Tsui brings narrativity to the fore once again in what promises to be his most ambitious work yet, Celestials of Salt Water City. Commissioned by Centre A, this evening-long performative event will be presented in Vancouver’s recently refurbished Yue Shan courtyard in Chinatown in conjunction with his Horror Fables exhibition. It will draw from stories collected by Tsui during interviews conducted with senior citizens from Vancouver’s Strathcona Community Centre as well as well-known members of the local Chinese community. Here, Tsui revisits the utsushi-e, a once popular Japanese “multi-media” form of entertainment that harks back to an era before the term “multi-media” even existed. Before its demise with the arrival of the moving picture industry, utsushi-e transformed the European nineteenth-century phantasmographical tradition of magic lantern projections. Japanese artists refashioned these projectors in wood rather than metal, allowing for heightened mobility as they were no longer too hot to carry. This highly sophisticated theatrical tradition, involving the manipulation and projection of several of these projectors or furo at once, was usually accompanied by live music and narration by actors. When I spoke with Tsui this spring, he had built seven furo according to templates found on the Internet, and was in the process of painting dozens of slides. With the aid of a team of furo operators, he will recast the real-life stories of Chinese immigrants as tales with a supernatural bent. In spinning true accounts with fantastic details, he hopes to imbue the stories of strife and hardship that often marked early Chinese experience in Canada with a sense of levity. In this way, he reclaims the term celestial: if it was once used as a derogatory term for Chinese immigrants in North America, Tsui whimsically invokes instead its original meaning which came from the notion of China as Celestial Empire, one whose citizens lived and worked under heavenly rule.
With these multi-layered works, Howie Tsui positions himself as a highly skilled artist and committed story-teller. Although there is undoubtedly a nostalgic element present in his pastiche of bygone media and folktales, his work affirms and amplifies the power of the narrative—its immediacy and potential to make personal and collective histories come alive. In discussing the age-old tradition of story-telling, Michel Foucault writes that “the motivation, as well as the theme and the pretext of Arabian narratives—such as The Thousand and One Nights—was also the eluding of death…” In this light, without the stories we tell ourselves and others, and without the essentially creative forces that drive the telling of these stories, life would be akin to death. Tsui brings this sense of urgency, innovation, and inspiration to his artworks—where stories are retold and reimagined within the context of other stories, resulting in an almost overwhelmingly complex polyvocal saga.