Yong Fei Guan 关泳霏: Disappearance

The locked chain link gate stands where the Chinatown Gate 中华门 used to be. It creates a barrier in front of heaps of dusty earth and a bulldozer. Hung from it are red and white “no-entry” and “danger, authorized personnel only” signs. Around them are handwritten plaques in Chinese and English that have the look of spirit tablets to memorialize the end of a life. To the left and right are guardian lions. They’re not the typical carved granite sculptures; these are hot pink and plastic.

Yong Fei Guan, Su Jiao Shi 塑胶狮 at the former site of the Harbin Gate. 2017. Photograph courtesy of artist.

The guardian lions are the artwork of Yong Fei Guan. Eyes are composed of bottle caps, haunches of gallon jugs, the manes and beards of the tangled plastic webs from 6-packs, and the roaring mouths hold plastic balls. The faces are cartoonish round shapes with bulging eyes and spiky eyebrows. There’s a segmented feel to the bodies that is the effect of replicating the animal’s muscle mass carved into stone with individual cartons and jugs. All of it is evenly spray-painted; “pink because it’s more feminine,” the artist says. The lions balance on mint-green wooden crates, facing each other.

About five years ago the City Council of Edmonton voted to dismantle and move the Chinatown Gate, a gift from its sister city of Harbin, to make way for the construction of a light rail through the space. A ceremony marking the gate’s demise was held in January 2017. That April the granite guardian lions were moved to an empty lot. In November the gates followed. 

To speak of “Chinatown” in Edmonton is to speak of a place that has appeared and disappeared over the course of a century or so. First located on the eastern fringe of the city, it recentred itself further north sixty years later, and when the commercial district of the city began to grow up around it, that Chinatown, too, disappeared. Local librarian Amy Yin-Yee Wong remembers:

… Edmonton’s Chinatowns in the 1970s… where I spent my early years of life, no longer exists. All that remains is the Chinese Elderly Mansion seniors’ home just east along 102 Avenue. My Chinatown has now become Canada Place and the Winspear Centre. My childhood house, just east of 102A Avenue, has been long demolished and turned into a brown brick law office and parking lot. My old Chinese school, which was housed in a church basement, no longer teaches Chinese to children, as children no longer live in the area.

… The Family Pharmacy, which filled many prescriptions for countless elderly Chinese folks, has closed its doors in the past two years. The mah-jong parlours for the various Chinese social clubs have all been shuttered because the old men and women who socialized in them have “passed their bodies,” as we Cantonese speakers say. The first Chinese Gate to welcome visitors has been moved into storage to make way for the incoming LRT. (May 15, 2015)

As the economic desires of the city shift, Chinatown has had to shift with them, literally being put on the run. The plastic lions, then, could be interpreted as a temporary monument to that moveable space and community, a make-do tribute to the original Chinatown Gate. They never were intended to last too long. The paint flakes from the lions’ surfaces; the edges are battered; the plastic could not withstand a harsh Edmonton winter. It seems as if it too, will vanish. And indeed, the sculptures have left their context to return to the artist’s studio, and currently are on display in the Art Gallery of Alberta (where they can be viewed through August 8). To encounter them now, away from their original site, nonetheless is to be asked to see and recognize different modes and kinds of disappearances that lie in the gateway spaces between a community and a city.

For the artist, however, there is one more layer of complexity to the encounter with the medial gap embodied in the guardian lions, and that has to do with the open question of what exactly they are guarding. She points out that roughly coincident with Chinatown’s most recent disappearance there was a reappearance: the reappearance of trash on the Canadian horizon. In January 2018 the PRC government enacted a new policy of no longer receiving plastics and garbage of the world for sorting and recycling. The new policy scored a line under our troubled relationship to refuse. “When you go to the toilet, shit disappears,” Slavoj Zizek observes from an anonymous garbage dump, over the noise of bulldozers. He’s right. Instead of disappearing to China, in 2018 for a brief moment shit suddenly regained its presence at home before being quickly disappeared once again, this time to southeast Asia.

Yong Fei Guan, Su jiao shi 塑胶狮. On display at the AGA. Photograph by author.

The lions, partly hence, also are guardians of the future. Their forms suggest it. Their comic expressions and robotic bodies put them into a quasi science-fiction realm of avatars (keep in mind those granite sculptures for which they’re stand-ins). For the artist, that playfulness connects them to her child, to youth, to the denizens of that future. Though it does so on the dark thought that they will be made to see the global-scale disappearances that coalesce in the plastic lions–and to deal with the consequences of a geopolitics used to disguise from ourselves the way that we all are implicated in the planet’s problems when it comes to consumerism and the garbage it produces. The guardians’ handmade-ness brings the lions back from the brink of virtual reality and its digital future to push us to think on the reasons for the state of our polluted planet now and how we might begin to see it with more clarity––all of it, for what it is.

Wong, Amy Yin Yee. 2015. “Ah-Yin’s Chinese Persons’ Street or Amy’s Chinatown.” Edmonton City as Museum Project (May 15). DOI: https://citymuseumedmonton.ca/2020/05/15/ah-yins-chinese-persons-street-or-amys-chinatown/

Zizek, Slavoj. 2008. “Examined Life: Philosophy in the Streets.” https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=j_K_79O21hk

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