What is a Waterscape?

This essay is an excerpt from the catalog for Waterscapes, an exhibition at the Richmond Art Gallery written by Chris Lee.

In recent years, multimedia artist Gu Xiong has been exploring how rivers shape the economic, cultural, and imaginary lives of migrants in China and Canada. This work, writes April Liu, offers “a deep meditation on constant mobility in the physical and virtual realms of contemporary life.”April Liu, “Karaoke Hyperspace: Gu Xiong’s Red River as a Study of Place-making.” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 7:6 (2008), 85 Waterscapes is the latest version of this ongoing project. It features a gigantic flotilla of paper boats hung from the roof of the gallery as well as images that depict the two rivers that have shaped Gu’s life: the Yangtze River, the lifeline of his hometown of Chongqing, and the Fraser River that flows past Vancouver where he is now based. Rivers epitomize change, for as Heraclitus famously observed, “You cannot step twice in one river.”Quoted in Matthew D. Evenden, Fish versus Power: An Environmental History of the Fraser River. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004, 4. They create endless rhythms of movement and environmental change through erosion and flooding, reshaping landscapes as well as the lives of those who live on its shores. Rivers have always been necessary for human survival and as such, have provided rich metaphors and images that help us understand our own movements through time and space. The term waterscape encompasses all these processes, natural and man-made, concrete and imaginary, past, present, and future.

With a population of over 31 million, Chongqing is the largest city in the world (but rarely noticed in North America). Chongqing has experienced exponential growth in recent years, not the least because of the Three Gorges Dam that has been built 360 miles downriver to the east. Building the dam has flooded the homes of 1.5 million people, who have had to be relocated, and irreparably damaged the ecosystem of the Yangtze River basin, already one of the most polluted riverways in the world. The environmental and economic side effects of the dam have affected the lives of many more. Gu offers a snapshot of these changes by including two Chongqing residents in this exhibition. Waterscapes features an imageof a porter who has carried backbreaking loads along the cliffs of the city for over 20 years. Gu also includes a video interview, conducted this past summer, with a bookstore owner specializing in contemporary art, whose business serves a clientele deeply invested in the transformation of the city into a modern metropolis. Both men derive their livelihoods, albeit indirectly, from Chongqing’s relationship to the Yangtze River, and their stories reveal how they make sense of their waterscape. Together, they exemplify the economic, cultural, and social disparities of China today.

Gu prompts us to consider how a waterscape is not only shaped by nature, but also by unequal power relations. On the Canadian side, the shores of the Fraser River are sedimented with histories of settler colonialism and the destruction it wreaked on the First Nations living in its basin. While Waterscapes does not reference this history directly, it traces another set of migrations made possible by settler colonialism, those of Chinese migrants who arrived starting in the mid-nineteenth century. In summer 2009, I accompanied Gu on a road trip to trace the Fraser River from the Lower Mainland to its headwaters near Jasper. Along the way, we stopped in the Gold Rush town Barkerville, once the largest city west of Chicago and north of San Francisco, and now a popular tourist attraction during the summer. There, we met Dr. Yingying Chen, an archaeologist who immigrated to Canada from China in the early 1990s, and has since dedicated her life to studying the history of the Chinese community in Barkerville (an interview with Dr. Chen is included in this show).

Dr. Chen told us the moving story of a Chinese man who came to Barkerville and stayed there for the rest of his life. In fact, he never left Barkerville again except for one trip, on foot, to the banks of the Fraser River (an hour and half drive these days by car). Having reached the river, he turned around and went back. Why didn’t he go further? Was he trying to go “home” (or just trying to reach the larger Chinese communities in Vancouver or Victoria?)? Or did he decide that after so many years in Barkerville, he no longer had a reason to leave? We may never find the answers to these questions because much of his story belongs to a past that has now been forgotten. Having grown up in BC, I vividly remember learning about the Barkerville gold rush in elementary school. But only after visiting the town with Gu did that I learn (to my surprise) that during its heyday, almost half of the population was of Chinese descent. This fact was never mentioned in school. Flipping through a stack of books about the Fraser recently, I found very few references to the history of Chinese migration. Only mentioned in passing as labourers, their presence is rendered ephemeral and inconsequential. (Another aspect of this show is Gu’s exploration of Chinese pulp mill and sawmill workers along the Fraser River, another largely ignored history in this waterscape.)

Today, Chinese account for about 45% of Richmond’s population and the growth of this community has transformed the city in ways that seem concrete and permanent. Yet despite differences in context, the history of Barkerville suggests that a thriving community can indeed be forgotten and erased from historical memory. To be sure, many efforts have been undertaken in recent years to recover, preserve, and display the history of Chinese in Barkerville. Could we, even as a thought experiment, imagine writing a history of Richmond a hundred years from now in which the Chinese community is reduced to a passing sentence about shopkeepers on No. 3 Road?

Rivers teach us that nothing is static and even the most permanent can be washed away. But maybe memory can be more powerful than forgetting. Gu’s work confronts the injustices that have accompanied migration and recover the neglected histories sedimented in our own waterscape. The sight of thousands of folded paper boats hovering in the space of the gallery reminds me of the haunting photographs of confiscated fishing boats moored in Steveston after their Japanese-Canadian owners were incarcerated during WWII. They also recall the instant demonization of the Tamil migrants who arrived on our shores this past summer. All waterscapes are saturated with painful pasts. But Gu reminds us that boats are also a sign of hope: they carry our dreams down the river, towards a world that has yet to come.

– Chris Lee