Category Archives: Canada

yeah, where I come from

Goodbye Zellers (Hometown Blues #4)

This summer I had to say farewell to an institution that figured large in childhood memory: the department store Zellers. It is going the way of many of the Canadian department stores of my childhood. Back then, shopping meant going to The Bay, Sears, Woodwards or Eatons and kitting out everything from homewares to school clothes and supplies to new outfits for my parents. With two kids in town and limited time it made sense to shop in a department store: much easier than hauling around lots of different shops in a mall or busy street. And there was a toy department to end up in, as a reward for being well behaved (sometimes).

goodbye zellers

But Zellers was a bit different. For one thing, it was really near to where I lived, unlike the other stores which meant a trip downtown to Pacific Centre or to a plush suburban  super-mall like Richmond Centre. Zellers is a 5 minute drive or a 20 minute walk way. So it has always been the default place to stop and pick up the basic and unavoidable necessaries: an audio cable, some suntan lotion, a T shirt, floor cleaner, a deck of cards. This list comes from the receipt from my last ever visit. Zellers is closing down by the end of this year.

Zellers was the first place I ever bought something of my own to wear, for myself with my own money. I was in Grade 7 and not really into fashion (never have been and never will be). My black KISS t-shirt was to me the highest level fashion could go. However I can’t remember why I was in Zellers – probably buying bubblegum from the machine – when I saw The Jacket. It was a blazer, and it was the most gorgeous shade of violent, poison green. This is the shade:green

It went for the princely sum of $25.00, a lot of money to me. I put a five dollar down payment on it and then went home and got the rest of my money, and a $3 loan from my mother. It looked great with the KISS T-shirt. I wore it to school the next day.

Over the years Zellers has always been there and I am used to its brands, its service, the people who work there. Even long after I moved away I normally pop into Zellers on a regular basis when I go home for my visits. This summer I made a point of picking up a few pairs of the excellent Alfred Sung jeans to keep in storage, cos I have no idea when I’ll be able to get anything fitting as good as those again, for a price that does not leave me terrified to wear them.

Yes, Zellers is going the way of Eatons and Woodwards: it’s closing. Not because we don’t use it or want it, but because another company has bought it out and decided to replace it with their own stores. The other company is US retail giant Target. I haven’t been to Target and I have no idea what they offer. I don’t know if they are any good. I don’t know what they stock. I don’t know what their customer service or employee relations are like.

So far, their stance on unions does not appear to be good – I found this on YouTube:

Now, I’m of the belief that the employee has a right to join or form a union, and the employer has no right to pressure them either way. so, hmmmm.

And the Huffington Post’s story on how the current Zellers employees are being treated as a result of the takeover does not sound promising:

The Toronto Star has documented the story–target-doesn-t-want-anything-to-do-with-depressed-zellers

And here  It’s definitely worth following this story though, to monitor that “competitiveness” in the sector does not mean creating poverty and systemic unemployment.

I don’t want to come across as a knee-jerk Canadian nationalist, decrying the takeover of a Canadian store by an American one. In any case everything from Target will be, as with Zellers, made in China. Nor do I want to rail against change. And yet, Zellers going leaves a hole, alters the landscape of memory. We’ll see. Next summer Target will be there, and I’ll make my own decisions.

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A Good Place to get Granny’s Tofu (Home Town Blues #3)

Here’s a shot of one of my favourite restaurants in Vancouver, the Gain Wah. It’s on Keefer Street in the part of Chinatown that still looks and feels the same as ever. The food here is delicious and homey,  the atmosphere is a traditional Chinatown diner: friendly, unpretentious and comforting in its lack of trendiness. (and that there  is my friend, the artist Vanessa Lowe, who accompanied me on my last visit).

above, a building on Gore Ave.

Chinatown was always one of my favourite parts of my home town. Initially, as a suburban kid, the folks would take up there once a month or so to eat Chinese food (so exotic!) and buy toys. When I got older and went to town by myself I loved the curious architecture, the tasty inexpensive food and the essential, refreshing “differentness” of the place. Later still, Chinatown was on the edge of the urban underground scene of gigs and parties and late night joints where all kinds of mayhem could go down.  Now, well traveled and somewhat worldweary, I feel less Chinatown’s “differentness,” and more its familiarity: the  old buildings juxtaposed with new, the mix of people and cultures – it’s inextricably Chinese AND Canadian both –  the traces of history, the beauty.

sun yat sen park vancouver

Above, Dr.  Sun Yat Sen Park

It’s funny, since I was a kid the image I’ve always had of Chinese Vancouver is of very hardworking, determined people fiercely fighting to retain their culture while contributing hugely to, and being an integral part of, what makes British Columbia so unique. I’ve had no reason to change that view, though for sure I get the impression – mainly from the press — that more recently the Chinese community is viewed as a route into the all-important  ‘China Market’, that famed El Dorado that has been a promise since the days of Marco Polo.  If so, I can’t help but feel that is unfair.  Chinese Vancouver – and by this I don’t just mean Chinatown but the whole Asian element of the city – is part of what makes the city what it is, and it’s there for everyone to enjoy, and to respect.

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A Beach Full of Severed Body Parts (Hometown Blues #2)

I had a wonderful walk around the Seawall to English Bay, one of the most beautiful and lively parts of Vancouver. It was a very hot and sunny day, and the idea was to grab some sushi and catch the sunset while sitting on the beach. We did that, and after dinner were joined by a friend who lives nearby and often pops down in the evening to enjoy the sunset.

English Bay, Inuskhuk monument, Vancouver

The beach echoed with laughter; people played volleyball, picnicked or just watched the sea. A happier, more peaceful and friendly environment cannot be imagined. My friend looked around nervously, then lit a cigarette, surreptitiously. “Keep a look out for the police,” she said. “Why? “ I asked, surprised.

“Because it’s illegal to smoke on the beach or in any public place,” was the astounding reply. I was amazed.

“Do they really arrest people for smoking?!” I asked.

My friend said it had not happened to her but police did patrol the beach and in theory they could do so.

Now I’m a non smoker, have never smoked and find the habit “yuck” – nasty to me, though obviously not to those who do it. However I have not really got a problem with people smoking, except in restaurants. Yes, I’d prefer it if people didn’t smoke at all, but I have always preferred a live and let live policy. (What do I find more offensive in public than smoking? A lot. Cars and buses idling and emitting fumes, litter, ill-behaved children, people spitting on the pavement, people who push past shouting “Scuse me” in the tone you know they mean “f*** outta my way” etc. etc.) Smoking sucks, but as offensiveness it’s just not a big deal.

Later that night I went home and watched the late news. There came a report of yet another manifestation of “the Canadian Tendency” – this time in Mississauga, Ontario. What is the Canadian Tendency? Well in the Anglo speaking world there are certain observable tendencies in homicide. In the USA it’s all about grabbing a pile of guns and running out blowing people away. The British Tendency is to plot and do clever, creepy and crafty murders. The Canadian Tendency is to cut people into very small pieces and strew the pieces around – in the forest, in parks, and in the sea. That day, some limbs and head were found in a park in Mississauga.

Now it might be a stretch to connect the story of the police being charged with the idiotic task of arresting smokers, to the idea of murderers sowing the country with body parts, but I can’t get the connection out of my mind. And then the next day I saw in the local “newspaper” a shrill Letter to the Editor complaining about “appalling behaviour” and that that there are not enough police on English Bay, that they are failing in their duty to arrest smokers and people drinking alcohol (the letter also mentions swearing, which so far as I know is not yet an offence). Even assuming that the letter writer is not some kind of nut, who might well be living in the wrong part of the world (North Korea might suit), one might be tempted to point out that the most inner-city beach in a city of 2.5 million might get a bit crowded and over-lively on a hot summer’s day and evening?

So I’m thinking, what’s really “appalling behaviour” in a public park in Canada? Not really someone having a quick fag. I’d have that any day over the prospect of surprising someone in the act of chopping a body into pieces, or of finding a severed head. THAT is vile. And I’d kind of prefer if the police would focus on things like catching the kind of people who chop other people up into tiny parts and strew them around the parks and beaches.

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Portal to the lost city (home town blues)

above, Vancouver port – seen from the Seabus

I was raised in the west coast port city of Vancouver. Quite a few years ago I left to go traveling and I ended up in London UK, to become one of the many millions of the world’s flotsam and jetsam that have turned up here to create an amazing polyglot city that bursts with energy and intensity 24/7.  London’s home now, but every year I go back to Vancouver and rekindle my love for the city, a love that flourishes during the city’s splendid green and blue summers, but surely wanes a bit when the darker days kick in. I havent lived in Van since 2002 and every summer i think “why don’t I move back here” but so far I haven’t.

This year I thought I’d write some reflective blog posts about my trip and my perspective on the city.

This palimpsest sums up the state of the city today: the city’s historic core, for decades left to rot and malinger due to a combination of corruption, dodgy landlordism and local culture, has been “regenerated” – to some extent – largely of course by the usual process of “development” that is, putting homes and services  for rich people where previous poor people eked out a marginal existence.I’m not really sure how this qualifies as “development” but in these days our definitions have got out of whack:  a “friend” is someone you don’t know and don’t want to meet in real life, and to “like” something means to absentminded click on a  link in a desultory manner, I guess facilitating the good life for the rich at the expense of the poor qualifies as development. I digress.

It has never been a rich part of town:  adjacent to the port it was a transient district of sailors and port workers, many living in rooming houses and hanging out in the bars and pubs. I used to go to punk shows there back in the 80s/ early 90s, it was edgy and fun but it never felt unsafe (or I was naive in the way only kids are). From the mid 90s  it got really run down.

I won’t lie: the Downtown East Side is much more pleasant to visit now than it was in the 90s or early 2000s, when it was a seething horror of a place, so vile that a monstrous serial killer  operated. Yes, in those dreadful days a pig farmer used to wander the streets of the Downtown East side and pick up poor, often drug addicted  women and take them back to his pig farm where he killed them and fed them to the pigs. What is so horrible is that he did it with impunity for years and years and nobody  – least of all the police – noticed because everyone in Vancouver had simply decided that if they ignored the Downtown East Side and its people, they could live happily ever after. I dunno maybe Pickton dd the city a favour, it forced everyone to confront the reality of what was happening. Or maybe not.

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the tidal pool reveals its treasures: Blank City film

what most people were doing in the 1980s


Blank City review:

It’s interesting how the cultural history of the recent past is interesting to young film makers who seek to unearth the hidden history of the counter cultures and bring them forth. Such as Suzanne Tabata’s Bloodied But Unbowed (2010) investigation of the unique Vancouver based punk music scene in the late 70s – early 80s, which I have ordered but not yet seen as it’s not released yet in the UK (like most Canadian films).

Now we have Blank City also 2010, by Celine Danhier a young French film maker fascinated by the New York “no wave” scene and particularly its film makers. Blank City did get a UK release and the DVD is due out in April. And its well worth a viewing.

Both films uncover a specific period when music, film and art were resolutely uncommercial: that cusp between the “hippie” counter culture’s morphing into stadium rock and the super-commodification of all art forms which happened during the 1980s. The “no wave” films of Irish artist Vivienne Dick (always worth seeing), Beth and Scott B, the transgressive films of Nick Zedd and Richard Kern … I remembered them from the 80s, from the magazines, and the occasional showing in grimy screening rooms and parties, on crappy VHS tapes.


Blank City shows us clips of a decaying New York, a city that in the 70s was slowly falling apart, and in the nooks and crannies of ruin were growing the green shoots of a new creativity. Yet that isn’t actually the narrative. These artists for the most part just did their thing, and didn’t go all commercial, they just kept doing what they did and sometimes made money from it. Even the biggest “stars” to emerge from the “no wave”, Steve Buscemi and Jim Jarmusch, are still industry mavericks, fully independent and continuing the do what they want. (I say this now, hoping Jarmusch does not sign to direct Ocean’s 21 next week). Instead, the narrative is of a vibrant art scene in a derelict city, getting pushed aside when the city discovers money. Yes, “regeneration” another word for development and financial hubris caused by real estate prices.

And when I saw the film I wondered why the same rebellious creative energy when it existed in Canada went really only into music and not really into art or film. Aside from Ed Mowbray’s atmospheric 1985 doc Not Dead Yet about the Toronto punk scene, I can’t think of any really underground films coming out of Canada in that era. We had a lot of artists, so what happened? Maybe the stakes weren’t high enough? We weren’t pissed off enough? I was pretty involved with photography in the late 80s early 90s, doing a Nan Goldin kind of schtick, but my friends and me just weren’t very messed up!

Watching Blank City, it’s interesting to imagine what might have happened if the same crew of young artists hit NYC today, full of dreams and spit and vinegar. Within a few months they’d have been famous. Nick Zedd would have got a modelling contract. Lydia Lunch would have her own chat show. Scott and Beth B would have been enroute to Hollywood before you can say “Sundance.” Vivienne Dick probably would have not bothered, and gone to Berlin instead. Richard Kern would have been shooting fashion and celebs – actually that is what he does now, but really well, with style and – dare I say it – some integrity. Basically they would have been recuperated in the blink of an eye and resold to us packaged neatly and with the rough edges smoothed down. And if they could not handle that, hounded by the press until they died, à la the beautiful and wondrous Amy W.

Danhier lets the subjects do the talking, and cuts together a series of remarkable and fascinating and apparently very open honest interviews with al the key players of the era. It’s aided by some clever editing and design that updates the film, and counterpoints the imagery of the original films which were made on super 8 and VHS.

Blank City was joy to see in the cinema, the images big and glorious, the full splendour of the crude super8 clips showing us why HD is just not mysterious enough …

It made me dig out my own old underground flicks, made before I got into the whoredom of “artist-film” (I am recovering – more on that later) and give them a look. The sheer fun of badly made, spirited, energetic cinema. (sneaky peeky: )


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Vancouver murals by Arthur Shu Ren Cheng

about this time last year I posted photos of this mural in Vancouver’s Chinatown being painted by local artist Arthur Shu Ren Cheng. Well here it is one year on, an integral part of the cityscape. It’s a wonderful evocation of the city’s history. In the case of this work I think it’s very exciting that it’s painted from photographs taken in the city’s early history. In terms of murals, normally I’d be a bit iffy about paintings done from photographs, but in this case it’s entirely appropriate, and brilliantly done.

I found a Youtube video of the mural:

And a really interesting article

I’ve always been interested in murals in any case. I remember the time I spent in Guadalajara (fantastic city) and saw the amazing murals of Jose Orozco. Now I’m married to a mural painter and I’m much more aware what mural painting involves:

above, Nazir Tanbouli painting a mural on Whiston Road,London E2

below, Jose Orozco, photographed by me 35mm slide, scanned.

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Some thoughts about the purposes of art

The other week I attended a conference for the opening of a small exhibition at Canada House in Trafalgar Square in London. This was an exhibition of photographs, videos, maps and architectural models from work by the Arctic Perspective Initiative, an international group of artists, designers and media workers, led by artists Marko Peljhan and Matthew Biederman., Peljhan and Biederman were present at the event, Peljhan is the flesh and Biederman vis a Skype link The project focuses on the process of building a network of open and free media, communications and sensing technologies across the Arctic.

What made the event interesting for me was not the exhibition, which was very small and highly documentary, but what happened during the Skype interchange. Matthew Biederman was joined on Skype by one of the participating Inuit, who just happened to be the great Inuit film maker Zacharias Kunuk. If you don’t know Kunuk by name you may have seen or heard of the film Atanarjuat: The Fast Runner (2001).It’s everything a film should be – based on Inuit legends (perhaps history) it has a great story, complex characters and stunning direction/cinematography. It opens up a corner of the world most of us cannot even imagine.

Anyway Kunuk was there, chatting to the web cam – in a much more relaxed way in his home territory than one would be if forced to come personally to London and sit in Canada House.

Although the conference was mainly about the project , one of the audience asked Kunuk directly how the media communicativity could help to raise awareness of climate change.

Now I will be the first to admit that I have long been a climate change sceptic. Not a denier, mark you, but certainly a sceptic. Not only because I intensely dislike the self serving attitudes of many in the scientific community, nor because I intensely dislike and disagree with the classist elements of many in the “climate change” or environmentalist camp (like Plane Stupid etc.), who can afford to be Luddite because they are cushioned by wealth. They don’t have to live in cheap, uninsulated houses, and can afford to buy hybrid vehicles instead of old bangers.

I’ve been a sceptic because, as a student of Braudel (The Mediterranean and Civilization and Capitalism), I am acutely aware that we need to be aware of how we measure time. History and all life exists within many time frames: geological, environmental, and technological time – which is far less perceived than the short history of events that we normally consider history: politics, wars and so on.

Braudel and the Annales School’s idea of the longue durée approach to history stresses the slow and often imperceptible effects of space, climate and technology on the actions of human beings. So, aware that Braudel himself has discussed the effects of geological and climate change on the Mediterranean, I was aware that one thing we do know is that we are always in flux, that change happens. Whether we do anything about it or not.

And yet. When Zacharias Kunuk responded to the question, he did not cite facts or statistics. Nor did embark on a missionary crusade. What Kunuk did was give a startlingly poetic, off the cuff impression of what is happening now, right now, in the Arctic, through the eyes and ears of one who is living there. Relating what people in his community are telling him they have seen. The melting of the ice, the appearance of different animals, the changes in the quality of air, the look of the snow, the shifting of the light.

Some how, through the poetic language of the artist, the unchosen words of this great film director, I felt a new awareness come over me. Actually, I’ve been so turned off by the rant and rave of the “green” movement and its failure to effectively challenge capitalism, but instead to join it and capitalise on climate concern! SO turned off that I am blocked my ears and eyes to the authentic voices. Voices like Kunuk’s, and there are – must be – others.

And now I am reminded again why I decided to be an artist. It was because I decided that through art I can see things and discuss things and speak out about things that matter in a way that is uncompromising and untainted. Unlike TV (which is what I was doing before, as well as new media advertising, for which I am ashamed), art has the possibility to be really awaken the mind.

Why else would the Bush Administration pressure UN officials to cover up the Picasso Guernica tapestry, rather than have it in the background while Colin Powell and U.S. diplomats argued for war on Iraq in 2003?

Art can be a spiritual guide to invite people to examine their own ideas, belief and thoughts and through examination make changes. This is when art is, and must be, political. It’s not about “politics” – here I am still a Braudelian par excellence! It’s about the polity, – the people – our world – us.

It has certainly worked for me. I am a lot less sceptical. I am also now thinking of ways that I can act on my shift in thinking.

I’m really hoping that the Arctic perspectives project can really offer a way for the people of the Arctic to make their art and their voices heard. And that the rest of us can help.

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