Cheap! Diligent! Faithful!
September 25 — December 12th, 2020
By EA Douglas
Entering grunt gallery, I am initially struck by the kelly green and turquoise mural which occupies the entirety of the back wall. The mural is easily distinguishable as the facade of a building from Vancouver’s Chinatown, a neighbourhood a short walk from where I stand now. Simply illustrated in white and red, green and blue, the pretend storefront is a memorial to Ho Sun Hing Printers, Canada’s first Chinese-English print shop that was shuttered in 2014 after over a hundred years of business.
On the wall, a pretend awning stretches out over a faux garage door. A sign with red Chinese characters and green English font reads, “Quality Printing at Reasonable Prices.” There are painted plants in the painted window, beside a bold little placard that shouts “Colour Copies.” A nod to Marlene Yuen’s time spent in the letterpress studio creating her latest work, Ho Sun Hing Printers, is an artist book inspired by and made with blocks gleaned from the business the book takes its name from. When the established Chinatown print shop closed, there was a swoop of community interest in preserving the printing equipment that had been in use for over a century. Yuen added several woodblocks to her personal collection, on display in a glass case in the corner, and the WePress Collective, a community art space in the Downtown Eastside acquired over eight thousand characters of Chinese type which Yuen was able to borrow in her completion of Ho Sun Hing Printers.
Yuen is a printmaker and comic artist, mediums that can be difficult to translate into physical spaces. grunt pulls it off by highlighting Yuen’s cheeky storytelling through a series of largescale comic posters, each one narrating the life and labour of a Chinese-Canadian. There’s Stewart Wong the begrudging restaurant owner, who ran Public Lunch Cafe in Olds, Alberta for nearly 30 years, Jean Lumb, the celebrated entrepreneur and activist working in Toronto’s Chinatown and John Woo, the dedicated launderer in Hamilton, Ontario. With storytelling that exists within the pictures as much as words, the linework is thick and distinct. Backgrounds of black juxtapose the simple outlines of the people featured. The overall impact is heavy, burdensome like the hours these Chinese-Canadians laboured to run their businesses. Still, emotion is conveyed easily throughout the poster boards. A frowny faced plate of bacon and eggs echoes Wong’s misery of having to wake early to run a restaurant he didn’t want. Lumb’s armfuls of children outlined in a rigid, jagged edge depict her dedication to a large, and perhaps chaotic, family. A clothesline of various outfits, including judicial robes and football jerseys, communicates the impact that Woo’s laundry company had on his community.
Accompanying these black and white pieces on opposing walls are two cheerfully screenprinted accordion books stretched out in a display case. Here, we find the colourful biographies of Mary Ko Bong, a military mechanic and watchmaker, and Cheng Foo, a railroad worker. Leafing through the display copy of Ho Sun Hing Printers the beauty of letterpress radiates. Yuen’s artistry occurs in the composition and patterning of the images as they dance their way across the pages. Weaving between a quick history of Ho Sung Hing Co. and an interview with the last owner of the print shop, Norman Lam, the effect is ethereal while grounding. The book emits a sense of timelessness with its spellbinding pull that causes me to lose myself as I become aware of the history these pages preserve. Through the prints, the importance of these woodblocks and their specific purpose within the Chinatown community is highlighted. Slanted rows of Lanxiang Snow Chrysanthemum tea parade across a lavender page. On soft seafoam, waves of a pictorial guide to using chopsticks flow in three straight columns. Prior to the interview with Lam, we are treated to a photograph of a heavy-looking chase prepped for printing. The English text reads, “SECOND BEAUTY SALON” in reverse.
Utility is the backbone of this work. Ho Sun Hing Printers uplifts tools formerly of the everyday into art. Within the art book, the prints from these blocks are displayed as graceful facsimiles but through the translation, their importance as tools rings clear—these blocks, although beautiful, were acquired to serve and support the Chinese-Canadian community in Vancouver. When Ho Sun Hing Printers closed, due to the combined impacts of the digital age and gentrification, Chinatown lost a part of its charm.
Yuen’s work is a consistent endeavour to document the history of Chinese-Canadians, specifically their labour and dedication. Through the profiling of these business owners, she manages to capture both the sweet and the sweaty moments of a fading history. Yuen celebrates this value of industriousness, a trait that is clearly evident in her own practice. The hard work pays off—Cheap! Diligent! Faithful! is as captivating as it is informative, a true celebration.