May 13–Sep 3,  2023
    Long Time No See, Sky Lee, 2023. Courtesy of LTNS. Photo: Maylynn Quan
Long Time No See, Sky Lee, 2023. Courtesy of LTNS. Photo: Maylynn Quan

Tackling Canada’s colonialist history, this exhibition marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Presenting images and stories gathered by The Long Time No See collective from Markham community members in spaces that elicit “belonging,” this project asks: What is our place on this land? What is remembered? What is forgotten? What is our role in reconciliation? How do we all belong?

Long Time No See, Paper Sons Room Composite, 2023. Courtesy of LTNS. Photo: Kwoi Gin

The Chinese Immigration Act, more commonly known as the Chinese Exclusion Act, was a Canadian Act of Parliament that deemed people of Chinese descent “unsuitable for citizenship.” Enacted in 1923, it prevented virtually any immigration of Chinese people into Canada for 24 years. It is important to note that 2023 is also the centenary of the signing of The Williams Treaties—bureaucratic legislation signed by the Government of Canada and seven First Nations resulting in the surrender of the final portion of southern Ontario territory to the Canadian Government, including the land that the Varley Art Gallery sits on today.

The Exclusion Act had devastating effects on generations of Chinese families, separating husbands from wives and parents from their children. It was not until 1967 that race-based discrimination was legally removed in Canada. Yet, the trauma caused by the Act persists, and as the COVID-19 pandemic has shown, so do anti-Asian sentiments. In the depths of pandemic lockdowns, in response to this oppressive treatment, a collective of Chinese artists and educators came together to support Toronto’s Spadina Chinatown. The collective adopted the name Long Time No See (LTNS), and comprises Emily Chan, Richard Fung, Kwoi Gin, Brenda Joy Lem, Keith Lock, Morris Lum, Maylynn Quan, Amy Shuang Wong, Rick Wong, Sandy Yep, and Shellie Zhang. Together, they sought to bring awareness to the shuttering of businesses, the rise of anti-Chinese racism, and aggressive gentrification happening in their community. Fearing that Chinatown was facing a tipping point that would ultimately lead to its disappearance, the collective produced a series of street art interventions aimed at building community during a time of change and uncertainty. Locals were invited to take selfies at places of emotional significance in Chinatown and share their stories. As artist Brenda Joy Lem explains, “The sharing of stories not only builds connection, but also gives people practical examples of how to survive during times of hardship, and brings to the surface unconscious feelings, which allow a process of conscious community-building to begin.” 

In recent decades, Chinese immigration to Toronto’s older Chinatowns has decreased. Instead, communities have expanded in suburban areas around the GTA, including Scarborough, Markham, Richmond Hill, and Newmarket. Overall, this shift has proved fortuitous, allowing communities to establish themselves and grow. However, tensions have naturally arisen as multiple generations of newcomers—from different geographical areas, speaking different languages with varying goals and ambitions—live side by side. For this new project, LTNS looked to the suburbs to build ties with Chinese communities outside of Toronto, learning about their cultural and immigration experiences, ultimately sharing common ground.

For LTNS, the act of gathering and recording stories, sharing experiences both tragic and heartening, is the crux of this project. Similar to the public call for collaboration in downtown Toronto, the collective documented their own interactions, using photography to capture the people and places that, together, contribute to building community. Without a historical Chinatown, Markham’s diverse Chinese diasporas gather across the city in community centres, churches, and malls. LTNS met most of their subjects through word of mouth, moving from one person to another in an organic fashion, spending time with subjects, often eating meals with them. Other encounters took place more serendipitously, and stories were recorded on the spot through chance encounters.

In keeping with the collective’s street-art aesthetic, the images in LONGING BELONGING are printed on bond paper and pasted directly to the gallery walls. Large images, photographed by members of LTNS, are reproduced with borders resembling the fabric used to frame Chinese brush paintings. Each subject’s story appears on either side of their image in both English and Chinese (traditional and simplified). These images feature a central subject placed within an environment of their own choosing. For example, in Karen Law (2022), the subject stands in front of the herbal store where her grandmother buys teas and medicines. The image reinforces Law’s relationship with her family, but also with her community, by including the staff who work at the shop. Contributions from the public, rendered as smaller posters, are interspersed between these staged portraits.

Much like the photographs that adorn the walls of our living rooms, bringing back cherished memories of loved ones, the prints in the gallery make visitors feel welcome. LTNS artist Rick Wong explains, “It’s not often that you find yourself surrounded by so many Asian faces in one space, let alone in an art gallery. By bringing the community inside the walls of the Varley Art Gallery, you allow them to make it their own.”

Curated by Anik Glaude

Presented by Varley Art Gallery of Markham in partnership with CONTACT. Funded in part by the Canada Council for the Arts, the Ontario Arts Council, the Varley-McKay Art Foundation of Markham, and the City of Markham

LONG TIME NO SEE Collective is a non-profit, ad hoc group of friends, artists, and educators including Emily Chan, Richard Fung, Kwoi Gin, Brenda Joy Lem, Keith Lock, Morris Lum, Maylynn Quan, Amy Shuang Wang, Rick Wong, Sandy Yep, and Shellie Zhang.