Below the Radar Transcript

Episode 85: Remembering Chinatown — with Gwen Boyle

Speakers: Alex Abahmed, Am Johal, Gwen Boyle


Alex  0:06  
Hi, I'm Alex and this is Below the Radar, a knowledge democracy podcast. Below the Radar is created by SFU's Vancity Office of Community Engagement and is recorded on the territories of Musqueam, Squamish and Tsleil-Waututh peoples. Longtime visual artist and community treasure Gwen Boyle joins Am Johal to recount some of the sights and sounds of growing up in Vancouver's Chinatown. She tells stories from a lifetime of making art from Chinatown to the Arctic Circle and back. Gwen also shares the inspiration behind her well known piece, Abacus (Suan Phan). An interactive sculpture symbolic of early Chinatown merchants, I hope you enjoy our conversation with Gwen.


Am Johal  0:48  
Hi there, everyone. Welcome to another episode of Below the Radar. Really excited to be speaking with Gwen Boyle, who's been a longtime artist in Vancouver. Welcome, Gwen. 

Gwen Boyle  1:01  

Am Johal  1:02  
Hi. I just thought for some of our listeners who may not be familiar with your work. I of course have seen your work based in Chinatown but you of course, grew up there as well. And I know that your grandfather was a jeweler and a goldsmith Dong jam lung, who maintained a shop there, a place that you spent a lot of time in. And I'm wondering if you can talk a little bit about your time that you spent living in and being in Chinatown.

Gwen Boyle  1:31  
Yes, I grew up in Chinatown. Actually I wasn't born there. Where was I born? [laughs]I wasn't born there. When I was about maybe three or four. I was sort of let loose in Chinatown. My grandfather had this jewelry store there. We lived down there above the jewelry store and as a small child, I remember I can hear the hammer hammering away when he hammers gold. And the sound of his abacus, which is what the Chinese people use for calculating money that they take in ,the sound of ticking beads, wooden beads. That's always the sound that I grew up, with the sound of the taking beads, now regarded as similar to computers. Shops now use computers to add up the... Well my grandfather did that with a wooden abacus, which was a Chinese sort of same idea of calculation. And that was familiar, the sound of him hammering gold, the whooshing sound of gas. And the usual mechanical sounds, you hear in a goldsmith. With their hammering gold, pulling gold into the wire, making chains and things like that. And that was all very familiar sounds for me.

Am Johal  2:53  

Gwen Boyle  2:53  
I grew up a little bit older, I went to art school, and I did painting and then the usual stuff but I took up sculpture, because that's the same sound, mechanical sound that I grew up learning about, the sound of hammering, the sound of metalwork. So I proceeded to study sculpture at the school. 

Am Johal  3:21  
That must have been a very interesting time. You studied in the 1970s at the Vancouver School of Art, the predecessor to Emily Carr. And that was a really interesting, vibrant time in the Vancouver art scene. I'm wondering if you could sort of describe the time that you were going to school and kind of what was happening in Vancouver during that time in terms of art. 

Gwen Boyle  3:44  
Well, I have to confess that when I went to art school, they concentrated more on the visual arts and therefore my experience there was looking at visual art and looking at painters who work with hand work, you know, some of it Chinese oriented depending on what the teacher there is offering. So it was different from Vancouver Art School in the later time when I was older. My time is far too early for any of the 60s to happen.

Gwen Boyle  4:21  
My time at art school was primarily to learn about art and painting and things like that. And then visiting maybe galleries and getting some input from artists in the neighborhood. But as far as the vibrant time of the 60s, the dawn crazy. 

Am Johal  4:43  

Gwen Boyle  4:44  
It was different at the art school I went to.

Am Johal  4:48  

Gwen Boyle  4:48  
Yeah. So I couldn't tell you the dynamics of the jumping.

Am Johal  4:55
Also in terms of you know, you've lived in Vancouver for a big part of your life besides being up north, and I hear stories from artists like Ken Lum, who talked about his grandfather walking down Hastings Street by the white lunch where his grandfather would spit on the window, because of the kind of racism at that time and in terms of your time that you spent growing up in Chinatown, what other things do you remember both bad and good during that time? Because it was obviously a very different time in terms of the social landscape. 

Gwen Boyle  5:28  
Oh,  absolutely. As a child, I would play on the streets a lot. That's what I knew. I used to have a ball bouncing off the wall, you know, jump on it and do all kinds of things like I loved to wander the street because I was curious about the street. One thing that I do remember. My job was to go up to the cafe, your own cafe, and buy whipping cream. So I could bring it home for Saturday to have treats. In the morning, my job was to carry a big bowl, run up the street, carry this bowl to the cafe, put my 25 cents down, fill it up with whipping cream and start running down the block with my bowl of whipping cream. On the street there are a lot of little gentlemen who just enjoy sitting on the sidewalk watching the people go by. They always have their feet stuck out. Inevitably I come running and then falling over my feet, breaking my bowl of whipping cream, running home crying with nothing else to bring home was Saturday. My grandfather, who was a gentleman, a nice man, and one of the lead people of the Chinatown got ferious and ran down the street and he scolded the old man. "How could you trip a small child, send her tumbling with a broken bowl of whipping cream?" Well, he gave them a dressing down and he came home and I was crying. And then I just hid in the toilet. As he sees me, "Well, you shouldn't have been running, you should walk then you wouldn't have fallen." I said "okay." That was the end of my work to go out and buy whipping cream for Saturday morning.

Am Johal  7:24  
[laughs] So what was the motivation that led you to go to art school?

Gwen Boyle  7:32  
Oh, well, I had a daughter who was interested in always drawing and painting and I had older relatives. They were designers for clothes. So I thought that was kind of fun to do. Besides, she used to paint blank bottles with colorful ink. She would get money for it.  You know, empty jar bottles, empty jam bottles, and she would sell them because they're quite colorful. And I though well, that's kind of fun to do. And I I like the Tolan I used to watch her and then she showed me how to do it. And I thought, Well, that makes a good living and fun.

Am Johal  8:12  
That's amazing. You've done a number of public works, but one in which people in Vancouver will certainly know is the abacus piece that's called Suan Phan. Wondering if you can talk a little bit about how that piece came to be?

Gwen Boyle  8:26  
Well, I was asked to do a commission art. And the place was often your industry. Industry was where my grandfather had the jewelry store, where I grew up. And then having lived a life of listening to hammers, hammering stone, hammering jade. And I used to watch my grandfather work the jade, melt the gold, and see how they turned into objects. And how easy and fun it was when they turned into objects. And when I was a small child, he would say to us, if you can make five one inch chains, I will give you 10 cents. To make a 10 inch gold chain. All you have to do is twist the wire around and around and around. So you get a bunch of gold chains. And then you can cut them into separate chains. Join the little chains together just the way you made a paper chain. Exactly. Only you're doing it with gold. And then you join the pieces together with a tiny sliver of gold, melt the gold pieces together, keep joining them together till you get 20 inches of melted chain, then I get 10 cents. That's pretty good. 

Am Johal  9:47  

Gwen Boyle  9:49  
Especially when you're about seven years old.

Am Johal  9:52  
Gwen what do you think about the peace now when you go back to see it and visit it? 

Gwen Boyle  9:56  
Oh, yeah, the abacus?

Am Johal  9:57  

Gwen Boyle  9:58
It comes from jade stones from Canada. You know that up though didn't mountain. I got jade from a girl who was in our school with me. And she has, she has a machine that carves jade into stones. And we got together and there was a stone to make round jade. He would work it in her studio until she can produce 60, round jades which are almost 10 pounds each. And then they get polished. And then I did the process and I got a hold of a friend who's an engineer who had a son who is a physicist, and he could produce jade beads for me. And I produce the abacus for the people. And then I decided to do it right on Pender Street, because I like old Pender street. You know where that is?

Am Johal  11:02  
Yeah, of course, I actually lived in Chinatown as well in the Chinese Benevolent Association building, which was predominantly seniors housing, but they had some market rate rental units. So I lived there for a number of years, predominantly seniors in Chinatown, and it was a fantastic time to be there. So I know Pender street very well.

Gwen Boyle  11:22  
Yeah, yeah, it was fascinating, especially as a small child. It's right near where the bulletin board was on Pender Street. On the bulletin board is the daily news for the Chinese then, their used to be a whole crowd of maybe 20 men standing in the corner, trying to read the news. As a small child, I loved going through that crowd of people. And then I'd go through the hallway wall Pender street, I can hear the music that comes from the window, where a lot of residents practice the ulu, the stone instrument they have, I heard it, it's quite lovely when the women play it. I could hear the music and I'd run through the alleyway. And that's fun to do, cuz it's always kind of dark, scary. And you're always told not to go through there. But I loved going through there and hearing the music. And then the doodling. What is that Jin? Da came down. What do you call it? Do you know it?

Am Johal  12:28  
Which game? Mahjong?

Gwen Boyle  12:33
Mahjong, Yes. Goes to tell you how much Chinese I have forgotten.

Am Johal  12:37  
[laughs] I've seen some old photos, Brian McBay, who's at 221A gallery, his grandfather used to run the Hong Kong Cafe for many years. So Brian showed me some of the old photographs as well. Wondering if you can talk a little bit about the work that you did in the north?

Gwen Boyle  12:56  
With the art school, I continued to do public art. And then I lived up in the Yukon for a while when my husband ran the newspaper there. So we lived there for six years, seven years. And it was fascinating because it was of course totally different from Chinatown. But there were Chinese people there. There were Chinese restaurants there. And when I was up north, I became interested in the northern climate. It's so different from BC.

Am Johal  13:32  
When was this in the 1970s?

Gwen Boyle  13:35  
Yeah. 60s.

Am Johal  13:36  
Oh 60s. Okay, nice. 

Gwen Boyle  13:38  
The 60/70s Yeah. So I was there and I worked on the art work up there along with the newspaper. And then I guess we moved. We moved out of town there back to Vancouver when I got a family and then I became so intrigued with the North living there that when I went to art school, I became interested in work in the Arctic. Because when we were working on the Yukon, Yukon is not far from the Pole, you know, very close to the North Pole. So eventually, we made my way to the Arctic, to the North Pole, where I got some time working with a geological firm. The North Pole is fascinating, it's beautiful. It's nothing like anything I was used to down south, so anything was new and exciting.

Am Johal  14:38  
And you've done, obviously you did a lot of work there and for the past two decades I read that you've primarily been experimenting with the phenomenon of time, motion, magnets, sounds. What are some of the pieces that you've been thinking about doing now or works that you did after the abacus piece?

Gwen Boyle  14:56  
Prior to the abacus I did a lot of sundials. We got readers, viewers moving and I did several pieces that like wall pieces, you know large walls. Then I had a lot of waterfalls complete with a cabana Prince George, when we did murals. A lot of it is about the history of the areas, combined with the sun movement, things like that. In the north area that is so prominent and important to the area. Well, I became tied with that. And then I, what did I do? The usual stuff with murals, people in the country live in a place. At the time it was like what this history is like? What do people do there? How did they live? Everybody, the north is just fascinating, everyone should go there if you can. Just it's worth it, to anybody, the experience.

Am Johal  16:03  
And how would you characterize your relationship to Chinatown now?

Gwen Boyle  16:10  
Well, I haven't forgotten that. I don't forget it and it all intrigues me when I think about it. Because people were so different. And as a small child sort of blind to everything else, adults, everything is new. And exciting. You know, I don't know but Chinatown was a fascinating place for a child to grow up. We didn't have things that most children use to play now. We would think, bounce a ball off the wall and jump on it. Spend your time doing that, you know, sort of ordinary stuff that kids still do, but nothing is new.

Am Johal  16:48  
Yeah, yeah. Any other stories you'd like to tell from that time growing up in Chinatown?

Gwen Boyle  16:55  
Well, you know something about it. When I was small, it was nothing new to have somebody come and break the window in your father's shop. And then the next thing you know, the police are there. They are down at your back door. We would be asleep upstairs. The back door would break in and police would look through the basement for drugs or something like that. And then they would look for gambling. When I was small. I would walk through glass stuff on the sidewalk. I don't even know glass. I don't need those glass walls. The men would gamble cuz that's all they could do because they were single men. Their wives are all in China. You know, but you know, having a police officer breaking your kitchen door is not surprising. Part of it. Then you say to your mom, what are they doing? Well they're looking for gambling people. [Am laughs] That's all part of it. It wasn't hard. It wasn't hard or surprising. It's just their part of living. You know.

Am Johal  18:05  
Are there any other pieces of artwork that you're working on currently?

Gwen Boyle  18:10  
I'm working on several pieces. I have some plans, which I'm still discussing right now. 

Am Johal  18:19  

Gwen Boyle  18:20  
Yeah. Yeah, I did several works around the City of Vancouver. One of them was quoting. I like to use the quotes, poems carved from stone. For example, I was really interested in the time that salmon ran through the creeks in Vancouver. Were you around then?

Am Johal  18:44  
I wasn't around then. But I've heard about them from other people. And I know that the dancer Karen Jamison did a work related to that a number of years ago in the late 90s.

Gwen Boyle  18:54  
Yeah, when I was little, we used to be able to walk over, fish across the water. You know, It always fascinated me. I'd think, oh isn't that wonderful. And then they were all around the street where you are. So neat. And I love the idea that water still flows from up in the north through here, and the poetry that I read about water, fish and all that in your land was so new to me as a city person, you know, because the world was fascinating.

Am Johal  19:28  
Well Gwen, we only got through a few of the stories but you're such a civic treasure. It's been really amazing having you on Below the Radar. Thank you so much for joining us.

Gwen Boyle  19:38  
It's a pleasure. Thank you for asking me but you know there's so much talking of the history now that you probably hear it everywhere. 

Am Johal  19:46  
[laughs] Thank you so much. 

Gwen Boyle  19:49
You're welcome.


Alex  19:58  
Thank you for tuning in to Below The Radar to hear from our guest Gwen Boyle we linked to her work in the show notes and you can follow the link to our website to see some photos Gwen has provided us of her artistic works and early days in Chinatown. Thanks again for listening and we'll see you next time on Below the Radar.


Transcript auto-generated by and edited by the Below the Radar team.
November 02, 2020

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