Hook Sin Tong Society, photocollage by Robert Amos 

Normally, Art in Victoria reviews the visual arts in and around Victoria, and sometimes even as far away as that big metropolis in the sky, Campbell River, but this week Art in Victoria presents it’s first ever book review.  The  book in question, as you might have guessed, is Inside Chinatown, Ancient Culture in a New World by Robert Amos and Kileasa Wong.

Of course anyone and everyone in Victoria who is interested in art, or in reading the Times Colonist, knows about Robert Amos, our very own arts writer extraordinaire.  Among the people I know, Robert Amos is best known for absolutely enraging certain groups of artists by writing very short and, consequently, very dismissive reviews about what is commonly believed to be some fine art by some fine artists.  Why Robert Amos does this is anyone’s guess.  I have been told that Robert Amos was, once upon a time, a funky and experimental artist, performing and creating unusual and even collectible artworks, but these days it’s clear that Robert Amos chooses to tread a more conservative and perhaps more fiscally responsible path.  A path which includes those aforementioned art reviews, a couple of books now, and lots of paintings that some people sneeringly refer to as “tourist pictures”.

The genesis of this book review began several weeks, even months ago, with a review of Robert Amos’ paintings of Chinatown which were showing at the Legacy Gallery.  R.A. just read that review a few days ago and apparently was pleased enough to write and request a subsequent review of the Inside Chinatown book.  Here at Art in Victoria, we have a hard time saying no, even when a very controversial personage, such as Robert Amos, asks us to write what he no doubt hopes will be a good review of his book.  What a test.  Will we prove to be a lot of snivelling brown-nosing sycophants?  Or will we give into the swirling cesspool of Amos hatred so prevalent here in Victoria?  Hopefully we can just be what we always are: generous.

To begin:  a brief description both of the book and of why we’ve actually only been able to read the first half of the book.  When R.A. first approached us about reviewing Inside Chinatown, he offered to have his publisher send us a copy, but unfortunately questions were raised about us here at Art in Victoria, questions having to do with our legitimacy in terms of readership.  So, instead we received a digital “sampler” which includes a short history of the Chinese journey to BC and the early struggles and achievements of the Chinese immigrants and later the Chinese Canadians in overcoming systemic, and might we say, ignorant, racism.  This written history is a precursor to the second half of the book, most of which we haven’t seen, but which is made up of descriptions and photographs of various Chinese Canadian Associations which still exist in Chinatown to this very day.

As mentioned, the book holds a collection of photographs, some black and whites of olden-days China, and the early inhabitants of Chinatown, and some of R.A’s signature photographic collage works.  One of our interns here at Art in Victoria, who happens to be rather scientifically minded, was quite bemused by R.A.’s collages.  Fortunately, we had our old H.H. Arnason open and we were able to show him an iconic David Hockney piece, circa 1982, which proved that R.A.’s photos are indeed art, and are therefore transcendent.

Also interesting is the bilingual aspect of the book.  R.A.’s co-author Kileasa Wong has prepared the text in Cantonese and the two languages appear side by side on every page.  The desirability of being bilingual becomes very apparent when we see two such disparate languages together in this way.  We wonder about the art of translation and the ways in which the story changes from English to Cantonese.  For those of you who don’t know Ms. Wong, she is a Chinatown powerhouse, being an artist, a teacher of dance and of Chinese painting, the principal of the Chinese Public School, a small business owner, a mother, and the editor of Victoria Chinatown Newsletter.  Truly, a great and gifted lady.

At this point we feel we must applaud both Kileasa Wong and R.A. for the very idea of a book about the culture behind the ultra delicious BBQ duck and noodle soup place.  It’s fascinating, and for the majority of the non-Chinese Canadian Canadians it is mysteriously so, for unless you’ve had the good fortune, like R.A., first to be invited into the Chinatown studios of artists and then into the Temples, Clubs and Societies of Chinese Canadian Chinatown, then who could know that all this culture and tradition and community existed?  It’s wonderful.

Kudos, also to R.A. for sending us what was probably the most difficult portion of the book to write.  Once, quite a few years ago, one of our writers here at Art in Victoria, enrolled in a Russian history class and she recalls that trying to keep all of that unfamiliar information, the dates, the names, and the regions straight in her mind was like trying to stop Afghan poppy farmers from using Kalishnikovs.  Difficult.  She said it was especially difficult to condense all of that vast, convoluted history into a readable essay without sounding wooden, or worse, without making huge and confusing leaps of logic.  She said she would often repeat herself, unintentionally of course, in her essay writing, almost as if trying, metaphorically, to nail her understanding of events down.  It’s not hard to imagine that the history of China and of the Chinese peoples would be just as demanding a subject to write about.

As a matter of fact, one of the most charming elements of the book (at least the part that we read) is the way it avoids sounding overly academic.  Instead it has a neighbourly air of the personal.  Rather than a stodgy rendering of facts and figures, we get a picture of R.A. and Kileasa Wong taking part in a storytelling circle where people share their clan stories, where elders tell tales from long ago, and everyone reveals memories passed carefully down generation to generation.  Here at Art in Victoria, this is what we like best; this sense of the story, this slightly breathless, clamouring, detailed story, of people, of place, of hardship and of success.  A story told carefully, again and again.  A treasure shared with us, Inside Chinatown.

Inside Chinatown, Ancient Culture in a New World is published by Touch Wood Editions

The Art in Victoria team is made up of Bela Clark, editor,  Christine Clark, main scribe, and Steven M., intern.  If you have a book, some art or any other artful happening you would like us to review, then please contact Christine