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Crafting Orbits


- Doris Ha Lin Sung


Craft has traditionally been an artistic, social, and utilitarian practice by which women negotiate their relationships in the familial and social spheres. Following this tradition, the artists in Shaping the Orbit use ceramic, textile, paper-cutting, and assemblage to articulate the transient nature of their own experience of cultural crossing and displacement. Ying-Yueh Chuang, Li Chai, and Karen Tam move between locales shaping, cutting, weaving, and stitching out the orbits of their lives, now and again revisiting (her)stories of womanly work.

The stories of the three Chinese-Canadian artists in this exhibition unfold from various locales. From Taiwan to Vancouver to Halifax, Ying-Yueh Chuang has always been surrounded by the sea, which is traditionally a symbol of voyage and impermanence. Gathering, saving, and studying sea plants and natural materials, Chuang chose to work with clay, focusing on organic forms, structures, textures, and colours. After moving to Toronto, Chuang’s fascination with the city’s inland setting prompted her to contemplate the meaning of being rooted to a specific locale. It is this transition, from sea to land, that Chuang develops in her Plant-Creature series, which depict hybrid ceramic forms of the sea, the land, and her imagination. This reflection on rooting recollects an important Chinese philosophical ideal: the forming of familial and societal wholeness through grounding on the land. The ceramic installation +(Cross) conveys Chuang’s understanding of the philosophy that describes the integration of heaven, earth, and human (天、地、人). This philosophical idea is articulated in the configuration of Chinese characters. Chuang borrows the basic structure for the work +(Cross) from the composition of the Chinese word “field” ( ), which is a square divided into four parts. The transparency of some of the materials in this piece make the forms look as though they are floating. Chuang creates an artificial ideal of paradise, in which memories are emerging and submerging from sea to land, with the traveller’s traces contained.

 Just as Chuang sees the cross in the centre of the word “field” ( ) as paths across a field, Li Chai sees the manipulation of the warp and weft threads of her computerized Jacquard weaving as a metaphor for traversing between places. Voyaging back and forth between China and Canada, Chai made detailed records of pregnancy and childbirth, which she combined with stories of her travels. These diary-like entries became the main texts and images woven on her textile series M Body Watch. Using the computerized Jacquard loom, Chai reproduced detailed photographic images, such as the ultrasound picture of her unborn child in Embryo, onto the fabric. These textile works hang from the gallery ceiling, resembling life-sized garments and suggesting the spectre of a transforming body in different places and times.

Chai’s work shares symbolic meaning and value with the long tradition of textile production by generations of Chinese women. It is a practice that defines female roles and women’s contribution to society. However, historians and even feminists researching gender roles have largely neglected its economic and social value.1 Chai’s use of textile as her artistic medium is a metaphor for her struggle between the shifting roles of working artist and mother. The lowbrow attitude toward textile work and other craft practices in today’s high art world is reminiscent of the neglect of womanly work in traditional societies.

Karen Tam’s family has been running Chinese restaurants in Montreal for more than three decades. Fascinated by how cultural symbols and exotic “Oriental” objects are transformed and translated in order to cater to racial stereotypes, Tam started to collect objects such as take-out menus and rice bags, rearranging and remaking them in paradoxical ways. Tam also became interested in paper-cutting, a traditional women’s craft often used as window decoration and for ritualistic purposes, but which has been appropriated for use on restaurant menus. MSG and Buddha Health Food &Vegetarian Delight depicts a laughing Buddha – a popular symbol and religious icon of good luck and longevity – holding a round plaque with the letters “MSG” (monosodium glutamate) written on it. Although MSG is used in non-Chinese restaurants and other food products, its negative effect has always been linked to Chinese food, and by extension, to the perceived irresponsibility of Chinese restaurant owners. Tam’s MSG and Buddha is a parody of this syndrome and also of the perpetuation of this stereotype by the Chinese restaurateurs themselves.


The woven plastic strips of large rice bags form the surface for Tam’s cross-stitched work The Canadian Pacific Railway: The Only Route Between the East and West. Each stitch assimilates a step that moves along the surface of the bag, acting as a metaphor for the displacement that 19th-century Chinese railroad workers in Canada experienced. The title parodies an ad slogan: the original “East” and “West” denoted the continent from coast to coast, but Tam also implies that at the end of 19th-century, the only route (relationship) between the East (China) and the West (Canada) was one of exploitation.


The early railroad workers travelled to Canada from China by boat. On Sailing Across a Vast Ocean, 100 000 Miles Apart, Tam collaborated with her mother, Yuen Yin Law. The mother and daughter team collected cigarette foil from waiters and waitresses working in their restaurant, and folded them into tiny boats that resemble the gold and silver ingots used at ritual ceremonies as offerings to the ancestors and gods. In Sailing, the gold and silver ingots are arranged on a large piece of red paper composing a wave pattern. The floor installation is vibrant and shimmering, but underneath this glamour is a sense of anxiety. The voyage carries with it not a touristy lightheartedness, but a weighty apprehension of an unknown future – a sentiment that might still be shared by new immigrants longing for a better future on a new land.


Through their works, Chuang, Chai, and Tam shape the orbits of their lives with hands that elicit crossings of time, place, culture, and personal memory.



1 Francesca Bray, Technology and Gender: Fabrics of Power in Late Imperial China

        (Berkeley; Los Angeles; London: University of California Press, 1997), 176-177.