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A family reunion in Montreal

January 22, 2014
By Wah Wing Chan, BFA 92, BFA 96

My family and I emigrated in 1972 from Macau, the former Portuguese island colony where I was born, to reunite with my father’s parents, who were in Laporte, Sask., and his sister in Montreal.

I have a photograph of our family taken that November in front of my grandfather’s general store in Laporte, which at the time was a tiny rural settlement. In the photo I am 12 years old, standing with my eight-year-old sister on the right side and my brothers, 15 and six, on the far left. In the centre are my grandparents, father and mother.

Wah Wing Chan, far right, with his family in Laporte, Sask., in 1972.

It was a cold, sunny day. We wore winter jackets and fur hats purchased in Hong Kong, but the Chinese-made clothing was inadequate for an authentic Canadian winter. The image is now permanently etched into my memory as being our first encounter with snow.

After we arrived in Saskatchewan, I regularly spent time in hospital because I would get motion sickness from riding in cars, buses, boats and airplanes (eventually I conquered this childhood condition). I can only remember fragments of those days. I was alone but well cared for by the nurses and shielded from the cold of the outside prairie world. I passed the time watching cartoons on an early colour television and reading old comic books.

After five weeks with my grandparents in Laporte, we were off to Montreal to live with my father’s sister.

My aunt and uncle had four children, just like our family. Although my cousins were similar in age to us, we did not bond in any way, perhaps due to the language barrier: at that time we did not speak much English and they did not speak enough Chinese.

My first few years in Montreal were like living in a surreal TV show. The very little bits of English I had learned in Macau were both helpful and confusing. Understanding only one or two words in a sentence did not help in many situations. Still, as the second oldest, I was designated the family’s translator.

School was a daily challenge. I would follow my cousins there and then, not knowing what was going on in class, I would go home at the end of the day and try to figure out what I needed to do for the next day. I was eager to adjust in this new world. I clearly remember how one particular day the door to the school was locked when I arrived. Later, I found out it was a holiday.

It was during this period that I began drawing, or rather doodling, to look busy at the back of the classroom, planting the seeds that would lead me to become an artist.

poison Poison, by Wah Wing Chan

Years later, Concordia helped nourish and grow those seeds. I would go on to earn two BFA degrees, the first in studio arts (1987-1992), followed by a specialization in printmaking (1992-1996). During my nine years (part-time) at Concordia, it became like a second home to me; I spent countless hours there practising my techniques, devel­oping my images and searching for my artistic voice. Looking back, I was very fortunate to have many outstanding teachers who saw something special in my artwork.

Today, I am a Montreal-based printmaker artist and, since 2000, a regular member of Atelier Circulaire, a Mile End-district facility specializing in the creation and exhibition of etchings, lithographs and digital prints.

I will always call Montreal home even though I was not born here. It is the place I feel most comfortable, where I can communicate in Chinese, English and French all in the same breath. Forty-plus years of living in the city have instilled in me an open-mindedness touching all aspects of my life. I look forward to the next 40.

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