rosy knows about that time in Chinatown, Chinese history, more so than if she’d read about it or if I had just told her. That’s kind of cool.
There’s this “personal becoming the community” kind of learning that happens when community artists say, “I am in the community too.” There’s a real compartmentalization in my training. In the field, you know, you’re an actor or a singer or a dancer. This “community-engaged artist” thing is a whole other thing entirely. Also, as a Chinese person who decides to be an artist, there’s a part of me that has a bit of a foundational assumption that my work with my community can’t be real art. This project really changed that in a way that I think is really important. I’m just really grateful to have had that belief shaken up a bit more experientially within myself.
Meeting your mom, and learning more about her experience, and putting myself on a continuum with other artists who come from the same cultural background, are pursuing art in their life, and are being artistic and identifying themselves as artists. All of that exists in my community in a much more grounded and integrated way than I had perceived before, and it exists in a way that allows me to participate in that community, see myself in that community with more confidence and grounding, and see the foundation of shared values within my community.
Julia: Yeah, that’s huge.
Keira: It was huge.
Julia: When reflecting on my own community arts practices, I spent many years going outwards into other communities (a bit like parachuting in), which when I reflect on it, is problematic in many ways. With this project, I was able to deep dive into my own community; the community that I felt very held by. I knew I was part of this community and its trajectory, and I was somewhere in the middle. There were these elders having deep conversations, and to have the support from them, Janet, particularly, and Arlene—people who I’ve admired from a distance but hadn’t previously had one-on-one conversations with felt very affirming. For them to say, “Here are the stories. We trust you, go with it,” meant a lot. The trust was there because of deep connections, through family, through communal history.
There was just a freeing feeling. I didn’t feel like I had to walk on eggshells. I wasn’t as tentative as I would naturally be if I was going into a whole other community that I didn’t have deep roots with. That felt really freeing. And then to have this sort of common language with you, Keira, straight off the bat when you and I first met in my apartment many years ago—that was really just relaxing. I didn’t feel like I had to describe my family upbringing or what this cultural snapshot of history was. As an artist, it felt really freeing to write from that place. I found that the writing actually flowed really quickly, and I was surprised by that.
It was so integrated into who we are, how we were raised, and, even if I wasn’t even aware of it, being Chinese Canadian. I wasn’t even really aware that this snapshot of history, this set of experiences, were a thing until I started having conversations with your family, too. It was so surprising how deep those connections became so quickly and how the art could flow out of them. In a time that was very intense for me, a time of grief and also giving birth, it was such a gift to be able to have that space. To make art with my own community felt very grounding.
What started as a personal community arts project became a surprising experience of intergenerational community building within our own families. It allowed us to integrate various aspects of our identities on a deeper level as artists of Chinese ancestry. Where we had always understood community-engaged art as a liminal space at the intersection of art and culture, through this project we found that space within ourselves. We were able to open a new and exciting understanding and appreciation of what we have to both draw on from ourselves and offer to the larger communities to which we belong—our families, cities, and country. At a time when the pandemic and anti-Chinese racism heightened our sense of isolation, the project and process proved to be a healing source of grounding, love, and connection.
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