Quarantine Qapsule: Archiving the Asian Canadian experience

Frustrated with the lack of support for Asian Canadians amidst the pandemic, artist and mental health advocate Nightingale created a digital art exhibit to celebrate the cultural resilience of the Asian Canadian community.

What will we remember during this time?

This thought echoed in my mind while I was sitting within the four walls of my bedroom. This entire pandemic is going to be a pivotal and historical moment in our lives. 

Before lockdown, I already saw my friends be personally affected by the overt discrimination as a result of this pandemic — discrimination that is still happening. I thought about SARS, H1N1, and even further back to other repeated, exclusionary events in Canadian history: the mistreatment of Chinese railroad workers, the Head Tax, the internment camps for Japanese Canadians, the Komagata Maru incident, and more.

Supporting a community, virtually

As a mental health advocate myself, I work with various organizations to help end the stigma against mental health in Asian communities. I could see the detrimental effects the pandemic was having against Asian Canadians.

Phuong - Quarantine Qapsule
“Grocery shopping with my sister” by Phuong. Photo credit: Myseum of Toronto

My own source of comfort was seeing mainstream concerts and community events being held virtually during quarantine. But I was still unsatisfied. In the back of my mind, I was still thinking about the xenophobia towards the Asian community.

I wondered why there wasn’t a person or an organization with influence who could create an initiative to not only speak about the discrimination, but also highlight our beautiful culture. I really wanted a community-driven initiative — a counter-narrative to celebrate our cultural resilience and to educate others that we have always been a part of Canadian history.

It was then I decided to no longer be a passive listener to the community, but rather an active participant for change. My idea was simple: to archive the Asian Canadian experience through art during COVID-19. A way to address xenophobia and discrimination without directly addressing it.

I reached out to my friends at Tea Base and Myseum of Toronto to brainstorm ideas about what we could do to support our community. Together we had the same goals: to create counter-narratives for the Asian Canadian community, and to inspire  hope through art. I wanted to self-document our voices and create something positive out of these negative times, and make this art accessible digitally. 

That was how Quarantine Qapsule (QQ) was born.

See also: Standing together: Honouring Asian heritage and identity through solidarity

Documenting our stories, our Chinatowns

I never thought I would be the one to step up to the plate. Perhaps what my dissatisfaction told me was, “I have to do it.” 

The message of QQ grew as we hosted a webinar through Myseum to talk about our physical cultural spaces, such as Chinatowns. The pandemic had changed these places, due to the vandalism, the lack of foot traffic, and the rapid gentrification. It made us realize that because we are stuck at home, our physical spaces have been neglected. It was time to talk about it and share its stories virtually.

I, along with my fellow panelists, knew the importance of Chinatown as a safe space and a community rich with culture. We would risk losing these important stories forever if we never documented or continued to share them.

Our main call to action through this discussion was to bridge the gap between generations, language, and culture in order to inherit and share Asian Canadian stories. Furthermore, we wanted to express our appreciation of our cultural spaces despite not physically being there. As Joshua Aries, a filmmaker from Vancouver, expressed, isolation cannot affect our storytelling.

See also: How local corner stores bring community together during a pandemic

Helping new voices through mentorship

Alongside the webinar and Quarantine Qapsule’s community archive, we created a Mentorship Program where those with no artistic training could contribute to QQ with the guidance of an industry creative. We wanted to broaden our scope and ensure no voice was excluded because they did not identify as a “creative person,” or did not feel comfortable creating something.

David Yu - Quarantine Qapsule
“x-in-waiting” by David Yu. Photo credit: Myseum of Toronto

As a result, there is a love letter to the females in one’s family, an intimate conversation between a grandma and her granddaughter while cooking, and a video about returning to Canada expressed through traditional Chinese drumming.

Our mentees are natural storytellers. They have so much to say and offer to the table. All they needed was a push, a safe space to experiment and to feel confident in their own voice. They are now realizing the power and agency they have always possessed. They will not wait for someone else to tell their stories.

Afterwards, contributors to QQ personally reached out to me sharing how this experience was their highlight in 2020, or how they felt connected to others because of the community we created. I did not anticipate the magnitude or positive ripple effects this project had on those involved, and it was gratifying. If we never had this program, whose voices would we have excluded?

From Toronto to Vancouver

Joshua Aries, who was also a Quarantine Qapsule mentor, was really inspired by the success in Toronto. He said, “Why not bring this to B.C,?”

I thought, “Why not?”

Quarantine Qapsule Vancouver
Photo submitted by author

Now in June 2021, we are looking forward to showcasing the result of QQ’s partnership with Emily Carr University of Art & Design. Furthermore, the pieces from the B.C. QQ will become academic sources. It’s so exciting to know that not only are we helping Asian Canadian artists with being seen, we are furthermore providing resources for ANYONE who wants to learn about the Asian Canadian experience during the COVID-19 pandemic. It’s a unique source as the pieces are told through art!

This practice of self-documentation and authorship is an ongoing process, especially during this time of growth and healing. I hope the Quarantine Qapsule brings a source of levity into your lives. And I hope it urges you to create and remember that your experiences matter. 

B.C.’s Quarantine Qapsule will be unveiled digitally on June 25, 2021 at Emily Carr University of Art and Design.

Header image: “Dancing in the Noise” by Yuliku Chen. Photo credit: Myseum of Toronto

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