Rising from Ashes


October 15, 2014 | BY Hong Kong Tatler

Canada has always had a special place in my heart. When I first walked in the temperate rain forest of British Columbia all those years ago, mesmerized in the shadows of Giant Spruce and Douglas Fir which rise to tens of metres above the ground, it was then I felt an inner stir at the calling of ancient spirits. And nowhere in the world am I reminded so strongly of the Asian steppe as Alberta’s prairie, where Sitting Bull and his band of warring Lakota Sioux took refuge as they fled from the American cavalry’s relentless pursuit, intent of destroying the last buffalo herds and, with them, the last free people of America. And of course there is the immortal Yukon of Jack London, where the ‘Work Beast’ of San Francisco found his voice in the call of the wild.

It was in Canada where I first sensed the possibility of true reconciliation, between post-colonial nations and indigenous peoples who had been conquered but survived. In the even-handed way Canada’s state-owned museums narrate the historic journey of the land and its people, freely admitting to mistakes and crimes it had committed, where indigenous communities are not only given back their voices but hailed respectfully as the ‘First Nations’, I feel a real possibility of embracing the past and moving forward to civil society. And, indeed, for all the imperfections of Nunavut, here is an example of real autonomy – a state within a state – where native communities are invited to share power and exercise the rights of governance.

With these thoughts I returned to Canada this past summer for a family holiday. No longer was I searching but merely content at being. Even so the signs of Canada’s pre-colonial past, which frankly one could not help but notice for the way they were cheerfully advertised, give one the impression of a country that has firmly come to terms with its past, and is ready to celebrate this heritage. Nowhere is the footprint of an indigenous past concealed, as is the case in the United States of America where the trail of tears is covered with the dehumanizing force of industrialization like so many layers of concrete. Here in Canada the pre-White legacy is celebrated, not only as a link to the past but to the land itself.

In Whistler, Canada’s most famous resort town, the Squamish Lilwat Cultural Centre sits in a prominent location at the entrance to Upper Village. Of recent construction and not possessing many objects of historic import, the Cultural Centre nonetheless exudes a warmth and vibrancy that marks it from most institutions of its kind. Architecturally, it is a spacious building with a very high ceiling, in what I would describe ‘modern Canadian’ with generous use of wood for ceiling, flooring, as well as the building structure, and furnished with large windows that let in an abundance of natural daylight, creating a general sense of openness and brightness that is at one with the Canadian character.

Besides a handful of objects donated by private collectors, including an old totem pole salvaged from an old village no doubt, most of the items on display are of recent manufacture. However, every single item is well displayed and captioned, and in many cases the display contains not only information about its use, but the artist who fashioned it and his / her personal story. Seldom have I seen objects in a museum displayed with such dignity, held up as physical embodiment of ancient wisdom and a beacon for younger generations to continue the old, but in no wise outmoded, ways of life.

The Cultural Centre contains a lot of insightful information about how the people used to live in and around the area. Interestingly, before Whistler became a White men’s town, it was a meeting ground where two First Nations – the Squamish and Lilwat – came together to trade. Out of respect of this ancient friendship, the Centre was jointly built by the two communities and celebrates their collective cultural legacy. The minute attention to detail, betraying the care that was taken in planning the museum was plain to see, and it sets an example for what I hope to achieve one day for the Orochen Cultural Centre I have in mind for Inner Mongolia. It also proves the point that story-telling and good design is often more important than the objects themselves.

Of the exhibits themselves I was most impressed with the Squamish dugout canoe, made from a single, gigantic tree, which the community ritually uses once in a while to celebrate their ancient sea-faring tradition, and renew the link to their ancestors. I was told that in the pre-colonial past before the arrival of metal, Squamish seamen used curved oars as weapons. Thus when arriving at a village by canoe, it was customary for men to take out the oars and display them on deck as token of good faith.

As a martial artist I could not help admire the graceful curves on the oar, which is crafted into an almost blade-like form. The length of the paddle from the handle is almost the same as a long-hafted sword – shuangshoudai in China or naginata in Japan – but is lighter in weight and handles very well. While playing in my hands I noticed that the oar handles more like a sword than a staff, and can well imagine these as deadly weapons in the hands of seasoned warriors!

Like elsewhere in Canada, the Lilwat and Squamish nations have risen from ashes. I take this as inspiration for my work with heritage preservation in Inner Mongolia and Hong Kong. One hundred years ago the indigenous communities of the Northwest Coast were reduced to the margins of survival, having been ravished by foreign diseases, subjected to colonial conquest, political suppression, and the harrowing experience of cultural purge through the boarding school experiment. Today, the descendants of these communities have again risen from the ashes to reclaim the past.

All photographs courtesy of Hing Chao