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October 8, 2010

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Lao-tzu graces Canadian Chinatown

VANCOUVER'S old Chinatown neighborhood is being spruced up and beautified with murals about China and Chinese in Canada. The artwork, including an enormous mural of Lao-tzu, also increases pride and reduce vandalism. Al Campbell reports.

Lao-tzu looms large over Vancouver these days in a "Great Beginnings" city beautification program featuring an enormous Chinatown mural depicting the famed Chinese philosopher and founder of Taoism.

The 2,400-square-foot (223-square-meter) painting, unveiled recently, depicts the old master riding an ox through a mountain setting. It was funded by a US$16,000 donation involving the province of British Columbia, the City of Vancouver and the Lee's Benevolent Association of Canada.

The mural is one of 20 being created around Vancouver in the "Great Beginnings" program launched in 2008 to mark the 150th anniversary of British Columbia.

The Lao-tzu mural is the last of three paintings created in Chinatown to honor the history, heritage and culture of the different communities in the downtown east side, the oldest area of the city.

Perhaps more important, the murals are meant to engage the communities in which they are located and to discourage graffiti vandalism. The murals show images of the Chinese, Japanese and aboriginal people, all prominent communities in the area.

Mayor Gregor Robertson congratulated the Lee's Benevolent Association, which was marking its 79th year in Vancouver and 80th anniversary in Canada. He says the mural program was important for the city as it was helping to revitalize the older neighborhoods.

"There are now around 20 murals painted over the last few years to beautify the city, which brings community together," says the mayor, fresh off a 12-day trip to China where he led a 22-member business delegation on a mission promoting green technology.

"In these murals we have beautiful art and beautiful stories told ... These are very important markers, not only for today, but a window into the past and something that stitches our community closer together for the future," he adds.

Artist Kenson Seto created the image of Lao-tzu over two weeks and then younger artists Alex Li and Falk carried out the physical painting, again over two weeks.

Seto, a native of southern China's Guangdong Province, says he didn't know much about Lao-tzu before he got the commission from the Chinese Artists Federation in Vancouver.

Lao-tzu, the father of Taoism, is believed to have lived in either the fourth or sixth century BC and practiced a philosophy holding that "simplicity is the key to truth and freedom."

According to legend, he spent 72 years in the womb, as his mother leaned against a plum tree, and he emerged in the world as an old man. He is said to have lived 990 years and been responsible for bringing Taoist philosophy to India.

Others believe he was mythological, a composite of many historical figures.

"After I got this project I went on the Internet to search Lao-tzu and learned a lot about him," says Seto who graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. "After I painted this mural, I understand more what the Lao Tzu feeling is."

Li, whose family immigrated from Hong Kong, says it was his first painting of this scale, adding that he had to go about it as he would make a smaller painting, figuring out the proportions and projecting them.

"I haven't really painted many Chinese subjects before, so this was a chance to connect with my heritage a bit and apply my skills in helping the community. So it was a great honor and a great experience," says the 28-year-old Vancouver resident.

"It's very flattering to have something that many people will see and will last for a long time in a public place. It's also a great honor to have something so visible," he says.

Other paintings around Vancouver's Chinatown, an area dating back to the late 1800s, include a giant mural welcoming visitors to the area, and three 32.5-square-meter scenes depicting Chinese life in the city in 1884, 1905 and 1936 by sculptor and painter Arthur Cheng, a Shanghai native.

The "Snapshots of History" sequence shows the evolution and increasing wealth of local Chinese as the 1884 scene depicts a family in traditional garb in front of its Wah Chong Washing and Ironing business. In contrast, the 1936 scene shows affluent Chinese men in fine suits and hats relaxing, conversing and enjoying a smoke.

"Older Chinatown has a good history and I wanted to use the old pictures to capture the time," says Cheng. "From photos it was easier to depict it and provide a better understanding of this historic area at the time. I wanted to show that people in the mural were lively, real persons. I want to show the smiles, the smoking, the looks."

With the "Great Beginning" programs set to run through March 2011, the city is reporting a noticeable reduction in graffiti and that the "perception of safety and pride in the neighborhood" has increased.

The program, which aims to create attractive and welcoming environments, includes improvements to streets, buildings and public spaces.

Support is also given to street festivals, celebrations and cultural activities.


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