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Eight Questions with Multidisciplinary Artist, Bookmaker and Local Historian, Marlene Yuen

Marlene Yuen is a Vancouver-based multidisciplinary artist with a focus on handmade books. Yuen’s book about Canada’s first Chinese-English letterpress printing shop, located in Vancouver’s historic Chinatown, Ho Sun Hing Printers (co-published with the grunt gallery), is the recipient of an honourable mention from the 2021 City of Vancouver Book Awards.

Following the announcement of her recent accolade, we had the opportunity to put eight of our most pressing questions to the local bookmaker-cum-historian…

Where does your interest in history and storytelling come from?

In 2011, I was in the early stages of making my book, A Haunting History of Vancouver. I researched various haunted places such as Waterfront Station, Hycroft Mansion, etc., but I also wanted to find more diverse ghost stories. I had a difficult time finding ghost stories of Chinatown/Strathcona. I reached out to local historian John Atkin. He told me that, in the early days, the bones of Chinese were sent back to China to be interred with their families.

However, I heard a radio clip about local ghost stories on CBC radio and contacted the host, Margaret Gallagher, and she pointed me to Dr. Larry Chan. Dr. Larry Chan is a local naturopathic doctor and chiropractor. He did, indeed, have a ghost story. He told me that 717 East Pender, located in Strathcona, was formerly a Chinese community reading room, and that architecture students had rented out the upstairs. Apparently, the attic of the house was deemed haunted since a woman had hung herself there many years ago. The ghost had possessed the girlfriend of one of the architecture students, so the only way to free her of the spirit was by finding a Chinese soothsayer who prayed and lit incense.

What I really found interesting while speaking to Dr. Chan, was learning about his family’s history. His mom was Mary Lee Chan, a civic activist, who protested the demolition of Strathcona. In 1959, the City of Vancouver had plans to “redevelop” Strathcona into condos and a freeway connector. This would have displaced the people who lived in Strathcona. Mary Lee Chan and members of the SPOTA (Strathcona Property Owner’s and Tenant’s Association) challenged the city and managed to save this neighbourhood from total destruction.

After printing A Haunting History of Vancouver, I realized how much I enjoyed the research process, especially tracking people down and fact checking, which was often not easy or immediate. I kind of felt like an investigator. I even walked to Strathcona and took a photo of 717 East Pender, so that I could illustrate it accurately for my book.

Another of your books, Ho Sun Hing Printers, recently received an Honourable Mention from the COV Book Awards. Why do you think it is that this particular piece of work resonates so well with people, and why now?

The first printing of Ho Sun Hing Printers was completed at the end of 2019. Around the same time, grunt gallery wanted me to make a second printing of the book to coincide with my solo exhibition slated for September/the Vancouver Art Book Fair 2020. As we all know, 2020 would prove to be a very difficult year for the Asian community. There was huge increase in hate crimes and Chinatown was a target for racist attacks and vandalism. Vancouver’s Chinatown had been struggling for a quite some time, but with the pandemic many business simply shuttered down. For example, Goldstone Bakery. Many people just stopped going to Chinatown.

Ho Sun Hing Printers honours the Lam’s family business that operated for over a hundred years. How many businesses operate for that long these days?! They were Canada’s first Chinese-English letterpress print shop that serviced Vancouver’s Chinatown community and beyond. This book is a reminder of a time when Chinatown was a flourishing, vibrant place. It was also a place of community. This book is not only about the Lam family’s business, but also about the resilience of Chinatown. When I spoke to Norman Lam about the print shop, he said that people were no longer willing to pay for high quality letterpress printed goods as printing became more digital. I saw this as a bit of a parallel with Chinatown itself. People were no longer patronizing the mom and pop businesses of Chinatown now that there were more convenient mega malls in the suburbs. Also, gentrification and unaffordable developments don’t help matters. I think people have hopes of Chinatown being preserved, revitalized and reimagined.

What other untold or missing stories are you curious to explore/tell next?

I am beginning to do some research about the diverse communities that used to inhabit Vancouver’s West End. Roedde House Museum have expressed interest in exhibiting new book works. In 1886, Coast Salish peoples lived in the area now known as Stanley Park, but they were “removed”. I want to research a bit more about what exactly happened. Hawaiians also moved to Brockton Point to work as fur traders and in the lumber mills; and Chinese houseboys were employed in the West End by many well-to-do white families. I’d like to create a small series of hand-sewn structures.

What is so special about the printing and bookmaking process to you (in particular, letterpress)?

Letterpress printing is a very laborious process, especially typesetting. Heaven forbid if you have a typo! However, it can be somewhat meditative once you start printing; it’s really quite a rewarding process. I first learned letterpress printing in 2009 while I was on an artist residency at Penland School of Crafts in North Carolina. They have an amazing print shop; it was funded by the Walton family (aka Walmart). The smell of ink and the tactility of letterpress printing is very hard to compare to a digital print. I really do love the look of printed wood and lead type on paper. It’s beautiful.

“A printed book/zine is so satisfying to hold. You can exchange them with friends. We deal with so many screens today that it’s important to have something physical to hold.”

Which underrated local historical figure do you find most fascinating, that you think everyone should know about?

Someone that comes to mind is Dr. Madeline Chung. She was a trailblazer, being the first female obstetrician and gynaecologist, as well as the first of Chinese descent in BC. She was my mom’s obstetrician, so I am one of the 7,200+ Chung babies delivered in Dr. Chung’s long career. She primarily served the Chinese community. I know my mom took comfort being in her care, as language was often a barrier for immigrant families. Also, in my culture back then, talking about sensitive body parts was taboo, so I know a lot of women really felt at ease having a Chinese female obstetrician. She provided culturally sensitive care. Dr. Chung recently passed away, in August, so that is why I thought of her.

In this digital age, what keeps you motivated to keep using your hands, doing what you do?

I have been drawing a lot these days. During the pandemic, it was a lot easier to draw than to find access to specialized equipment. That said, I do often apply some digital elements in my illustrations. A lot of my drawings get scanned and adjusted in Photoshop. I recently added dimension to my drawings by making them pop-up and move. In the spring, I taught a virtual workshop for VANCAF (Vancouver Comic Arts Festival) and incorporated my illustrations into 3D pop-up book exercises. That was a lot of fun! It was based on song lyrics of Jarvis Cocker. He actually saw the artwork on Instagram and liked it! I was little starstruck! I also illustrated live on Zoom for a local artist collective, Art Mamas, for their PLOT Residency hosted by Access Gallery. They approached me because I am also a parent artist. I had to work quickly being live, but I also had to listen to the issues being discussed pertaining to motherhood and art making.

Why do you think it’s important to preserve and produce print?

A book is something very tangible. You can hold it and turn the pages. I think it is important to preserve letterpress printing because a lot of the equipment is quite rare and hard to get a hold of. Getting new metal type cast is very expensive. I was so happy to see the WePress collective in the Downtown Eastside acquired some of the letterpress type equipment from Ho Sun Hing Printers. WePress also has the wood type and press from Woodward’s department store. They were instrumental in the making of my book. I borrowed some of their Chinese letterpress blocks, reprinted them and got them translated. The preservation of these blocks is important as it tells us about Chinatown’s history as so much of it is slowly getting erased.

A printed book/zine is so satisfying to hold. You can exchange them with friends. We deal with so many screens today that it’s important to have something physical to hold.

What advice or resource(s) do you recommend for someone interested in learning more about printmaking and publishing?

I think that education is quite important. I learned letterpress printing later in life; I was 33 years old. Never stop learning, and start small like a bookbinding or printmaking workshop. Volunteer with a local printmaking studio like Malaspina Printmakers and get to know other artists. WePress is a local collective, and they have hosted letterpress and bookbinding workshops. Emily Carr University also offers short courses on letterpress and bookmaking. Get involved with local book fairs: VANCAF, VABF and Canzine.

Also, learn to adapt and collaborate. In the past few years, I have been dealing with arthritic pains. While I was still able to letterpress print some pages of Ho Sun Hing Printers, I also knew that it was not possible for the whole book to be entirely letterpress printed. I collaborated with Erica Wilk of Moniker Press and she risograph printed a majority of the colourful pages and bound the book.

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