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“My story is woven through the streets of this city” An Interview with Jamie Ly

Multi-disciplinary artist and FACES artist residency facilitator, Jamie Ly, enjoys the challenge of trying to fit as many details as she can on a small canvas – specializing in gouache paint, often on small scale materials (2×3’’). 

We chatted with Jamie about her work, the celebration of resiliency in Asian Heritage, and got to know a little bit more about her involvement with FACES. Check out the interview below, and get to know Jamie.

abouCan you tell us a little bit about yourself? Who you are, where you’re from, and some words about your craft? 

Born and raised in Toronto, my story is woven through the streets of this city. My parents are both refugees who came in the late 70s with not much to their names. With hard work and persistence, my dad opened a restaurant when I was just 1 year old. I was thrust into the food/restaurant industry and my childhood became full of memories intertwined with food. It wasn’t until recently, upon reflecting on my ties to the restaurant business that I realized how impactful this part of my childhood was on me. In the last few years, I have been thinking about my connection particularly to Chinese food and how that relates to my identification as a Chinese person. Race and culture are widely layered, complex concepts. BIPOC Artists’ narratives are valuable, priceless assets to the Arts and this series is a way to increase the global representation and to celebrate my heritage and connection to Chinatowns in this city that I was born and raised in (T’karonto). 

I have been working on a series of paintings, entitled Chinatown Scenes, that celebrate the resiliency of Asian heritage. My goal is to preserve Asian-owned storefronts as a statement on the importance of history, legacy and memory. This is tied to my own experience as a child of immigrants who came to Canada and became independent business owners. I explore themes of Chinese culture and experiences – past, present, and future –  with an emphasis on time, memory, and nostalgia.  

FACES is an artist residency that focuses on emerging BIPOC artists – it’s a chance for creatives to participate in dialogue, artmaking, and inclusive community building revolving around lives experiences, with the intention of further diversifying the arts community in Toronto.  

Can you speak on your involvement, and what drew you to it in the first place?

My parents are both refugees who came to Toronto in the late 1970s. As a child, I often would request to hear stories about my family’s journey and experiences. These stories would be lost if they remain unrecorded, documented and shared. The pandemic has allowed me to spend time thinking and reflecting on these ideas.

Working these contemplations along with an emphasis on memory and nostalgia in an interwoven way is of great importance to me a way to continue sharing and archiving Asian Canadian stories. My Chinese Canadian artist experience motivates my interest in exploring barriers that BIPOC artists face because I have experienced them myself.  This was what sparked the founding of FACES. As I was thinking about my newfound time during the COVID-19 lockdown, I realized I often lacked the energy and time to really focus on my art aside from taking an evening class here and there. While I was reflecting on why this was, I began to identify barriers I faced myself such as the financial pressures to pursue “stability”. Growing up, I was encouraged to pursue visual arts – always under the lens of “as a hobby”. The idea instilled in me was to work hard so you could afford to paint and draw leisurely. Pursuing art school had never even dawned on me until I was already in university. 

I really wanted to help other artists with similar experiences as myself who did not prioritize art as a career because of the cultural, family and financial barriers they may have faced and I dreamed of having a residency program that would be fully funded for BIPOC artists to have the time and space to create community and support each other as a way to dismantle these systemic barriers which is why I founded FACES with the support of Sarah Cullen, who I had reached out to as a mentor for facilitating a residency program. 

A barrier we face ourselves as a collective is whether or not we will be able to fully fund future programming – as much as the dream is to continue to do so in order to support and provide opportunities for more BIPOC artists. We are very grateful that Ontario Arts Council has provided us with generous funding for our residency program this summer. Without their support, putting this program on would have been challenging. We hope FACES can help to demonstrate how much arts funding is needed and pertinent for BIPOC artists to be prioritized. 

Can you touch on your work? What are you working on currently, and what are some projects you’re most proud of? 

Many memories are connected to food and it has been a longstanding, passionate theme throughout my life. In fear of losing out on more opportunities to capture beautiful scenes of Chinatown, I began photographing and painting Chinese-owned storefronts before they too become a distant memory. King’s Noodles is a longstanding, recognizable restaurant in Toronto’s disappearing Chinatown. During the pandemic, I chose to paint the King’s Noodles BBQ window display because of the ties to feelings of shame, love, hard work and passion. I felt proud to have that painting included in the Quarantine Qapsule Online Exhibit which was curated by Night Nguyen in collaboration with Myseum and Tea Base because I felt that I was making more meaning from the subject of the paintings I was completing during this period of time.

I continued to work on the Chinatown Scenes Series which led me to painting another storefront in Toronto, Yung swing Pastry Shop. Despite closing in 2009, Yung Sing’s storefront remains in Toronto as a symbol of resiliency, especially with the onset of COVID19 resulting in increased targeted attacks on Asians and the looming threat to Chinatown’s legacy due to gentrification. 

My connection with the Yung Sing Pastry Shop is based on my own memories of visiting the space as a young child. I have fond memories of my Mum (whom I attribute to influencing my love for food) picking me up from Orde St P.S. and taking me to Yung Sing’s for after school snacks. It turns out that other Orde St. P.S. alumni also have fond memories of doing this! Yung Sing had the best BBQ Pork buns and fried shrimp dumplings. The coconut buns and tofu buns were also delicious. Over the years, I have longed for the shop to reopen so I could relive the memories of seeing Mr. Ko pop up from the basement window with the trays of hot buns. In my mind, I remember the trays being extremely wide and full of hot buns and the window very small. As a child, I was fascinated with how this busy, bustling place operated. Looking back on these memories, I am reminded of my own experiences in the environment of my family’s restaurants and this has influenced my interest in learning more about the history of Chinese owned restaurants and businesses.  

Since sharing the painting I made of the Yung Sing storefront and submitting it as my contribution to the AGO’s Portrait of Resilience Online Exhibit, I’ve had several opportunities to connect (and reconnect) with individuals who also have memories of visiting the shop, and with others who never had a chance to visit but have always wondered about the storefront. It’s been a really great conversation and means of connecting with others and, in a sense, building community based on shared stories.  I even was able to reconnect with a former high school colleague who now runs their own bakery (Ba Noi) after they had posted a photo of Yung Sing’s cookbook on social media; this led one of the grandkids of Mr. Ko discovered my painting of Yung Sing and created another opportunity to connect and share memories.

While working on the Yung Sing painting, I spent time researching the collective memories shared of visiting Yung Sing and discovered the common thread of positivity in all the stories shared. The stories being shared across multiple platforms – Chowhound & Reddit threads, social media –  are truly indicative of how important Yung Sing is to the City of Toronto.  

As property prices continue to rise, Yung Sing is an example of the type of establishments that are central to community, what sociologist Ray Oldenburg calls, ‘third places’ (a connected series I am working on). These important third places are increasingly endangered – especially in Chinatowns. Yung Sing’s legacy serves as a point of connection for many who have visited the location and is a reminder of the importance of supporting independently owned local businesses because these are spaces that are pertinent to communities. This is especially true as we continue to live through a pandemic where isolation has created an ache for connecting, socializing, and face-to-face connections. The ability to connect with others through art and share and preserve stories, memories and perspectives is the part of being an artist that speaks to me and makes my heart sing.

FACES will be running at Artscape Gibraltar Point from August 2-8.
To view more of Jamie’s work, click here.
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