Sing Tao Daily; February 4, 2006 Saturday; Community Focus

"Chinatown Gardens" exhibition of watercolour paintings by Alfred Ng
Paintings of squashes and vegetables contain meaning of Chinese immigrant's hardship and struggle.
By Roger Cheung

During spring and summer, in some of Toronto's Chinatown backyard gardens, many grow flowers, vegetables and squashes specially, bitter melons. But many of us haven't paid much attention to them. But an artist, Hong Kong born and immigrant to Canada, who has lived in Toronto for 33 years. With an artist's sensibility and observation. With his watercolours of Chinatown Gardens to focus on the many bitter and sweet experiences of Chinese immigrants.

Since immigrated to Canada over 30 years ago, Chinese Canadian artist Alfred Ng claims his first langrage was Tai Shan. Currently showing his watercolour paintings "Chinatown Gardens" at Toronto's XEXE gallery. Using rich and vibrant colour and realistic approach to make the Chinese squashes and vegetables to come alive. But behind those beautiful works not many knew about the hardship of the Chinese immigrant history!

Alfred Ng said "I was a teenager when I came to Canada over 30 years ago" and received western education, hardly in touch with his Chinese culture and history. Three years ago he went to China for the first time, for a special exhibition to honour Jewish refugees in Shanghai during the Second World War. While in Shanghai he visited Yu Garden (one of China's eighth greatest gardens). While there he rediscovered his strong feelings of his roots and ties to his Chinese ancestry, and started to wonder about the reasons many Chinese had to travel from far and away to come to Canada.

Since then, the need to search for his root has never stopped. And he started to educate himself about Chinese culture and history. With his knowledge in western watercolour, he was able to cross over, and studied traditional

Chinese watercolour paintings with Master artist Sik Yee Wong of the Ling-Nan school of painting. He discovered in the Toronto Chinatown where he grew up, those little gardens which contain bitter melons and Chinese fruits and flowers. At the beginning, he couldn't figure out the reasons for growing those inexpensive fruits and vegetables. Until he started talking to the women who tend those little gardens, stories of many hardships and struggles of immigrants, started to emerged.

Bitter melons as metaphor of life

"Many Chinese grow bitter melons in their gardens; the main reason is to remind them where they came from, the country they left long ago. It represents the Chinese immigrant experience, hardship and struggle. Life is like the bitter melon; first one needs to taste the bitterness, in order to taste sweetness later." Alfred said he was so touched by this and started to use his paint brushes to portray those moving stories.

"When I was growing up in Hong Kong, our neighbours were mainly women and children. Most of the husbands and fathers were working overseas. Some of them hadn't seen their families for decades. I had never understood or bothered to find out the reasons why back then. Only after we immigrated to Canada did I start to learn the reasons and their impact on those families."
"Prior to the completion of the C.N. railway, Chinese workers were recruited to complete the final sections trough the Rockies. They were recruited because no others could be found who were willing to do the work. Many of them died while working at building the railway. Many of those men were from the Tai Shan area of southern China, where my parents had also came from

Soon after the completion of the railway, Canada imposed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Those Acts resulted in many Chinese families in Canada and abroad suffering long separation and financial hardships. Many men were never able to reunite with families and die alone in Canada," Alfred Ng said.
"Most of the men came to Canada as young single men. By the time they were able to save enough money to marry, many of them had already passed middle age. The women they eventually married were mail-order brides, who were young women who sacrificed themselves to help their families. Some unlucky women ended up with much older men about whom they knew little. Some ended up with alcoholic and abusive husbands. Because of the age difference many of them became widows, who wound up living alone after their children had moved away. Due to the language difficulty they still live in the Chinatown area."
"One can identify some of them by the little gardens they grow to help out financially and to maintain their culture. They grow plants which remind them where they came from and left long ago. One sees peonies, lilies for spring, bottle squashes, bitter melons, hairy melons, snow peas for the summer. Some had seeds sent all the way from China. I have been interested in those little gardens for the past several years. To most passers-by they might look humble or even unsightly. But I feel a strong connection to those gardens because the lives of the keepers."
At last Alfred said "with this show I like to honour the Chinese who came before me and fought for the rights we enjoy now. In tradional Chinese paintings fruit and squash were popular subjects both for the simple beauty but also for symbolic meaning."

Alfred Ng's Chinatown gardens exhibition is at XEXE gallery, 624 Richmond Street, west till February18.