The latest iteration of Karen Tam’s mixed media installation Terra dos Chinês Curio Shop (2011-ongoing) turns attention to the spaces of diasporic encounters, examining the transnational movements of bodies and consumer products, and deconstructing the ways in which they shape cultural meaning and everyday life. In this re-imagined curiosities shop a mixture of found and ‘faked’ antiques, chinoiserie art objects, and household items (such as porcelain plates, bowls and boxes of chopsticks) are staged alongside Tam’s own handmade vases, trays, lanterns, and cut-outs crafted from styrofoam, soap, and papier maché. This assortment playfully subverts the expectation that they stand in as markers of Chinese identity and cultural belonging by requiring the viewer to question their authenticity and challenge the legacy of the Orientalist gaze.
The installation builds on the construction of early twentieth century Chinatown curiosities emporiums, echoing the layouts of these former commercial hubs to reveal their ties to histories of racial discrimination and associated urban renewal policies put in place to ‘manage’ immigrant populations. Following the 1947 repeal of Canada’s Chinese Exclusion Act, and the changes made to the Immigration Act (the Points System introduced in 1967 in Canada resulted in a greater number of immigrants from Asia and Africa), urban planning policies that aimed to revitalize Chinatowns focused less on the needs of the community and more on how Chinese culture could be sold to North American audiences. Curio shops were central to these efforts. Selling a mixture of art objects, clothing, cookware and other items for everyday use, they were constructed to stand in as signs of authentic culture to white consumers. Like many of the vernacular architectural sites commonly found in Chinatowns, the curio shop was an appropriated concept, a place where cultural authenticity became a profitable lure.
Decontextualized within the space of the gallery, the wares on display in Tam’s ‘shop’ parody these attempts to make the Asian ‘Other’ more palatable. The distinctions between Tam’s handmade objects and their sourced materials are often extremely subtle. For instance, a set of papier maché vases, designed with painstaking detail, resembles iconic blue and white porcelain. The ‘fake’ vases reference the strategies of chinoiserie, an artistic style popularized throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe. Appropriating both the material and decorative properties of East Asian artifacts, European artisans constructed the tropes through which Asian cultures have continued to be perceived by the West. Playing on this trope of imitation by subverting their materiality, Tam’s objects critically stage the way chinoiserie continues to circulate through expansive networks of trade, aesthetic taste, and meaning making.
Like many of Tam’s works, Terra dos Chinês Curio Shop localizes the complexities of cross-cultural encounters. In Montreal, a city that prides itself equally on its multiculturalism and its Francophone identity, the everyday cultures of diaspora intersect more directly with official bilingualism. Here, not only is one ‘othered’ by the colour of their skin, but also by the language(s) they speak. This awareness of the linguistic and racial politics of the city nuances the conceptualization of this re-imagined curio shop. How are diasporic cultures witnessed in relation to the differences between English and French Canada? By reflecting on the material histories of objects, the cultural tropes they signify, and the spaces in which they are frequently displayed and sold, the installation critically reframes the cross-cultural consumption of diasporic identities.
Lin, Jan. The Power of Urban Ethnic Places: Cultural Heritage and Community Life. New York: Routledge, 2011.
Sloboda, Stacey. Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth Century Britain. Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014.
This essay is a revised and updated version of "Terra dos Chinês Curio Shop: Karen Tam," published in Asian Diasporic Visual Cultures and the Americas 2.1-2 (Spring 2016): 141-146.
Victoria Nolte is an art historian currently pursuing her PhD in Carleton University’s interdisciplinary Cultural Mediations program. She completed her MA in Art History at Concordia University in 2015. Her doctoral research examines issues of performativity, historical representation, and diasporic identity in performance and installation works by Asian Canadian artists.
 The installation was previously exhibited at Artspace: Contemporary Art Projects, Peterborough, Ontario (2015) and at Plymouth Arts Centre, Plymouth, United Kingdom (2012).
 Jan Lin, The Power of Urban Ethnic Places: Cultural Heritage and Community Life (New York: Routledge, 2011), 179-180.
 Stacey Sloboda, Chinoiserie: Commerce and Critical Ornament in Eighteenth Century Britain (Manchester, UK: Manchester University Press, 2014), 19-20.