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Chinatown mural combines thousand year history with Calgary cultural twist

Calgarians travelling to Chinatown will have no doubt noticed the mural depicting the revered 12th century Chinese cultural icon Along the River During the Qingming Festival coming to life writ large.

The mural, created by local artists Rawry and Pohly, was officially unveiled on Oct. 12 at its location adjacent to Sushi Point at 116 – 2 Avenue SW, and visible from Centre Street and the Centre Street Bridge.

Jamie Mason, aka Rawry, called creating the work with her partner Kevin Chow, aka Pohly, an intimidating experience. The pair not only had their own take on of one of the most beloved and reproduced art pieces in Chinese history, but also braved the searing August heatwave and soaring heights on the back of lifts to create the work.

“When we first approached this, that knowledge of such an ancient scroll was weighing on us for a long time, to the point where we didn’t even begin to sketch the idea,” said Chow.

Mason and Chow also said it was also intimidating to know it would be in a prominent location visible by the thousands that travel through Chinatown daily.

The duo approached members of the Chinese Cultural Centre and organizations throughout Chinatown to come up with a reinterpretation that felt accessible, inspirational, but also fun for Calgarians.

“Because we make art to celebrate the inner child, and we kind of wanted to throw it back to the first drawings we ever did as kids, which was of course stick figures,” Chow said.

“So often we hear people saying we can only draw stick figures, and we see they put this limitation on themselves, and we just kind of want to inspire. Those stick figures are OK, in fact here, look at one of the biggest murals in Calgary is stick figures.”

In amongst the mural is a wide variety of Easter eggs meant to represent modern Chinatown locations, community members, and businesses, and even the artists’ own family. The ancient Chinese dialect found on the original scroll has also been updated to use modern Chinese writing, including such phrases as “Bow River,” and “ginger beef.”

“We really wanted to create something that was not not just a re-creation of the original, but also had the local and interesting things from around Calgary, and Calgary’s Chinatown specifically. It’s really important to the place that you actually bring the place into the work,” said Mason.

The mural was supported by Calgary Arts Development, Canada Council for the Arts, Harmonious Building Condominium Board, Calgary Chinese Cultural Society, Impark, the Calgary Chinatown BIA, Chinatown Development Foundation, and the City of Calgary.

Heritage and tradition on display in Chinatown

Brian Wong, executive director for the Chinatown BIA, said that the idea for the mural came the desire to show off the tradition and heritage of the Chinatown community.

He called the mural something that will bring joy to the community well into the future.

“Finding a wall, it takes collaboration, and finding people who are talented, just like Rawry and Pohly is another,” he said.

“It takes such a collaboration, and all the community members and community leaders came together, and great execution as well, so I think everything is just a big win for the Chinatown community.”

He said that he hopes that eventually there will be more murals throughout Chinatown.

“When it comes to clashing the East and the West, I think we have the best interpretation and the resources to come about to help us foster this relationship moving forward. This is only just the beginning,” Wong said.

“Moving forward, it is what we showcase in our Asian motifs, so when we step on to the boundaries of Chinatown, we are actually noticing it right away.”

He said that the mural represents the epitome of what it means to be inclusive in Calgary.

“It’s always an evolution, because Chinatown itself, the complexity of Chinatown, is different generations of immigrants. We collide, and all together we bring in different ethnic experience, lived experiences from different Chinatowns and from different areas of our life, and country of origin,” Wong said.

“An example like this, it took a lot of time, we have community consultation, round table discussions—people at the table, they bring in not only the knowledge and wisdom, but the willingness to work together.”

Motifs for a changing community

Ward 7 Councillor Terry Wong was present at the unveiling, alongside his counterpart for Ward 4, Sean Chu.

Coun. Wong said that to him, the mural represented not only Chinatown’s story, but also the story of Calgary’s Indigenous peoples.

“What I find is common between Indigenous First Nations culture, and Chinese culture, is number one: We celebrate the earth, we celebrate the climate, and we celebrate the land and water,” he said.

“We also celebrate family and community… it’s about storytelling so that our family, our kids, and future generations carry the stories forward.”

He said that the mural was also reflective of the upcoming goals for the Chinatown cultural plan, to be discussed in Council Chambers on Oct. 14.

“This has a bit of a Calgary flavour, but the other reason that the mural is important to us is that it allows us to tell the Chinatown story in a Calgary setting,” Coun. Wong said.

“That’s very important as we as we talk about doing a new local area plan, a new cultural plan. This is a representation of the history, and we want to see future art that will talk about the present as well as the future.”

Tomorrow’s Chinatown session this week in committee

During the speeches unveiling the mural, Coun. Wong issued a call for members of the Chinatown community to make their voices heard during the Infrastructure and Planning Committee session on Friday.

“It’s important to two accounts. One, of course, is for the administration and council members to understand how significant it was to start their cultural plan in the first place, and to celebrate the completion of that,” he said.

“The second is also for the community themselves to stand tall and say, ‘you know what, we are prepared to stand for it and make our statements in council,’ and to say ‘yes make the investments, bring the program to the land use policies in place.'”

He said that most councillors recognize the significant contribution of the Chinese community. He believes the community’s voices will be heard on investments needed to revitalize the downtown core.

“What makes a great destination is you got to provide a clean, safe, secure environment, you got to provide a great experience, and when you do that, celebrate the destination accordingly.”

Brian Wong echoed that celebration of Chinatown being a destination, but also one that was standing up for safety.

“[The mural] all came together with very nice timing, because when we look at the community safety and whatnot from that point of view, we really have to have this positive reinforcement, so that the the ownership is on us, and now we are showing this,” he said.

He said that the BIA would continue to work with Council on achieving shared goals, such as the mural.

“We want to work with City Council moving forward as well, and to realize that maybe part of the downtown strategy, maybe part of the Tomorrow’s Chinatown funding or resources, we open up aspirations for future talents as well, because they see there is a roadmap to succeed.”