Migration & Memory | Immigration & Art by Marjorie Chan

I am the child of immigrants. My parents came to Canada from Hong Kong in 1967, almost 50 years ago. They have lived more of their lives in Canada, than in Hong Kong. And yet, being Chinese still informs a huge part of their identity, and their daily lives. They are comfortable, they are happy, but their choice to leave their homeland doesn't come without cost.

(I remember as a child, standing by the master bed, telling my mother about my day at school.
Her eyes stayed closed.)

After a busy working life, and two bouts with cancer, with two daughters grown and successful, my parents finally retired from their working life. At that point, they, not unlike many middle-class Canadians, decided to take trips to see the world. One such trip took my parents to Russia, Scandinavia, and the Ukraine. When they returned, I sat in their kitchen, drinking tea as my mother told me about her trip. Speaking to me in Chinese, she described her visit to the Hermitage in St. Petersburg. Her face was energized, her hands animated and her speech passionate. The first thing that struck me, was how much she loved visual art. I don’t know if I recognized that fact with such clarity before that moment. Secondly, I was amazed at her critical capacity in evaluating and discussing the paintings that she saw. Moreover, since she was speaking in her native Cantonese, she was using Chinese words that I had never heard before and did not know. I imagined that in her years and life in Canada - she had no opportunity to use those words, so in fact, perhaps never had access to art. It was a sobering moment for me, as a professional artist, who has dedicated a lot of my practice to inviting inclusivity into theatre, to think that my mother had none.

When I am not writing, I run a theatre company. For our main stage productions, we often consult with the lead artist to create an outreach program, along the themes or inspired by their play. One of our playwrights articulated a desire to see an art program for adult women newcomers. Specifically, he wanted women, like his immigrant mother, to know that there could be space for them, for them to express themselves, to feel less isolated.... He trailed off…The conversation grew quiet. I had read his play. I understood. There was more he wanted to say, but shied away from. Perhaps, a wish. In my own mind, for my own mother, a yearning, the same wish. (Why won’t you get up?) The program we ultimately devised was a combined collage-creation and storytelling facilitated by 3 female artists (including myself). We invited community partners from across the city of Toronto to offer this free program for their adult newcomer clients, and we would go and deliver it. We arranged for child-care, as well as covering transit costs. We served tea and samosas and orange slices. In the first half of our program, the collage portion involved selecting images from magazines and books that resonated with the women and the idea of home. In the second portion, we asked the women to share stories from their collage, which inevitably led the women to stories about their families, their hopes, their dreams. Most of the women articulated that were appreciative of a few precious hours together. They came from a broad range of experience, some were once-upon-a-time practicing artists, others asserted that they had never participated in any artistic expression.

My enduring memory was from one location, which has a high population of women from Afghanistan. We were in a health centre, and the room was normally reserved for board meetings and such. We opened the windows so that the Saturday morning light spilled in. We covered the tables in plastic sheeting. We set up the snacks. And we waited. The time for the workshop came and went, but no participants arrived. The community organizer apologized, but we shook our heads. It happens. We were disappointed, but what could we do but wait? Then, when we were quite ready to capitulate, women shyly poked their covered heads into the door. “Is it here?”, one woman asked. “Is art here?” We leapt up with a resounding, “Yes! Yes it is!” We helped them with their jackets as they arrived. In the end, all 12 that had signed up were present. As I checked off the last one, we shut the door to the room, our private room for the next few hours. And as I did so, the women who were gathered around the samosas and tea, one by one took off their hijabs, and with the sunlight reflecting off their dark hair, took their seats around the art supplies. Welcome, we said.

Shouldn't everyone have access to art? What happens when people do not have access to artistic expression?


Both my parents, as new Canadians, were fairly lucky, and were able to find jobs in civil service. An immigrant dream - stable desk jobs, vacation, pensions. It wasn’t a lot of money but enough to raise their two daughters, to buy a house deep in Scarborough. My father was an investigative auditor for the Ministry of Health. The beginning of his career was quite exciting as he was out in the field, sometimes even working undercover as a ‘non-English speaking immigrant’. Later, as he became more senior, he was desk-bound, and the work less interesting. His choice, was a sacrifice, but perhaps not as much as my creative mother.

My mother, too, worked for a provincial ministry for a time. Administrative. It is what she went to school for - which was appropriate for a smart young woman in the 60s - secretarial school. She used to make figures and pictures for my sister and myself, on a manual typewriter, hitting keys and using the backspace to ‘draw’. I remember once, she created a donkey, and a man wearing a hat, and wielding a staff. “Don Quixote”, she whispered. Then I sang from “Man of La Mancha”. I can’t remember if she sang with me. She didn’t often sing, but she had a lovely voice, clear and tuneful. I haven’t heard it in years.

Later in my childhood, she became ill, mostly bed-ridden for several years. For 10 year old me, I liked having my mother at home. It was a far cry from our empty latch-key days, when the hours between school and when our parents came home seemed interminable. My mother was in bed; but at least she was there. Speaking about it years later, my sister has a different take on it. With a note of uncharacteristic bitterness she told me that she yearned for our mother’s guidance while she went through puberty. I realized then, how sheltered I was. I felt free; my sister felt alone. My sister was an extremely dutiful sibling and daughter, perhaps to a fault, as at that time, she often subsumed her own desires. She has, in later life, embraced a carefree, laissez-faire approach to life that suits her better and certainly makes her happier.

In any case, that time of my mother’s illness, is not really spoken of in our family. An indeterminate sickness that keeps one unable to get out of bed for days at a time, and with no clear underlying cause, would likely be diagnosed very differently now. I say this with hindsight, with the opportunity to witness tendencies and diagnoses in both my sister and myself.

(I was the younger sister, still in high school - how could I know how to help?
I would learn.
I would learn more, when I experienced it myself.)

Last week, I took my parents to a fantastic play written by a friend, set in Hong Kong. We sat, we watched. I cried, perhaps my father did too. We spoke about it after. My father recognized some of the actors, from television and as friends of mine. My mother spoke about the cultural context, the staging, the audience, the lead character’s motivation - she had much to say. She has always had much to say. Now in their 70s, my parents and I go to theatre together a few times a year, usually motivated by my sister or myself. Except one recent occasion. Of their own accord, my mother and her youngest sister attended a Chinese-language version of a popular Broadway play in Scarborough. “Why didn’t you tell me?”, I asked. “I would’ve gone with you!” She told me that I wouldn’t have liked it, and using the English words, added, “Kitchen-sink.” I laughed and laughed into my noodles. She was right.

The challenges of immigration are immense. My family, were willing migrants; I cannot imagine the stress and strife to forcibly having to emigrate. As our country welcomes more new Canadians, not only from Syria, but from every corner of the globe - it is imperative that their cultural life be accounted for. Art creates connections, art eases expression, art inspires life. Alas, my mother was not of a time, and of a generation to pursue her artistic tendencies - and that choice did undoubtedly have cost. But her sacrifice, and the sacrifice of my father, freed me.

Marjorie Chan

Marjorie is a multi-disciplinary writer and theatre artist working as playwright, librettist, director and dramaturge. A six-time nominee, Marjorie is the recipient of four Toronto Dora Awards, one for Outstanding Performance and three for Outstanding New Opera. In 2005, she was named the K.M. Hunter Theatre Artist, an Ontario-wide award for mid-career artists. Marjorie was previously Artist-in-Residence at Banff Playwrights’ Lab, Cahoots Theatre, Factory Theatre, Theatre Direct Canada, Tapestry New Opera, SUNY (Geneseo, New York), and Theatre du Pif (Hong Kong).