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Yan Zhu is a Mohkínstsis-Based Artist Exploring the Resiliency of Chinese Settlers on Turtle Island

“I feel less empty – like I have a purpose when I step foot here.

Whatever I pursue in the future, it will be with the intention to heal myself and the community around me.”

-Yan Zhu


Yan Zhu is a Chinese settler living in Mohkínstsis (Calgary), an emerging artist, and a student at the University of Calgary. Yan has been immersing herself in the Mohkínstsis art scene since she was first introduced to theatre in high school. Yan’s first exposure to professional theatre was in ActionDignity’s (formerly, Ethno-Cultural Council Calgary) Our Canada, Our Story – which told compelling stories about BIPOC youth in Mohkínstsis.

Yan started working with Making Treaty 7 Cultural Society last summer when she successfully auditioned to take part in a Creation Residency.

“It was a special experience for me,” Yan says. “There was so much valuable knowledge we shared. For every day of the residency, we had an Elder come in from each of the Nations in Treaty 7. People talked about their artistic pursuits and shared what they knew. All of this knowledge gave me a web of connections – I’m walking on this land (and I don’t) feel like I’m floating through space anymore. I feel grounded and that’s the most important thing I’ve learned.”

For the Istotsi Workshop Series, Yan wrote a piece about the history of Chinese presence in building the settler nation. To focus on the role immigrants perform in settler states, Yan chose the Mohkínstsis area of Chinatown.

“As an immigrant, I play into the system of the settler state,” Yan says. “My family immigrated here for better economic opportunities, but I didn’t know the harm in that. I wanted to take the history I’ve learned and the knowledge that I’ve gained from Elders about the land that pre-dates the settler state, and find a link – a type of reconciliation between what I know (of Chinese) history on Turtle Island and the history that was (here) before me.”

Yan has spent the past 12 years in Mohkínstsis but hadn’t felt a deep sense of connection to the land before researching Chinatown for Istotsi. Although she shares a cultural ancestry with Chinese railway workers and the first immigrants on Turtle Island, she felt removed from them because she’s a newcomer.

Yan Zhu seated at a desk at Fort Calgary during the filming of Istotsi. A photograph of her father as a young man is projected onto her.

While researching about Chinatown, Yan learned that the site has had a long history of discrimination, racism, and forced annexation. Since 1890, Mohkínstsis’s Chinatown has been relocated three times due to settler expansion, rent discrimination, and evictions. Forced to deal with racist laws such as the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1923, the Chinese population of Mohkínstsis fought to preserve their cultural site. Today, Chinatown is a vibrant example of the resiliency of immigrants – an example that Yan no longer takes for granted.

“People had to fight to have presence there,” Yan says. “Walking through this land ... I feel like the wind can blow me wherever – I don’t feel grounded or attached, I (feel) vacant sometimes. That’s how I felt previously. (My research) showed me how important finding something to root on can give you a sense of purpose. Finding that connection is not always obvious – you have to search within yourself.”

When Yan ventures into Chinatown now, it can feel like Chinatown has a sense of impermanence. At one time, Yan saw Chinatown as an orientalist version of what Chinese culture looks like, but now she understands there is a history of resilience and strength built into the aesthetic.

“It’s not a given for me to have access to this space,” Yan says. “It’s something that people have to fight for. I feel more grateful for having this space.”

Yan’s experience with Istotsi, the Creation Residency, and Making Treaty 7 has inspired her to keep searching for opportunities to tell stories that matter and resonate. Yan hopes that her work with Making Treaty 7 has the same effect for her audience – so they can feel seen and heard.

“With Istotsi, the purpose and intentions are clear,” Yan says. “It’s an amazing space to be an artist. Any time I get to be in that circle, I feel so lucky.”

Istotsi: The Land We Live On is made possible in part by the RBC Foundation

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